The Roughriders were a 12-win team, looking for big things in 2019.
The thought is if the strong defence stays intact with a uptick in offensive production, it was a sure thing the Riders would be playing in late November.
Their goal was to upgrade the quarterback position. They struck out on the big three in free agency and are trying again with Zach Collaros.
On the defensive side, Sam Eguavoen got an NFL job, as did head coach/defensive coordinator Chris Jones and then in free agency Willie Jefferson signed with the rival Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
No wonder there is worry in Saskatchewan that the first two weeks in February couldn’t have gone much worse.
But let’s evaluate free agency by General Manager Jeremy O’Day as he tried to pick up the pieces and assemble a product that can still be considered a western contender.
Yes, Willie Jefferson going to the blue and gold stung, but O’Day strengthened the defensive line by paying big money to Micah Johnson.
Johnson and Jefferson make for an interesting debate on who was the best defensive lineman of the two. The dynamic edge rusher or the monster in the middle? O’Day did his best to form a defensive line that can be as effective without Jefferson.
What Johnson brings to the table is a defensive tackle who commands double teams and with Zack Evans beside him, there should be room on the edge for Charleston Hughes and another free agent addition A.C. Leonard.
More one on ones outside for the ends could make for a big year of sack totals again in Saskatchewan.
Where the Roughriders didn’t address a hole in free agency is linebacker. Sam Eguavoen will likely have to be replace by a rookie, unless DyShawn Davis takes a step after three years in BC where he was a great special teamer and had a tough time earning regular reps on defence.
Special teams and defensive depth did take a hit with Tobi Antigha going to Toronto. Antigha was an amazing athlete who played multiple positions on defence last year.
So the other big area for the Roughriders to address was offence. In 2017, the team saw Duron Carter, Bakari Grant, Naaman Roosevelt and Caleb Holley do a lot of damage in the air. In 2018, Roosevelt was the only one to really make an impact with Grant and Carter released and Holley injured and losing reps to some rookies.
Now, it is only Roosevelt who remains as Holley heads to Ottawa.
Where O’Day is hoping to find some value is in veteran Emmanuel Arceneaux. The two time all-star was lost for the season midway through 2018 with a knee injury for BC. While the Riders lost out on the Mike Reilly bidding, it could pay off with the Lions electing not to pay for a player of Arceneaux’s ability.
Arceneaux is promising big things despite considering retirement because of his knee injury, but instead he’s now motivated to be healthy enough for Week 1 and regain his spot as one of the most reliable and consistent receivers in the CFL.
O’Day is also hoping a vet Canadian receiver Cory Watson still has some big play ability in him as well after getting little from their Canadian receivers last year until Patrick Lavoie came in via trade.
A less risky move for O’Day was an upgrade to the running back spot. William Powell has back to back 1,000 yard seasons and comes off a career season with over 1,600 yards from scrimmage. With Saskatchewan committing more to the ground game in 2018, Powell could be set up for a similar season.
And that leaves us with quarterback. Zach is back and the Riders need a healthier and more consistent Collaros than the one they got last year if they have any chance to improve.
All the players around the quarterback can improve but it doesn’t go very far in 2019 if Collaros plays as inconsistently as last year.
Yes, some of it was a much more passive offensive attack in Saskatchewan than we saw in 2017. And new head coach Craig Dickenson has said there are things he would like to see change offensively to add a bit of a spark.
But with the Riders committing again to Collaros, the area of concern is at backup. Right now Cody Fajardo and David Watford are the QBs on the depth chart with neither has much of a resume yet in the CFL. Meanwhile, the Riders didn’t make much of play on re-signing Brandon Bridge as a sign they feel they weren’t particularly thrilled with the backup they had anyway.
O’Day’s key message in free agency was you don’t win the Grey Cup in February and when it comes to the talent assembled the Riders aren’t much better but they aren’t any worse than they were going in.
And there are more pieces to the puzzle yet to be assembled through the draft and rookie free agents O’Day and his new assistant Paul Jones are going to sign before May’s training camp.
However, O’Day’s overall evaluation likely comes down to what happens at quarterback. Should he have been more aggressive to land one of the big free agent quarterbacks or is plan ‘B’ going to be good enough?
But he’s not alone. There are several other general managers who will be judged for what happened at the quarterback position in free agency.
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