The Ottawa Redblacks have been one of the most active teams in the CFL when it comes to re-signing their players who are pending free agents. They have already inked some big names including Richie Leone, Lewis Ward, DeVonte Dedmon, Avery Williams, and Sherrod Baltimore, but yet, they have more talented players set to hit the open market in February. Here are the 10 most notable names that the Redblacks and new general manager Shawn Burke will want to take a look at retaining for the 2022 season.
10. R.J. Harris, WR
The past two seasons have not been great for R.J. Harris as he was thrown into the fire and expected to be a number one option in just his second year. He joined the Redblacks as a rookie in 2018 and had a very productive season behind options like Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli, but with Ellingson moving on before the 2019 season, Harris was asked to fill his boots, something that in retrospect he probably wasn’t quite ready to do.
His three seasons in Ottawa have earned him 157 receptions with 2,066 yards and four touchdowns. His numbers thus far in his CFL career aren’t terrible, but by the time the season starts in 2022, he will be 30 years of age. He hasn’t been able to become the number one receiver on this team with the role wide open for the taking since the start of 2019 and as he gets older, you have to wonder when his development will peak.
There is a reason he is on this list, however. We know from previous experience with Harris that if he is surrounded by other threats, he can be a valuable target for a quarterback. He brings a decent amount of speed when needed but also has the frame to go inside the hash marks and make a play over the middle of the field. He was plagued at times with drops this season, but he also make his fair share of spectacular catches. Bringing Harris back as a number three or four option next season would be wise if you can get the contract done on friendly terms.
9. Randall Evans, DB
There seem to be some mixed feelings surrounding Randall Evans in Ottawa, but the defensive back had his best season in the CFL in 2021. The Miami, Florida native has spent the past couple of seasons seeing limited playing time, but 2021 allowed him to get on the field more often, both on defence and special teams.
In his 14 games this season, Evans scored his first two career interceptions and his first four career quarterbacks sacks. It was unquestionably his best season in the league to date and he was key for a defence that at times was depleted with injuries. He could fool you for a younger player with his general lack of CFL game time, but he’s a veteran in the game at the age of 30.
Last season served as somewhat of a coming-out party for Evans who didn’t have the same opportunities on the defence in the past. He did enough in 2021 to make the Redblacks seriously take a look at retaining Evans going into 2022, and if they are confident he can at least replicate these numbers, he’s worth bringing back into the fold.
8. Abdul Kanneh, DB
Good luck finding someone in Ottawa who isn’t a fan of Abdul Kanneh. Kanneh played his first three seasons in the CFL in the nation’s capital and was elite during that time. He was a critical piece to the team’s Grey Cup championship in 2016 when he made a shoestring tackle on Andrew Buckley to send the game to overtime. After 12 interceptions in three seasons, Kanneh took his talents to Hamilton and then Toronto the following season.
The 2021 offseason saw the Redblacks bring back their former superstar after three disappointing seasons elsewhere. It didn’t take but a blink of the eye for him to endear himself to the fans once again with two interceptions, one of which ended with a game-winning touchdown in their week one game against the Elks. He was back at that high-end play he had early in his career with Ottawa.
There’s something about the red and black that brings out the best in Kanneh. Like many others on this list, age is a factor for him, but there should still be game left for him at 31. With 15 interceptions in four seasons with the Redblacks, it makes sense for both parties to keep the relationship going.
7. Nolan MacMillan, OL
Offensive lineman Nolan MacMillan is one of the few players left on the roster who was a part of the original 2014 Redbalcks roster. For a long time, it was automatic that if he was up for a new contract, the Redblacks would be bringing him back. That doesn’t seem so certain this time and that’s mostly because of his health over the past couple of seasons.
MacMillan hasn’t played a full season’s worth of games since 2015, and this season, he only dressed for seven of the team’s 14 games. When he is on the field, the Arnprior, Ontario native adds Canadian talent to the offensive line, but as they say, availability is the best ability.
Why would the Redblacks want to bring him back if he’s missing so many games, then? Well, it’s simply because he is that good. There is a reason he has stuck around for so long and it’s more than just his passport. If he could keep himself on the field, it would be easy to bring him back, but it might be hard to commit big dollars to a 31-year old with injury troubles at the most physical position in football.
6. Kenny Stafford, WR
This one might come as a little bit of a surprise to some, but the importance of what Kenny Stafford brought to the Redblacks’ offence after he was signed can’t be understated. Just weeks after the Edmonton Elks released Stafford because he wasn’t a “cultural fit”, he joined the Redblacks and made a near-immediate impact on the struggling offence.
The numbers won’t jump off the page or anything like that, but the context for those numbers is important. He played only eight games in 2021 and had to learn an entirely new offence before doing so, but when he got into the lineup, he gave his quarterbacks a better chance to make plays.
He had just 17 receptions on the season, but he managed to put up 242 yards and three touchdowns. He became a favourite target for rookie quarterback, Caleb Evans. Coming into the 2022 season at 32 years old, it’s unlikely that Stafford would be considered a number one option, but he will certainly be a better-than-good depth option for anyone who signs him. He’s earned another kick at the can in Ottawa.
