The Hamilton Tiger-Cats would be forgiven if they entered this year with the team they finished with last season.
The Henry Burris-led squad finished second in the East Division before advancing to the Grey Cup where they ultimately fell to the home field advantage wielding Saskatchewan Roughriders.
For a team that finished 6-12 the previous year, and hadn't made a Grey Cup appearance since winning the trophy in 1999, that qualifies as progress, a significant amount. And more than that, you could argue the team was on the cusp of greatness, a couple tweaks away from finishing the job in 2014.
But the Ticats opted against trotting out the same lineup – or a very similar one at least – to take another shot this season. Instead they went for a big shakeup at a key position, one that may lead to some immediate regression, but that could pay off handsomely in the future.
Gone is Burris, one of the team's leaders the past two years, and his league-leading stats. After throwing for 10,292 yards and 67 touchdowns the past two years with the Ticats, head coach and general manager Kent Austin allowed Burris to leave in free agency where he signed with the Ottawa Redblacks.
The team opted instead for promising youngster Zach Collaros, who proved he more than belonged in the league – and may offer a lot more with extended play – with the Toronto Argonauts last year while Ricky Ray was sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Despite Burris taking the Ticats to the peak of the mountain last year, there's a perception he's maybe not the guy to get a team over the mountain, and the Ticats decided to cut bait and build with a quarterback they feel more confident in.
For all Collaros' heroics filling in and keeping the Argos in contention last season, he's still a young quarterback with just 298 CFL passing attempts to his name. While the Ticats are convinced they're in for big things with Collaros at QB, and they're not the only ones as evident by the mini bidding war that went on to secure his services, some growing pains should still be expected with a 26-year-old pivot, especially one learning a new offence.
So while Burris may have been the better option for Hamilton's prospects in 2014, considering his age and difficulty winning the big one, going with Collaros' upward trending career is the smarter move for ultimate success. Hamilton hopes they're taking one step back to make two steps forward.
This reasonability of this move is buoyed by the general strength of the roster surrounding Collaros.
He'll be in the backfield with one of the most exciting running backs in the league in CJ Gable, who finished fourth in the league in rushing with 782 yards but was the clear frontrunner in highlight reel spin-o-ramas frequently seen on Sportcentre Honour Rolls.
And the Ticats' already robust receiving corps added more talent this off-season. Joining Andy Fantuz, Bakari Grant, and Greg Ellingson will be Cary Koch, an underrated threat who spent the first four years of his CFL career split between Saskatchewan and Edmonton, really breaking out with the Eskimos the past two years.
And while the addition isn't likely to help Collaros directly, Craig Butler joins an improving defensive unit.
Expansion Draft The Tiger-Cats got off easy in the first two rounds of the expansion draft before a surprise pick in the third. Backup running back Chevon Walker and FB John Delahunt were grabbed in Round 1 and 2 before Marwan Hage, surprisingly still available, was taken by the Ottawa Redblacks in the third round. It was clear the Ticats were moving on from Hage after he was left available in the final round of the draft.
Hage Retires Hage's time in Ottawa wasn't lasting, and the affable offensive lineman did the right thing in returning to Hamilton to retire. It was as good an ending to a solid 10-year career that Tiger-Cats fans could have hoped for, not having to see him in another team's colours.
Free Agency It's hard to argue the Ticats weren't the winners of free agency after landing their quarterback of the present and future in Collaros, another weapon in the receiving corps in Cary Koch, a decent offensive line replacement in Steve Myddleton, front seven defensive help in Ted Laurent and Abraham Kromah, and a solid Canadian safety in Craig Butler.
CFL Draft The Tiger-Cats took a chance on their second of two first round picks and paid for it when Manitoba defensive lineman Evan Gill, a player they traded up for, decided he would return to school and try his luck at an NFL tryout next season. Gill entered the draft a bit of a risk with a quad injury but the Ticats selected him anyway, perhaps opting for the long play. The team also selected Western LB Beau Landry, one pick before Gill in the first round, who later signed with the team. After the first, Hamilton didn't make another pick until the fifth round, taking Toronto LB Christopher Johnson. The Ticats wrapped the draft up with sixth-round defensive linemen Mathieu Girard (Montreal) and Stephen Mawa (UBC), and seventh-round defensive lineman Martin Pesek from Acadia.
Tim Hortons Field After a successful campaign at the University of Guelph last season, the Ticats return home to Hamilton for 2014, to the same location Ivor Wynne Stadium once stood. Tim Hortons Field projects to be ready for Hamilton's home opener in Week 5 against the Redblacks.