As the 2022 season approaches, CFL.ca is getting you up to speed on where each team stands after a hectic off-season that saw players crisscross the country. Five Things To Know will catch you up on where your team left off in 2021, the moves it made and what it might accomplish in 2022.
REGINA — There are two things that may have gone through the minds of fans of the Saskatchewan Roughriders when their season came to an end in the 2021 Western Final.
The first, more immediate thing in that moment would have been here we are again. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have been the season-ending wall that the Riders have run into three playoffs in a row. Of course, in the last two — 2021 and 2019 — they’ve deprived them a chance of playing for the Grey Cup.
Earl Grey’s perfectly polished trophy may be the next thought that those dejected Riders fans shifted their focus to after the dust settled on that chilly Winnipeg night just over four months ago. The 2022 season looks like a perfect opportunity for the team in green to right all of the wrongs of the past few years. Saskatchewan will host the 109th Grey Cup this year. If your first thought upon reading that sentence doesn’t flash you back to Darian Durant lifting the trophy above his head at old Mosaic Stadium in 2013, well, it will between now and the start of November.
Here are five things to know about the Riders and where they might be headed in 2022.
Duke is back
The Riders were clear up front ahead of free agency: They didn’t plan on making any huge splashes when the market opened back in February. They did manage, though, to keep their most coveted free agent piece and signed receiver D’haquille ‘Duke’ Williams to a one-year deal.
Williams returned from his time in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills to play in four regular-season games with the Riders in 2021 and had 17 catches for 285 yards, a touchdown and a 16.8 yards per catch average. He had nine receptions for 163 yards and one touchdown in two playoff games.
Williams and Shaq Evans will lead the Riders’ receiving corps this year and should be Cody Fajardo‘s primary big play targets. A full season of having those two elite receivers at his disposal should be tantalizing to everyone, whether you’re in uniform on the field, or you’re wearing a green jersey and a watermelon as your helmet in the stands. Fajardo led the league in passing yards in 2019 and should be able to make a run at that benchmark again this season.
A change at RB
After two seasons and a combined 1,826 yards in 33 games, William Powell left in free agency and signed with Ottawa, the team he started his CFL career with back in 2015. The assumption, shared with O’Day and Riders head coach Craig Dickenson on a conference call before the CFL Combine presented by New Era last month, was that Jamal Morrow would slide into the spot that he showed some promise at in 2021. O’Day acknowledge Morrow would have a leg up on the job based on his experience, but that it’ll be a wide open competition at training camp.
Morrow only had nine rushes for 41 yards last year but showed his speed and elusiveness in the return game. His punt return TD in the Western Semi-Final against Calgary was a key play in what turned out to be an OT win for the Riders. The 27-year-old will have to show what he can do against a CFL vet when camp opens, after the team signed Shaq Cooper on April 5. Whoever wins that training camp battle will bring a fresh face to a Riders’ offence that was in the middle of the pack (1,302 rushing yards, fifth) last season.
Say hello to your new linebackers
While the Riders didn’t make a ton of signings in free agency, GM Jeremy O’Day saw change through his roster, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
O’Day made a couple of direct, impactful moves at linebacker in the hopes of beefing up the team’s defence. That starts with Darnell Sankey, who led the league with 97 tackles last year in Calgary. He’ll line up with Derrick Moncrief, who returns to a Riders team he was with from 2017-2019, before exploring NFL options and playing nine games with Edmonton last year. Don’t forget that the Riders should have Larry Dean at their disposal, after a training camp injury cost him his 2021 season. Add in National LB Micah Teitz, who exploded for 64 tackles and three sacks last year and the Riders have a ton of productive talent at that spot.
A unique pressure on the QB
We touched on this earlier, but this season will provide an extra layer of pressure on the Riders and specifically on Cody Fajardo. The face of the team, Fajardo heads into his third season as the starting quarterback and will likely be reminded on a near daily basis that the Riders will host the 109th Grey Cup. Darian Durant was able to chart a path through a pressure-filled 2013 season and bring the Riders their fourth-ever Grey Cup.
“There’s going be a lot of pressure, not only on me but also on the team,” Fajardo told Rob Vanstone of the Regina Leader-Post.
“Everybody’s going to feel the buzz, but that’s what makes playing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders so amazing — that people care that much about football.”
For a quarterback, a football season is one spent under a microscope. No one in the league will be zoomed in on more than Fajardo, in a season where expectations will reach a height that he’s yet to see. How he handles that will play a big part in the Riders’ success.
Keeping that QB upright
Then there’s the regular pressure that a quarterback faces. The Riders were eighth in the league last year when it came to sacks allowed, surrendering 40 of them. The Bombers, conversely, sat at the other end of that stat, surrendering a league-best 16 sacks last year. The Riders added National offensive lineman Jamal Campbell this winter, after the Argos let him go. Campbell, a right tackle, brings some ratio flexibility and experience, which is something every team covets. Fajardo is more than capable of scrambling, but the protection he gets is the first and most important part of offensive success and keeping him healthy all season.