O’Leary: Riders’ off-season plans likely at expense of defence

The snowflakes and ice are probably still melting off of the Saskatchewan Roughriders equipment as this is written on Monday, but it’s never too early to start thinking about the team’s future.

Chris Jones admitted that on Sunday night, when the sting of his team’s loss in the West Semi Final was still just settling in.

“We’ve already started on it, quite honestly,” he said, while opting not to go into specific personnel discussions quite yet.

This was a fascinating Riders team. With a 12-6 record and hosting the first playoff game at new Mosaic Stadium, the Riders moved forward in Jones’ third year of running the show as head coach, GM and VP of football ops.

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His defence was a powerhouse, one of the best he’s put together in his 16 years in the CFL. By this point, we probably all know the numbers. Eleven defensive touchdowns scored; tying with BC for the league-lead in interceptions with 21; one of five teams to tie for a league-leading 45 sacks. Teams went into games against Saskatchewan stressing ball security and more often than not weren’t able to do anything about it.

While free agency threatens to reshape rosters across the league, how the Riders go about their winter will be particularly interesting. Retaining their key defensive free agents, like Willie Jefferson — who 3Down Nation’s Justin Dunk reports will generate NFL interest — national Zack Evans, Sam Eguavoen, Tobi Antigha and Loucheiz Purifoy, to name a few, are obvious musts. But with quarterbacks Zach Collaros and Brandon Bridge heading into free agency in a year where the Riders offence only scored 14 more touchdowns than its defence, a facelift at this position could be on the horizon.

Mike Reilly will likely be at the top of the Riders (and probably at least seven other teams) wish list. Jones won a Grey Cup with Reilly in Edmonton in 2015 and hasn’t been able to replace the leadership, arm strength and running threat that No. 13 brought week-in and week-out in Edmonton. If Reilly spurns that interest, I’d expect Jones and his staff to explore any and all QB options within the CFL, then to take a long look through their neg-list and into the States to try to find someone that fits the hefty mould that Reilly casts as arguably the league’s best pivot.

While Collaros made a reported $450,000 this season, an upgrade at quarterback will come with a cost. So would the likely signing of a high-calibre receiver or two that will probably gravitate to wherever Reilly chooses to sign (or re-sign, if he opts to stay in Edmonton). So how do those dollars spent impact a defence that will also require a significant cash investment to keep intact? The Riders will no doubt look different next year and if there’s an offensive upgrade, it seems that it might have to come at the expense of the defence. That could be a move that’s worth it.

Jones acknowledged a need for his team to get into the end zone more, via his quarterback, as opposed to a defence for the ages or better-than-average special teams units. Collaros had just one game this season where he threw for more than one touchdown and that came against the cellar-dwelling, low-pressure Toronto Argonauts. Imagine if the Riders had an offence that averaged even two offensive touchdowns a game this year. Imagine if they’d managed two offensive touchdowns on Sunday against the Bombers. We could be looking at a drastically different scenario for them this week.

In the coming months, we’ll find out what scenario we’re looking at for them for the next few years.