Martell Mallett entertained offers to remain in the NFL but the opportunity to be a starter with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats was too good to pass up.
So two seasons after bursting on to the CFL scene, Mallett is back in Canada anxious to prove he’s better now than he was in ‘09 when he was named the league’s top rookie while with the B.C. Lions.
“There were other opportunities in the NFL, but not having any up-to-date film I just didn’t want to go out there and be just another guy,” Mallett said following Hamilton’s training camp session Wednesday. “I wanted them to know who I was so I went ahead and came up here to play football.
“I expect to be better than last time I was here. It can be done.”
A lofty expectation, indeed, considering in ‘09, the six-foot, 195-pound Mallett ran for 1,240 yards with B.C., including a club-record 213 yards in a game against Montreal. The 26-year-old native of Pine Bluff, Ark., was a West Division all-star and capped his season being named the CFL’s top rookie.
Mallett parlayed that success into a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, the start of a two-year roller-coaster ride that saw him spend time with three NFL clubs — including two stints with the Eagles — before returning to the CFL.
After initially signing with the Eagles, Mallett was waived twice by the NFL club before being added to the practice roster Sept. 5. However, Philadelphia released him again 16 days later.
The Cleveland Browns placed Mallett on their practice roster Sept. 28, 2010, but let him go in November. Mallett re-signed with Philadelphia on Jan. 5, 2011, and went back on the practice roster but became a free agent following the Eagles’ NFC playoff loss. Mallett then signed with the New York Giants on Jan. 11, 2011 but eventually went on injured reserve with a hamstring ailment before reaching an injury settlement Aug. 25.
Mallett signed with Hamilton on Jan. 30.
Despite bouncing around the NFL, Mallett isn’t bitter about his experience south of the border and doesn’t regret his decision to sign there following his impressive CFL debut.
“It was a great experience,” Mallett said. “I had success there, I just didn’t get a chance to prove myself because of injuries.
“It’s a business and when you get injured, it’s just part of the game. But I always have something to prove, I’m never satisfied.”
The addition of Mallett gives Hamilton more than just an accomplished runner in the backfield. He can also provide solid blocking in pass protection while also having the ability to catch passes — he had 43 receptions for 342 yards and two touchdowns with B.C.
Mallett’s versatility gives the Ticats plenty of flexibility on offence and was a reason why the club released veteran Avon Cobourne — who ran for 961 yards last year — after Mallett signed in Hamilton.
“He’s a good player,” said new Ticats head coach George Cortex. “He’s a good protector, he can run and catch the ball out of the backfield.
“He and Chevon (rookie Chevon Walker) are the kind of backs we want in the backfield. We don’t want a one-dimensional guy.”
Mallett said running backs must be versatile in today’s game.
“It’s very important,” he said. “Back in the day if you could run the football you were good but now with the difference offences you have to also be able to block and catch coming out of the backfield.
“I’ve worked hard on that in the past and developed those attributes.”
But opposing defences won’t have the luxury of keying solely on Mallett this season.
Ticats’ GM Bob O’Billovich spent a lot of time this off-season revamping his offence. He traded for veteran quarterback Henry Burris and dipped into free agency to land slotback Andy Fantuz before signing 2008 first-round pick Sam Giguere, a receiver from Sherbrooke who after being drafted by the Ticats opted to instead spend time in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and Giants.
The arrival of Giguere and Fantuz solidifies an already solid Ticats receiving corps that features veteran slotback Dave Stala along with talented youngsters Chris Williams — the CFL’s top rookie last year — Bakari Grant, Aaron Kelly and Terence Jeffers-Harris. But the abundance of offensive weapons does create the challenge of trying to give everyone sufficient touches with just one football to go around.
But Mallett, for one, isn’t concerning himself with how many times he gets the ball.
“Whether it’s passing or running, it doesn’t matter so long as we’re winning,” he said. “Either way, you have to be a team player.”
Mallett joins a Ticats’ squad that has reached the CFL playoffs three straight years but last season finished third in the East Division with an 8-10 record. But Hamilton ended Montreal’s two-year Grey Cup reign in the conference semifinal before losing 19-3 to Winnipeg in the division championship.
Mallett leaves no doubt that the team has higher expectations this year — much higher.
“We have to rise up another notch and get over the hump,” he said. “I think with the team we have, once we get clicking together we’ll be good.”