REGINA — If the Riders’ receiving corps isn’t the CFL’s most explosive — a thought, some might argue, that isn’t so far-fetched — it’s at least among the league’s deepest.
Chris Jones had a promising young unit at his disposal coming out of an otherwise forgettable 2016 season but for the Riders’ second-year head coach and general manager, promising just wasn’t good enough.
This off-season, Jones promptly went out and added an elite talent to his group in Duron Carter, then added some depth and veteran experience in Bakari Grant and Chad Owens.
“It’s always good to have some type of experience in your group,” said Jones. “Last year we felt like we had ample leadership but from time to time, with all the injuries we had, a lot of those guys weren’t there. It’s tougher to be a leader when you’re standing on the sideline.
“We’re hoping we have enough leadership that if we do run into the same issue,” Jones added, “we’ll have at least a couple of guys around that can be leaders on our football team.”
Chris Jones made the receiver position a priority throughout the 2017 off-season (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)
Last year the Riders’ young receiving corps was a bright spot on a team full of first-year players just learning the intricacies of Canadian football.
Naaman Roosevelt, 29, emerged as one of the league’s elite pass-catchers with 1,095 yards in just 11 games — just shy of 100 yards per game — before suffering a season-ending injury. Ricky Collins (25), Caleb Holley (26) and Armanti Edwards (29) all flashed potential in their first taste of CFL action.
Meanwhile, 32-year-old Rob Bagg is the elder-statesman of the group and former first round pick Nic Demski (24) remains a wildcard. Twenty-five-year-old Joe Craig could also make an impact this season.
So what do Carter, Owens and Grant bring to the table? In their careers, the three have combined for 12,511 receiving yards over 17 seasons.
Carter figures to form one of the league’s most dynamic duos alongside Roosevelt while Grant is a six-year contributor with the Stamps and Ticats. Owens, meanwhile, assumes a critical leadership role after eight seasons in the league that include winning Most Outstanding Player in 2012.
Owens says he’s OK with the role of father figure on what could be a potent group.
“When you have a lot of talent, especially as receivers, everyone wants the ball,” said Owens. “If you don’t want the ball as a receiver, you shouldn’t be playing.
“I think my job coming in as veteran and someone with experience is to let these guys know, ‘look, it’s about winning this championship. We’re all going to eat. We’re all going to get touches. We just have to work together and not separate’.”
2016 STATS: RETURNING RECEIVERS
The Hawaii native is used to playing a featured role on offence throughout his career but knows, at 35, that may not be in the cards this season. But the 5-foot-8, 180-pound receiver, who doubles as a returner, is just as well known for his work ethic off the field as his ability on it.
Jones sees plenty of value in a player who prides himself in being the first one at the facilities in the morning and the last one to leave in the evening.
“I’ve been around him for a while and you see what he’s accomplished over his career,” said Jones. “He’s a worker. He didn’t get blessed with all the size in the world and all the speed and that sort of thing, but what he did get blessed with is a gigantic heart and we’re hoping to lean on that.”
Last season, Owens racked up 808 yards and five touchdowns with the Ticats over just 12 games. Grant logged 625 yards and four touchdowns in 10 contests with the Stamps.
Chad Owens enjoyed a resurgent season with the Ticats in 2016, eclipsing the 800-yard mark (CFL.ca)
There are a lot of bodies at the position for the Riders and some won’t make the roster while others won’t get the touches they might hope for. The key for the Riders is to not let that hurt them.
“All of the championship teams that I’ve been on in Montreal and Toronto, the locker room was tight,” said Owens. “Players just wanted to play and played for each other and the glory was about the team.
“You win as a team and lose as a team. There’s no one guy that wins the game,” he continued. “I think making sure that message is understood, especially in the receiving group, is important.
“That’s where it starts. In this league, receivers play a big role. I’m looking forward to working with them.”