CFL DRAFT PREVIEW SERIES: Riders need to return to their Grey Cup ways

Three years ago,the Saskatchewan Roughriders boasted perhaps the best depth in the CFL with the ability to start up to nine Canadians:  that year, the Riders had four starting Canadian offensive linemen, two receivers, two defensive linemen and a linebacker. It was the kind of national talent that can win you a Grey Cup (which, of course, it did.)

But since the end of the 2013 season, the Riders’ Canadian depth has been taking a real beating, culminating in a 2015 season where the team struggled to start seven quality Canadians. It’s no coincidence they were 3-15.

Riders Canadian depth chart

The good news to come out of last year is that the Riders do hold the first overall pick in this year’s draft. With that pick comes a variety of options of what to do with it. The old cliche might hold true for Saskatchewan here as offensive line depth is badly needed. Having just three expected starters along the line of scrimmage greatly impacts head coach Chris Jones’ ability to start Americans elsewhere. Having four starting Canadians made a huge difference in 2013 and it could again if the Riders were able to find someone to play offensive tackle. Offensive line depth is not only needed to one day develop a fourth starter but the current group of starters isn’t getting any younger. Brendon LaBatte, while only 29, has a lot of football milage on him and Chris Best is on the wrong side of 30 and is coming off a less than stellar season. The team has been happy with the development of centre Dan Clark but with just one year under his belt as a starter a lot can still happen. Beyond the starters, there’s Matt Vonk, who the previous regime was also happy with, but he’s yet to push anyone out of a starters job. After that the depth is a bunch of question marks. Aaron Picton is a rookie out of the University of Regina and Andrew Jones is a journeyman at the age of 33.

Canadian help is also needed on defence. During that 2013 season the Riders defence had names like Keith Shologan, Craig Butler, Ricky Foley and even Sam Hurl from time-to-time. Last year head coach Corey Chamblin continuously rolled out an unready Rory Connop at defensive tackle as the only starting Canadian after middle linebacker Shea Emry suffered what turned out to be a season ending concussion. Bob Dyce correctly made safety a Canadian position in his defence using the likes of Matt Webster, Keenan MacDougall and Paul Woldu. This season, the Canadian depth on defence has improved slightly with the addition of defensive end Justin Capicicciotti and the return of defensive back/linebacker Graig Newman. Capiciccioti will no doubt be a starter barring injury, Newman could be as well depending on how Jones plans on deploying the former Saskatoon Hilltop in his defence as he could start as a linebacker or he could battle Webster for the starting safety spot. After Newman, Capiciccioti and Webster, the Riders are again left with a number of question marks. Defensive end Dylan Ainsworth has been a key special teams player but is a relative unknown defensively, same with Levi Steinhauer. Connop remains with the team after Brendan Tennant was released in the offseason. Former Saskatchewan Huskie Tim Agbaje rounds out the stable of Canadian defensive linemen with experience.

One area where the Riders are relatively set is at receiver. Rob Bagg and Nic Demski could both start this season with the likes of Alex Carroll and Seydou Junior Hadaira behind them. Bagg is getting up there in years but also set a career high in touchdowns last year and has had back-to-back healthy seasons after years of knee problems. Adding some depth wouldn’t be the worst thing for the future, but they should be able to get by this year.

Since there doesn’t appear to be a runaway favourite to go first overall in this draft Jones could opt for quantity by dealing the pick. The team’s previous general manager Brendan Taman was never afraid of dealing a pick or two, that has led to a minor shortage of picks over the last few seasons. Trading away the first overall pick could stock the shelves a little bit or provide some immediate help on the field.