5. Don Unamba, DB
He may have done it quietly this season, but Don Unamba had a solid first season with the Redblacks in 2021. You could argue that this was a bit of a slower season than we have seen from Unamba in the past, but with some of the elite talent surrounding him on the defence, he didn’t need to make the big play as often as he may have in the past. Even still, he put up good numbers considering he was on a new team after not playing (like everyone else) in 2020.
Through 12 games, Unamba picked up 47 tackles and two sacks sam linebacker position. For only the third time in his career, he didn’t record an interception but he did force two fumbles this season. There weren’t many times where you saw a big play come against Unamba and he was relatively strong in the tackling department.
One of the biggest gripes against Unamba heading into the offseason surrounds his age. When next season starts, he will be 33-years of age, and at a position where speed is required to keep up, you have to wonder how much tread is still on the tire. He hasn’t given anyone a legitimate reason for concern, at least not yet, so there should be little concern for a team looking to bring him in, especially if it is on a one-year contract.
4. Avery Ellis, DE
Another player who had a down season by their standard was Avery Ellis who was tied for fourth on the team in sacks this season. It was not the typical season we have seen from Ellis since he joined the Redblacks in 2017, but even with his somewhat diminished production, he was still effective for a team that has needed a more consistent pass rush for nearly their entire existence.
Through 14 games in 2021, Ellis collected 33 tackles with three of them being sacks. That sack number is a noticeable drop off from where he has been in the past and it’s not likely up to being rusty since all of his sacks came before their week 10 game. For whatever reason, Ellis was slowed down in the final stretch of the season, but he was still making plays regardless.
Those low sack totals this season shouldn’t be too much of a cause for concern. Throughout his career, Ellis has contributed 130 tackles to the Redblacks and has 19 sacks in just 57 games. This included his season in 2019 where he tallied seven sacks in 18 games, more than proving his worth at the CFL level. There are teams around the CFL who would love to get their hands on Ellis, but the Redblacks will have a chance to retain him first. It’s something they should be looking to take advantage of.
3. Micah Awe, LB
Say what you want about former general manager Marcel Desjardins, but he had some incredible off-season signings that made huge impacts on the field. One of those players was former Toronto Argonauts linebacker, Micah Awe. Alongside Avery Williams, the Redblacks had one of the top linebacker groups in the league, right up there with Bo Lokombo and Jordan Williams in BC.
With certainty, Awe has earned himself a massive payday with his play in 2021. He will likely head into free agency as one of the marquee linebackers available assuming he and the Redblacks don’t come to an agreement beforehand.
He had a career year in 2021 and will only be 28 by the time next season starts. There is still plenty of football in the tank for him, and you would expect that the best might still be to come. He had 74 tackles in just 14 games this season and had three sacks. On top of that, his personality makes him the ideal candidate for a leadership role and the perfect mentor for younger players.
2. Antoine Pruneau, DB
If you were to poll Redblacks fans on their favourite players since the franchise returned in 2014, there would be a couple of common answers. Top of the list would be Henry Burris. Then you would get some people saying Brad Sinopoli, Greg Ellingson, and then you would get the first Canadian, Antoine Pruneau. One of the top Canadian defensive backs and players in the CFL is up for renewal, but as of yet, the Redblacks haven’t been able to reach a deal with Pruneau who is now 32 years old.
Pruneau has been with the Redblacks since their inaugural season in 2014 and it’s hard to put into words just how valuable he has been to the team and the Ottawa community. On the field, he has been one of the best defensive backs in the league. In his 104 career games, he has 10 interceptions, four forced fumbles, 356 tackles, and has played a huge role on Ottawa’s special teams, contributing 61 more tackles.
Off the field, Pruneau has been every bit as valuable. He has become a fixture in the community and has always made an effort to spend time with fans. He is the definition of a leader both on and off the field. He has had injury problems in recent years, but that is largely to do with his style of play. He’s relentless and is willing to throw his body at anything that moves to make a play. There’s no guarantee that he even returns to football next season, but if he does, it’s hard to imagine it being anywhere but Ottawa.
1. Mark Korte, OL
This one might come as a bit of a shock to people who didn’t watch all that closely this season, especially when you consider how bad the Redblacks’ offensive line was all year long. There was one player who was consistently a head above anyone else on the Reblacks’ offensive line this year, and that was former fourth-overall pick in the 2018 CFL Draft, Mark Korte.
This season, Korte was unanimously named the Redblacks’ Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman despite missing one of the team’s games. Season over season, Korte has improved to the point of being one of the league’s marquee free agents this season.
One of the biggest reasons that Korte tops this list outside of his elite play is the fact that he carries a Canadian passport. As we know, if you can find a Canadian to do the same job an American could do, you will take the Canadian every time with the ratio rules being the way they are. On top of that, Korte will only be 25 years old when the 2022 season starts, meaning there is a lot of football left in the tank for him. If he reaches free agency, there will be a handful of teams looking to add his services, but the Redblacks would frankly be foolish to allow this young stud to play somewhere else next season if they can help it.
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