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2020 is off to a much stronger start for the Saskatchewan Roughriders than it was a year ago.
January 15, 2019 was the day the list of Riders’ priorities went from a dozen to 100 when Chris Jones took off to Cleveland.
While we look at what the Riders priorities are for the upcoming season, think about what they were around this time last year.
Hire a general manager, hire a head coach, finalize the coaching staff, find a quarterback … you know, the easy stuff.
Now they have most of this taken care of. Jeremy O’Day proved he can run his own show, Craig Dickenson is no longer just a highly-respected special teams coordinator but a solid head coach and Cody Fajardo is expected to take another leap forward in 2020 with Jason Maas as his new offensive coordinator.
So when we think of the list of priorities this season for the Riders, it’s a stark contrast to where this team was almost 365 days ago.
STAYING STRONG AT LINEBACKER
One major priority for the Roughriders has to be the linebacking corps that has the potential to look a lot different this season than in 2019.
Derrick Moncrief is already off to the NFL and Cameron Judge has gotten workouts as well. Then you have Solomon Elimimian mulling his future. The veteran middle linebacker was candid with me on garbage bag day that as much he loved playing for Saskatchewan, he understands with his age and salary that the team could move on. He also admitted he wanted to keep his options open as well, knowing the end of his career is much closer than the beginning.
Yes, the Roughriders could have several options at linebacker during free agency next month if that’s the road to go down but Cameron Judge is a big piece to the puzzle with his National status.
If he hits the open market, this becomes a major priority for O’Day in free agency and the draft as well.
LOADING UP FAJARDO’S ARSENAL
While the team does have Cody Fajardo under contract and he is the unquestioned starter, the big priority is who will he be throwing the ball to.
If Fajardo is going to improve on his 4,300 yards passing to become a 5k quarterback, he’ll need the weapons to pull this off.
Veteran Canadian Cory Watson already has taken a university job, so Justin McInnis and Braden Lenius will be pushed to take on a bigger role in their second season if the team doesn’t bring in another vet in free agency.
The Riders could use the money paid to Roosevelt and Arceneaux to possibly spread to a big free agent, especially if their number one receiver, Shaq Evans, doesn’t return.
Really, these decisions could all hinge on Evans’ interest to return, just like Cam Judge at linebacker.
VET OR OLD
Many personnel people have told me there is a big difference between having a veteran team and having a old team.
A veteran team is one where the over-30 crowd is continuing to contribute at a high level and there isn’t much of a drop off from their prime years. An old team is quite different. An old team is one that is clearly a step behind and hind-sight would tell you that the 25-year-old kid should have gotten the starting job over the 35-year-old ‘vet.’
It’s great general managers who know when the time has come to move on. The Riders got it right with Charleston Hughes a few years ago, when the Stamps thought production wouldn’t match salary. The Riders also played their cards right last season with Elimimian.
The Riders have Jon Ryan, Elimimian, Arceneaux, Roosevelt, Micah Johnson, Marcus Thigpen, Philip Blake and Thaddeus Coleman on their list of potential free agents over the age of 30. All started games and contributed last season.
Who stays and who goes and what the salary structure of this Riders team will play a big part in the shape this team takes in 2020. It appears O’Day has set himself up well to replace many of these vets if he wants to go down that road but all of a sudden you could lose quality leadership and have some growing pains early in a tough West Division
I’m sure O’Day and Dickenson have their game plan in front them a month out of free agency.
There are also a few in the over-30 crowd signed for 2020 the Riders either need to make tough decisions on this off-season or make sure their ready to transition away from them in the next year or two.
One stat that jumped off the page for the Roughriders when reviewing last season was penalties. They were No. 2 in the CFL in most penalties and most penalty yards.
It’s not ideal when you’re gifting the opposition 20-50 yards per game in penalty differential.
They led the CFL in what the league considers ‘preventable’ penalties as well (offside, illegal procedure, delay of game, no yards, etc.). The Grey Cup champ Winnipeg Blue Bombers had 43 preventable penalties in the season, while the Riders had 90. Saskatchewan did have 13 wins last year but that can’t put a band aid over a wart on their 2019 season.
SOPHOMORE SEASON FOR DICKENSON
One final priority is for the head coach.
What lessons did Craig Dickenson learn from year one to apply to year two to become a better game manager?
Dickenson opened up after the season that he felt he took on too much and needed to unload some of the special teams duties to his assistant.
Dickenson admitted at least three times there were clock management issues that happened because he was thinking about special teams scenarios when he should have been pondering time outs to save the offence more time to score.
It has to be a priority for Dickenson to do his own self assessment and put the people around him he trusts in year two because a field goal here or there could make a huge difference in what again should be a tight race to the finish out West.