Two weeks have passed since the start of CFL free agency and there are hot takes aplenty. With a flurry of moves making the West Divison stronger, many are criticizing Saskatchewan for not doing enough. Look no further than Twitter and one would be led to believe that the Riders are destined to go 3-15. I’m here to provide a care-bear-stare of optimism for Rider fans everywhere.
Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first. The Riders suffered some notable losses on defence starting with star defensive-end Willie Jefferson. Jefferson signed a one-year deal with the Western Divison rival Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Not even the most optimistic of people could make light of this loss, Jefferson was a huge, if not the biggest piece on the 2018 Riders defence.
Tobi Antigha also departed from Saskatchewan, signing with the Toronto Argonauts. Antigha appeared to be coming into his own over the last number of seasons with Saskatchewan. Dropped into coverage at various points throughout the game allowed Antigha to reel in three interceptions in 2018. Kevin Francis was also a loss that might not sit well with Rider fans as a young Canadian linebacker who was seemingly developing for Saskatchewan.
On offence, the losses aren’t as hard-hitting. The two biggest names are wide receiver Caleb Holley and quarterback Brandon Bridge. Holley appeared to be coming into form in 2017, unfortunately, a lower-leg injury would only allow Holley to play nine games in 2018. He’ll be looking for a fresh start in Ottawa. Bridge was apart of the quarterback carousel with Zach Collaros in 2018. However, the signing of Cody Fajardo sealed his fate as he would go on to sign with the Toronto Argonauts.
The losses on defence greatly outweigh the losses on offence. For a passing offence that struggled in 2018, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fortunately for Saskatchewan, they were able to supplement the losses on defence (more on that soon). From this perspective, the negativity surrounding the Riders off-season has more to do with what happened around the divison than it did with what actually happened to the team itself.
It’s not often a team loses an All-Star at a position and can say they came out of free agency with their head above water. The Riders were able to do that with the signing of Micah Johnson. In 17 games, Johnson racked up 14 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception. Whereas Jefferson made a name for himself on the edge, Johnson is better known as one of the more dominant interior rushers in the CFL. Both at the top of their craft, the Riders made a good decision inking him to a one-year deal.
A.C. Leonard is coming off one of his most dominant seasons in Ottawa. In 17 games played, Leonard tallied 49 tackles and six sacks. Another bonus is Leonard is no stranger to the Riders and can provide supplemental pressure with Michah Johnson and Charleston Hughes sure to get a majority of the attention. Dyshawn Davis will provide depth at linebacker as well as a presence on special teams.
Now for the fun part of the article. As mentioned earlier, it’s not clear how realistic it was that the Riders were going to land a top-three quarterback. Bo Levi Mitchell, Mike Reilly and Trevor Harris all carried with them a hefty price tag. For argument sake, if they did manage to land a star pivot, with the salaries they accepted, it’s not certain how much help the Riders would have been able to provide them for a supporting cast.
At running back, the Riders added the duo of William Powell and Kienan Lefrance to complement the talented Marcus Thigpen. The unfortunate ACL injury sustained by Tre Mason made this position group a priority and the Riders swung for the fences.
Zach Collaros was brought back on a one-year “prove it” deal which felt like the best course of action. Though his individual stats left more to be desired, the Riders won with Collaros under center (10-4 record as the starter). Now entering his 8th season, Collaros brings a veteran presence to a team that has undergone a lot of transition in the last two months. His understudies have plenty of upside in Cody Fajardo and David Watford. The former had five rushing touchdowns each of his last two seasons and over 200 rushing yards in 2017.
Finally, the Riders did right by Naaman Roosevelt by bringing him back in for another season. For a position group that was once heralded as the best in the league with the likes of Duron Carter, Bakari Grant, Roosevelt and Holley, needed an injection of veteran talent. That’s exactly what the Riders did acquiring Emmanuel Arceneaux and Cory Watson to complement the young and talented likes of Shaq Evans and Kyran Moore. This, in turn, will hopefully give Collaros more confidence in the passing game.
The Last Word
For all the (justified) hype around the BC Lions and Edmonton Eskimos signings, the Riders didn’t necessarily have a bad free agency. Did the West get even more competitive than it already was? Certainly. Are the Riders a worse off football team than they were November 11th, 2018 when their season came to an early end? It doesn’t appear so. It remains to be seen how Craig Dickenson’s scheme and philosophy will differ from that of Chris Jones and how that will work with the current constructs of this roster but there is still a lot for Rider fans to be excited about going into the 2019 season.
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