Prairie arms race defining CFL off-season

There have been many great arms races over the course of human history. From the Anglo-German naval arms race of the early-20th century to the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, many international battles have been won and lost through competitively-driven, rapid technological progress.

Recently, a new arms race has overtaken all other such conflicts in both intensity and global importance: the 2016 off-season arms race between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

It’s difficult to describe just how disastrous the 2015 CFL campaign was for the league’s prairie squads. Impeded by season-ending injuries to their starting quarterbacks, the ‘Riders (3-15) and Bombers (5-13) combined for just five wins when games against one other are subtracted from both clubs’ records. This equates to a winning percentage of just .167 versus the rest of the league’s seven teams.


As such, both teams have taken it upon themselves to completely revamp their squads heading into 2016. And while many key additions have been made off the field — hello, Chris Jones and Paul LaPolice — the most significant roster moves were made last week in free agency.

Roughrider Free Agent Additions Blue Bomber Free Agent Additions
RB Curtis Steele RB Andrew Harris*
RB Kendial Lawrence RB Pascal Lochard*
WR Shamawd Chambers* SB Ryan Smith
WR John Chiles SB Weston Dressler
G Andrew Jones* C Jeff Keeping*
DT Corey Irvin DT Keith Shologan*
DE Justin Capicciotti* DT Euclid Cummings
DE Shawn Lemon K/P Justin Medlock
LB Greg Jones
LB Otha Foster
CB Ed Gainey
S Graig Newman*

*denotes national

Clearly, neither Saskatchewan nor Winnipeg was hesitant to spend big dollars on upgrading their player personnel. But which team is currently winning the CFL’s prairie arms race?

Let’s start by breaking down the Roughriders’ additions. The best signing of the bunch for the green and white is clearly Capicciotti. Canadian players are paramount to the success of all CFL teams and Capicciotti, still just 26, is coming off back-to-back double-digit sack seasons with the RedBlacks. And at a reported cap hit of $190,000, Capicciotti even comes at a reasonable price.

Chambers is by far the next biggest national free agent addition to the ‘Rider roster and, while I like Chambers as a player, I don’t like his contract. Signing the former Eskimo to a deal worth a reported $170,000 over just one year, the ‘Riders are in a lose-lose scenario with the 26-year-old Markham native. Say Chambers, a player with a history of injury and no more than 465 receiving yards in a single season, has a poor 2016 campaign — Saskatchewan will have overpaid for an over-hyped free agent. Say Chambers manages to stay healthy and has a breakout, 1,000-yard season. The ‘Riders will then be forced to make a tough decision — give Chambers a substantial raise or let him walk to the highest bidder.

As for their American signings, I particularly like the additions Jones, Foster, Lemon, and Lawrence. Jones is a heavy hitter who tackles exceptionally well — a major weakness of Corey Chamblin’s inept 2015 ‘Rider defence. Foster, who spent last season in Edmonton, will help teach Chris Jones’ system to the players around him. The fact that Foster plays strong-side linebacker — the toughest defensive position in Canadian football — is a bonus. Lemon is a nice upgrade at rush end over an aging John Chick and Lawrence, one of my favorite players league-wide, will bring versatility to Saskatchewan’s offensive attack.

Looking at Winnipeg’s signings, the three additions that stand out the most are Harris, Dressler, and Smith. The Marcel Bellefeuille era in Bomberland (2013-2015) failed to produce a single 1,000-yard rusher or 4,000-yard passer and produced just one 1,000 yard-receiver (Clarence Denmark, 2014). As such, Blue Bomber general manager Kyle Walters has done all he can to equip starting quarterback Drew Willy with the weapons he requires to succeed. Dressler brings with him seven seasons with 900-plus yards receiving, while Smith is quickly emerging one of the CFL’s best deep threats. Harris, while only an average runner, is by far one of the best receiving tailbacks in the Canadian game.

The additions of Harris and Shologan also greatly improve the Bombers’ ratio flexibility. With 2015 starters Patrick Neufeld, Matthias Goossen, Sukh Chungh, Rory Kohlert, Julian Feoli-Gudino, Jamaal Westerman, Sam Hurl, and Matt Bucknor all set to return in 2016, the Bombers suddenly find themselves with a wealth of options when it comes to allocating their seven Canadian starters. As a plus, Harris’ and Shologan’s cap numbers for 2016 — $175,000 and $170,000, respectively — are fair market value given their career success.

Finally, the addition of Keeping was one of the most underrated signings of the entire 2016 free agent frenzy. Keeping’s presence will be greatly beneficial for the development of young Bomber starters Goossen and Chungh. As an aside, don’t be surprised if the 33-year-old Keeping parlays his one-year contract with Winnipeg into a coaching gig on the staff of former Argo teammate and current Blue Bomber head coach Mike O’Shea.

The arms race between the CFL’s prairie rivals has reached unprecedented level of animosity. Though the ‘Riders have made a larger number of key signings, it could be argued that the Bombers have done more to address the weaknesses of their 2015 roster. In the end, we will have to wait until the regular season to determine which team has done the better job of improving their roster heading into 2016.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.