Danielle Del Valle/CFL.ca
There’s a spring in everybody’s step these days, it seems, in the halls of the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ front office.
The disappointment of a second consecutive season ending with seven straight losses and another swing and a miss at the playoffs seems far, far away right now.
A new head coach, one who’s full of energy and optimism, and a renegotiated contract for the starting quarterback are key components in a new energy in Regina, an energy that points to exciting things ahead as free agency looms.
As much as the addition of head coach Corey Mace and the new contract with QB1 Trevor Harris each bring, general manager Jeremy O’Day is hinting broadly that fresh faces who bring more new energy into the momentum that has been building this off-season, are coming in free agency.
“I would say that there’s probably gonna be more than there was in the past,” said an upbeat O’Day.
“I don’t think we’d be doing ourselves a service if we just signed everyone back and, you know, we’re just gonna make the coaching change and that’s the only factor that’s gonna help us get back on track on where we want to be.”
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Specifics? You won’t get them from O’Day, and you won’t get them from Mace, who laughed heartily when asked about just who he’d like to see in green and white for the upcoming season. “We are looking forward to building the best possible team for the 2024 Saskatchewan Roughriders,” he said, leaning forward and smiling broadly.
There’s nothing irregular about that, of course. There will be no names named by Mace nor O’Day. Nor will there be any mentioned by any other CFL coach or general manager. That’s just not how free agency works, at least not publicly. But O’Day’s sunny disposition and Mace’s Cheshire Cat grin tell you what you need to know about the Roughrider 2024 free agency; the cavalry’s coming.
Not that the Roughriders aren’t looking at extending or re-signing many of their own.
In the disappointment of last season, there were players who proved themselves worthy of the love of the GM and the new coach, and they will aim to keep those players in the fold where they can.
“I’m not sure what the cut off is for ‘a lot’ of change,” said Mace, hired last November after spending the previous two seasons coordinating the defence for the Toronto Argonauts. “There’s, obviously, gonna be change (but) there’s a lot of great pieces that are on this roster currently.”
Like Mario Alford, for instance. The Riders came to terms with their dynamic returner on a contract extension earlier this month. And they extended defensive back Amari Henderson prior to Christmas, as well as SAM C.J. Reavis.
As is the case for every CFL team at this time of year, the Riders have some primo players listed on CFL.ca’s Free Agency Tracker, those who are eligible to sign with other teams come February 13th, free agency day.
Receiver Shawn Bane Jr. is one of them. So is defensive lineman Pete Robertson. Linebackers Micah Teitz and 2023 West Division All-Star Larry Dean.
Kicker Brett Lauther. Running back Jamal Morrow, too.
“We also feel like there are good players on our team,” said O’Day, transitioning from his comments about how aggressive the Riders would be in free agency. “And there’s good players that we still want to get back that are pending free agents.”
The Roughriders have some quarterback sorting to do, as well, with back-ups Mason Fine and Jake Dolegala both scheduled to become free agents next month. However, the most important bit of positional sorting came earlier this month when the team announced they’d come to terms on a renegotiated contract with starter Trevor Harris.
Harris suffered a season-ending injury during a Week 6 game against Calgary last year, and that injury altered the trajectory of the Riders’ season greatly. Coaches and GMs aren’t allowed to say things like this, but I will. Had Harris remained healthy for the entirety of the campaign, Roughrider fortunes would have been different in 2023.
Now, O’Day and Mace are betting on that being the case in 2024. But in the backs of their minds, you’d have to think, they are preparing and planning for quarterbacking insurance, and there are a few experienced, depth-providing pivots that will be out there for the taking when the free agency starter’s gun fires.
There’s also the matter of keeping Harris protected and giving him a clean pocket from which to work. It is no secret that the Roughriders have been looking for solutions along their offensive line for a couple of seasons. As of now, there are some pretty decent gets at the position who might be free agents in a few weeks.
“It’s an area that we are focussing on,” said O’Day. “The reality is we’re just not where we wanna be up front in the way we played last year. Whether we can do that through free agency is yet to be determined.”
Harris’ injury – a fracture of the tibial plateau in his right knee – might have some skeptical as to whether the 37-year-old can get back to the performance levels he’s shown.
O’Day is not one of the skeptics and he was sure to be diligent in ensuring that his veteran quarterback is ready to step up.
“We had a good evaluation of where he was when he left,” said O’Day of Harris’ status when last season ended. “He was close to being healthy enough to play before he left for the season.”
Beyond that, the Riders made sure to get updated medical assessments and Harris, himself, took the initiative of recording his off-season workouts, sending the video to O’Day so that the general manager could be certain that Harris was fit and ready to perform at the level to which he’s been accustomed.
“It was right around Christmas where he felt like ‘hey, I’m ready to roll,’” said O’Day.
Now, with the willingness to restructure his contract, Harris has pitched in to give the Roughriders more flexibility for the upcoming flurry of contract signings.
And optimism reigns in Saskatchewan. After a hard rain fell on the heels of back-to-back 6-12 seasons, umbrellas are popping. O’Day, himself, got one when the club showed faith in him, re-signing the former lineman to a three-year extension, last fall.
Now, it is obvious he can sense the momentum gathering in the wake of the hiring of Mace, whose reputation as a hell of a guy as well as a very astute football coach has the Riders poised to be a player magnet in free agency.
“It’s the honeymoon phase with Corey that every coach will experience when they first come in,” said O’Day, “but we’re looking to ride that wave into free agency and have a good off-season putting the team together and creating excitement going to training camp.”
“And get back to where we feel we should be.”