REGINA — The 2019 campaign couldn’t have gone much better for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. No, they weren’t able to take home the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw, but it was a great building year for the organization.
The Riders were able to take home the West Division crown for the first time since 2009. They also had their first 13-plus win season since 1969. In the end, a heartbreaking defeat at home in the Western Final at the hands of the rival Winnipeg Blue Bombers saw their year come to an end.
Heading into the 2020 campaign, the Riders certainly have a lot to look forward to, including the returns of Most Outstanding Player finalist Cody Fajardo and Coach of the Year nominee Craig Dickenson.
Dickenson made major addition to his staff to begin the off-season, bringing on former Edmonton Eskimos head coach Jason Maas to serve as his offensive coordinator. As for Fajardo, the breakout star now looks to build on his momentum with a follow-up performance next year.
There are some question marks when it comes to free agents, as multiple individuals are receiving interest from the NFL. Along with that, there’s always fluid movement in CFL free agency. Still, with many returning starters and a successful season to build on, the Riders are in a good spot entering the off-season.
Front Office/Coaching Staff
The Roughriders didn’t wait around long to make one of the biggest splashes of the off-season in terms of coaching.
As former offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo was interviewing for other positions around the league, the Green and White began to look elsewhere for his successor. They managed to land former Edmonton Eskimos head coach Jason Maas as their OC.
Maas, who was the offensive coordinator with the REDBLACKS before joining Edmonton, said he’s looking forward to getting back to his roots and focusing on the offensive side of the ball.
On the same day that Maas was announced as the OC, the Riders also brought back defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jason Shivers. Shivers helped lead a unit that was second in the league in yards allowed per game (228.8), fourth in interceptions (19) and tied for first in sacks (56).
Dickenson will be at the helm for a second season after leading Saskatchewan to a division title. They also won the most games (13) since the 1969 season. In a league where continuity pays off, the Riders boast an experienced, versatile staff.
Pending Free Agents
The Roughriders made sure to get breakout star Cody Fajardo locked up well ahead of the off-season, as the two sides came to an agreement on a two-year extension. But there are some prominent names set to try out the market at the wide receiver position, namely Western All-Star Shaq Evans. Naaman Roosevelt, Emmanuel Arceneaux and Cory Watson are all also in need of new deals.
On the offensive line, Dariusz Bladek, Dan Clark, Thaddeus Coleman, Takoby Cofield and Philip Blake are all free agents. Those five individuals were the group that started the Riders’ opening game of the season and provided them with a core that kept Fajardo upright while opening holes for William Powell.
Defensively, the focus will be getting the entire 2019 starting linebacking core inked. All-Stars Solomon Elimimian and Derrick Moncrief and Most Outstanding Canadian candidate Cameron Judge are all without deals. Joining them on the pending FA list are Micah Johnson and A.C. Leonard, who caused headaches for opposing offensive lines with their play in the trenches.
Ed Gainey and Nick Marshall are the two lone players in need of new deals in the secondary. Most teams would be happy with only having two signings to worry about, however, both men were crucial to the success of the defence as a whole, so getting them back will be important for Saskatchewan.
Dariusz Bladek, Dan Clark and Philip Blake form a trio of pending free agent offensive linemen for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. While the Riders only started three Canadians on the O-line all season, their success on the interior was key in 2019. Brendon LaBatte and Dakoda Shepley are still under contract.
In the Western Final the Riders started three nationals on the O-line and one at receiver on offence, while defensive tackle, WILL linebacker and safety were Canadian positions on defence. There’s a good chance of seeing that configuration again in 2020, but the biggest question is at linebacker where Cameron Judge is a pending free agent. Judge was the West Division’s Most Outstanding Canadian at age 25.
Mike Edem is a lock at safety after a career-high 69 tackles to go with three sacks, while defensive back Elie Bouka is set to return after signing a contract extension. Veteran defensive tackle Makana Henry signed a contract extension and will return along with Zack Evans on the interior D-line.
