Friday, 19 December 2014

Rough Ride Ahead for Saskatchewan

With the Grey Cup in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is now in full swing. Every team faces different challenges, and over the course of the next nine days we will look at each team individually and what they need to do prior to the start of next season. Today, we look at the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The 101st Grey Cup champions’ 2014 season was a tale of two halves. The Riders started the season 8-2 and looked primed to make a run at a repeat, but an unfortunate injury to Darian Durant saw the team stumble down the stretch and win just two games the rest of the season. The Riders started three different quarterbacks in the second half of the season, finally settling on 41-year-old former MOP Kerry Joseph, before they were eliminated in the West Division Semi-Final by the Edmonton Eskimos.

After a disappointing end to their season – and frankly, it was all undone because the team did not have a capable backup quarterback, which falls on the talent evaluators – the Riders decided not to bring back both their coordinators. They said goodbye to a ton of experience by not renewing offensive coordinator George Cortez's contact and stripping defensive coordinator Richie Hall of his duties. Whomever is tasked with replacing them – signs are currently pointing to former BC Lions offensive coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine replacing Cortez – will have big, championship-winning shoes to fill.

But finding new coaches isn’t the only challenge facing the Riders this offseason. The Riders have a league-high 23 players currently headed for free agency in February, with big names such as Tyron Brackenridge, Weston Dressler and Ben Heenan being among them. Brackenridge is a two-time CFL All-Star and will command a hefty salary, while both Dressler and Heenan might push to be the highest-paid players at their respective positions. The team inked two other pending free agents to new contracts in the past week, re-upping with Tearrius George last Friday and Ricky Foley yesterday, so the Riders might be hard pressed to find room under the cap to bring back their three other All-Star-calibre players. And on top of that, breakout linebacker Brian Peters needs a new contract. Add it all up and I don't know how the Riders are going to be able to bring everyone back. The decision might be made for them if Dressler or Heenan sign in the NFL, but with so many good players looking for raises, at least one of these players will not be wearing green and white next year.

Depending on what happens with their own free agents, the Riders might not have a lot of room under the cap to upgrade the talent at other positions via free agency. One area they drastically need to find an upgrade at is backup quarterback. Tino Sunseri is a free agent and we may have seen the last of him in the CFL; Kerry Joseph retired following the season; Seth Doege looked completely out of his element in the one game he started; and Keith Price never saw the field, so he is a complete unknown. Going into next season with a similar quarterback stable is simply not an option for the Roughriders.

The two quarterbacks scheduled to hit the open market that should draw interest from Saskatchewan are Kevin Glenn and Dan LeFevour. I expect the Riders to go hard after Glenn, but adding Lefevour must interest the Riders. Unlike Glenn, you can play LeFevour every week with special packages that take advantage of his skills, as the Ti-Cats have done the last two years, so you would probably get more each week out of signing LeFevour than you would out of signing Glenn. But signing Glenn has its advantages as well. You know what you are getting out of Glenn, and that is comforting to have in a backup quarterback. Signing either player would be an upgrade for a Rider team that desperately needs one at backup quarterback.

Brandon Banks is a free agent that would intrigue every team, but especially the Riders. He has yet to show his full potential at receiver, but he is undoubtedly the best returnman in the league (and whomever you want to say is second isn’t even close) and that is worth its weight in gold. He can flip the field in an instant, and is capable of scoring every time he touches the ball. He would add a dimension the Riders have been lacking for some time. Banks has said that if he returns to the CFL – he seems to want to give the NFL another shot – his desire is to return to Hamilton, but the Riders might want to kick the tires to see if Banks has any interest in moving west.

With a new coaching staff and what could be a mass exodus of players, including some really good ones, this Rider team could look nothing like the one that won the Grey Cup just 13 months ago. In an always tough, West Division, Saskatchewan could be in for a rough ride in 2015.

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