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Looking to Repeat: Keys to success for Fajardo, Riders offence

CFL.ca will be previewing the 2021 season, breaking down special teams, defence and offence for all nine teams as they get set to hit the field.

Cody Fajardo heads into the 2021 season as the Riders No. 1 QB (Arthur Ward/CFL.ca)

In 2021, we finally get to see what Cody Fajardo has for an encore.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback waited and waited to finally get the opportunity he received. After years in Toronto and another season in BC, it took Fajardo coming to the smallest city in the CFL to become one of the league’s biggest stars.

Now, the biggest question going into 2021 for the Roughriders offence is what Fajardo will bring as the unquestioned No. 1 guy and if he can match or exceed what he did in 2019.

Fajardo’s first season as a starter came along with a CFL All-Star nod, so you see why the expectations are peaking in Saskatchewan.

Now, what needs to happen in Saskatchewan for him to repeat an All-Star season? There are a few things.

FAJARDO AND MAAS

The relationship between Fajardo and his new offensive coordinator and QB coach, Jason Maas, is top of the list.

Maas brings with him a reputation as an offensive philosophy to throw for big yards and mix in a dynamic run game.

Maas traditionally is above average in calling pass plays, while Fajardo is coming off a season where the Riders had the second lowest pass calling percentage.

To put it in perspective, Maas’ team in Edmonton called over 100 more pass plays than Saskatchewan in 2019. Yes, part of the reason would be Saskatchewan, who ended up in first in the West, played with the lead more often than Edmonton.

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However, there is no doubt Maas prefers the pass but don’t think it’s necessarily Maas bombing it down field. The biggest discrepancy in pass play calling between Fajardo’s Riders and Maas in Edmonton was pass attempts between 0-9 yards down field. Maas incorporated a lot more underneath routes, and screens and hitches than the Riders’ offence.

Fajardo should enjoy this attack. Fajardo has a more gunslinger attitude than we saw from being in a little bit more conservative offence in 2019.

Fajardo showed his willingness to extend plays and make a play, all the while sacrificing his body to do it. And that type of attitude is what meshed well with Michael Reilly and Maas in Edmonton during their time together.

When you see the numbers Reilly put up in 2017 and 2018, Rider Nation should get excited. Reilly led the league in passing both those seasons with over 5,500 yards passing. The Riders have had only two quarterbacks in their history throw for 5,500 yards. (Kent Austin did it twice, while Darian Durant was the most recent in 2010)

TOP TARGETS

For Fajardo to achieve a 1,000-yard bump to his production, he’ll need to spread the ball to some talented pass-catchers. He’s got one of the best in Shaq Evans. He’s got another top target in Kyran Moore.

After that, it’s wait to see what comes out of training camp.

Yes, Jordan Williams-Lambert is hoping to reach his potential from 2018, where he was the West Division nominee for Most Outstanding Rookie. However, in 2019, it was clear that missing training camp due to the NFL had Williams-Lambert a little bit behind the eight ball to get back at it.

Shaq Evans hopes to build on his 2019 campaign this year (Riderville.com)

From there, Saskatchewan’s training camp roster is full of relative unknowns, though Carlos Henderson and Paul McRoberts return after impressing the coaches from the practice roster in 2019.

The other big issue is whether or not the Canadian receivers like Brayden Lenius and Justin McInnis can take a jump this season to become big contributors or whether draft picks Terrell Jana and Kian Schaffer-Baker can push themselves to a starting job in year one.

The wildcard out of all of these Canadians is Jake Harty. The 30-year old is coming off two seasons in Saskatchewan spent on the injured list. Harty came from Ottawa after 2017 with the team hoping to see some production. So after four years away from the game, we’ll see if Jake Harty is the veteran to lead the Canadian front.

Overall, Saskatchewan needs as many targets as possible that can contribute because another highlight of Maas’ offence is moving the ball around to as many players as possible.

PROTECTION

Now, while I say the most important part of the Riders offensive success is the relationship with the Maas and Fajardo gelling quickly and blossoming, the Riders quarterback needs to be able to throw the ball with as little pressure as possible.

This is where the Riders offence starts to look penetrable at the spot you want to be the most impenetrable.

Brendon LaBatte has opted not to play this season, Dariusz Bladek and Philip Blake are in Toronto, Thaddeus Coleman was not brought back, Dakoda Shepley has landed in the NFL, Braden Schram retired, and Takoby Cofield opted to retire from football as well.

Those are seven starting offensive linemen Craig Dickenson, Jason Maas, and most importantly Cody Fajardo, will miss.

Starting calibre offensive lineman that are in Saskatchewan starts with Terran Vaughn, Dan Clark, newcomer from Ottawa Evan Johnson, and another Saskatchewanian Brett Boyko.

By no means is that a bad start but the depth is where the issue starts being called into question. This is going to be a sensational camp battle to watch in Saskatchewan. They have youngsters in local guys Mattland Riley, Logan Ferland, as well as draft picks Logan Bandy, and Jesse Lawson.

The one name to look for is Josiah St. John. Since he was drafted first overall in 2016, the word ‘bust’ has followed him around. However, there is a reason the Riders are bringing him back. They saw him take a step in the right direction in 2019 and wouldn’t it be something, as well as perfect timing, if we saw St. John take on a regular starting role on an offensive line that could use him more than ever.

POWELL POWER

William Powell will look to build on his 2019 campaign where he rushed for 1,093 yards and a career-high 12 touchdowns (The Canadian Press)

Finally, we need to talk briefly about the run game in Saskatchewan that should be led again by William Powell. The veteran is a great compliment to the type of offence that Maas likes to run, which brings the running back out of the back field and into the passing game. Powell is one of the most well rounded backs in the game as a top runner, blocker and pass catcher.

That doesn’t mean the Riders won’t be looking to see if Marcus Murphy, Jamal Morrow or Ralph Webb can come in and provide a youthful playmaking boost from the backfield.

But after discussing the questions up front in Saskatchewan, at least the Riders should feel confident with the man who will often stand next to Fajardo and help protect him on most downs.

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