National receiver Cory Watson has retired, opening a void at receiver on offence for the Riders. Justin McInnis, the sixth overall pick last spring, could be called upon to step up and become a full-time starter. The 23-year-old has an imposing frame at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds.
What a difference a year makes when it comes to the Riders’ quarterback position. Cody Fajardo is the obvious franchise QB for the Green and White going forward. The 27-year-old came into the year as a backup to Zach Collaros but was quickly forced into the starter’s role.
Fajardo flourished with that opportunity, starting 16 games while completing 71 per cent of his passes for 4,302 yards and 18 touchdowns while adding 611 yards and another 10 majors on 107 carries. In his first full season as a starter, Fajardo was named a West Division All-Star and a nominee for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player honour.
Fajardo’s backup for next season looks to be 24-year-old Isaac Harker. He was able to make his first career CFL start against the Edmonton Eskimos in Week 21, where he completed 23 of 28 passes for 213 yards while helping the Riders to a victory.
Veteran Bryan Bennett and newcomer Justice Hansen currently round out the current group. Bennett was used sparingly last season, primarily as a short-yardage runner.
Free Agents – N/A
Lead back William Powell returns for another season in Regina. After joining the Riders from Ottawa during 2019 free agency, the fourth-year man put together his third consecutive 1,000-plus yard rushing season while getting into the end zone 14 total times.
His backup from last year, Marcus Thigpen, is the lone tailback that Saskatchewan has to lock into a new deal. The 33-year-old did damage all over the field, putting up 201 yards and three touchdowns on 41 carries, 161 receiving yards and a score on 19 catches and 683 yards and a major on 56 total return opportunities.
The Riders just signed 28-year-old Kienan LaFrance to a two-year extension, and youngsters Atlee Simon and Jamal Morrow will also be back in the fold for next year.
Free Agents – Marcus Thigpen
The Riders have 12 receivers signed heading into the off-season, however, only two of those individuals were regular contributors offensively.
Top pass-catching option Shaq Evans is the man that stands out from the group of pending free agents at the position. However, veterans Naaman Roosevelt, Emmanuel Arceneaux and Cory Watson are also able to hit the market if they so choose.
Evans had a career-best year, hauling in 72 balls for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns. He was named a West Division All-Star for his efforts. Roosevelt was one of the most reliable targets for Fajardo this past season. He had a career-high 77 catches for 946 yards and a single score. The 31-year-old has spent his entire five-year CFL career with the Green and White and would likely be open to a reunion.
Arceneaux joined the Riders during the 2019 off-season after spending the previous eight years of his CFL career with the BC Lions. The veteran provided a safe option out of the slot for the Riders. Despite having a career-low in both targets and catches, the veteran posted 241 yards and two touchdowns while hauling in 22 balls over 11 games.
Kyran Moore is the biggest confirmed returnee on the team. The 23-year-old played a starring role in the Riders’ offence, making a team-high 78 catches for 996 yards and six touchdowns. Look for him to play an even bigger role on offence and special teams in 2020.
Jordan Williams-Lambert is also locked in. The receiver returned to the CFL mid-season and signed an extension through 2020 with the team. He had a small role with the Riders down the stretch, picking up 57 yards on five receptions in three games. In the event that Evans doesn’t return, JWL will be a solid insurance piece. He had nearly 800 yards in 2018 and was named the West Division’s Most Outstanding Rookie.
Returning – Jake Harty, Carlos Henderson, Patrick Lavoie, Brayden Lenius, Justin McInnis, Paul McRoberts, Kyran Moore, Mitchell Picton, Kenny Stafford, Xavier Ubosi, Jordan Williams-Lambert, Max Zimmermann
The good news is that Saskatchewan does have nine players signed heading into the 2020 season. The bad news is that of the free agents, all five individuals were starters for the Riders to open the year. Regina native Dan Clark has played his entire eight-year career with the Green and White and it would be hard to see a situation where the team wouldn’t bring the 31-year-old back. On top of being a local product, he was also named a West Division All-Star in 2019.
Guards Dariusz Bladek and Philip Blake have also been staples in the middle along with Clark, however, the pair played in just 11 and 8 games in 2019, respectively.
Takoby Cofield was another that had trouble staying healthy, playing in just four games this past season. At the other tackle spot, Thaddeus Coleman played in all but one game. The 34-year-old will be heading into eighth year in the league and provides some veteran leadership to the group.
Based on the success in both the run and pass game for the Riders this past season, don’t expect the team to just let these guys walk without making a big effort to re-sign them. However, there are only so many starting jobs, and with the emergence of Dakoda Shepley, some difficult decisions are ahead.
The Riders did do some of their work early in terms of inking some pending free agents on the defensive line to new deals. Makana Henry was signed to a two-year extension while Mathieu Breton was brought into the fold after attending Riders’ training camp ahead of the 2019 season.
Charbel Dabire, Chad Geter and Henry all played well when their respective names were called. Each also filled in to start at points during the year due to various players missing games.
The leader of the Riders’ defence was unsurprisingly veteran pass-rusher Charleston Hughes. The 36-year-old was the Riders’ nominee for Most Oustanding Defensive Player, and for good reason. He finished the year with a ridiculous 16 sacks, 50 tackles, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery touchdown. He’ll continue to be a massive disruptor on the defensive line and will headline the group in 2020.
Micah Johnson missed time during the 2019 season due to injury, featuring in 15 games. He racked up 26 tackles and four sacks over that span. Twenty-seven-year-old A.C. Leonard is also a pending free agent. He had arguably the best season of his CFL career, putting up 44 tackles, nine sacks and three forced fumbles in 17 outings.
The Riders have some work to do when it comes to re-signing their linebackers. All three of their starters from a year ago are free to test the market.
Solomon Elimimian was a late addition to the squad after he was cut by the BC Lions in April. He signed with the team in May and, despite missing the opening three games of the season, still managed to finish third in the entire league in tackles with 88 on the year. Elimimian also added four sacks and a forced fumble in 15 outings.
Derrick Moncrief also had a monster year for the Green and White, compiling 69 defensive tackles, four special teams tackles, four sacks, three interceptions and a forced fumble. He was named a West Division and CFL All-Star for the 2019 season. He’s reportedly already receiving NFL interest.
Finally, Canadian Cameron Judge rounded out the trio. The West Division candidate for Most Outstanding Canadian finished the year with 61 defensive tackles, 11 special teams tackles, five sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. His pick six clinched the West Division crown for the Riders in Week 21.
If Judge can’t return, highly-touted prospect Micah Teitz could compete for a starting role in 2020.
Saskatchewan does have a majority of its core in the secondary locked up for 2020. They were able to come to terms with 27-year-old Elie Bouka on a two-year extension.
There are two men that are in need of new deals and both of them had a tremendous impact on the success of the Riders’ defence in 2019. Nick Marshall was one of the leaders in the secondaries for the Riders, picking off five passes — returning one to the house — while also making 39 defensive tackles. The 29-year-old Ed Gainey put up 56 tackles and a pair of picks. In his four seasons with the Riders, he has 18 interceptions.
Saskatchewan does have some big-name contributors returning for 2020. L.J. McCray had a solid first campaign in the CFL, making 47 tackles and picking off three passes. Loucheiz Purifoy also added on 40 tackles, three interceptions and a pair of sacks to go along with a forced fumble. He also helped in the return game at points during the 2019 season.
The Riders’ secondary was one of the league’s most dominant in 2019, and should have the opportunity to return mostly intact next season — some much-needed continuity under defensive coordinator Jason Shivers.
Brett Lauther will be back for the Riders in 2020. The 29-year-old made good on 78 per cent of his field goals on the year, but he did have several clutch game-winning field goals for Saskatchewan.
Jon Ryan will have the be re-signed. The 38-year-old Regina native returned to the CFL after a long stint in the NFL and managed to finish third amongst punters with 5,222 gross yards while having an average of 48.8 yards per punt. He’s a fan favourite in Riderville.
Returning – Brett Lauther