Despite the re-signing of their best Canadian, injured guard Brendon LaBatte, and adding big-name free agent Henoc Muamba, the Saskatchewan Roughriders still need to scour for national players who can help them be competitive next year.
The Roughriders have been displaying the weakest national talent in the nine-team CFL. Their 3-10 record means they should get an early draft choice in 2017, but remember that this year’s top overall pick, offensive lineman Josiah St. John, hasn’t made any in-roads since missing training camp in a contract squabble.
How many of their current Canadian starters could start for another CFL team? Judging by the number of castoffs they’ve picked up, it’s likely that none of the Riders nationals could crack the starting lineups of contending franchises in Calgary, Edmonton or B.C.
When the Roughriders won the Grey Cup in 2013, the team regularly rotated 11 nationals in front-line roles. Three years later the Roughriders — amid the incessant adding-and-subtracting of international players — have been scrambling to find enough Canadians capable of fulfilling the league-mandated minimum of seven starters.
Riders boss Chris Jones thought he had acquired two of the CFL’s best Canadians in the offseason, but defensive end Jusin Capicciotti and receiver Shamawd Chambers have been busts.
Veteran national Rob Bagg changed receiver positions, an indication he hasn’t contributed as expected.
The Riders still haven’t settled on a safety, a position they obviously failed to fill with rookie Kevin Francis, a converted receiver; now Jeff Hecht gives them toughness and Matt Webster gives them speed but neither provides the whole package.
Along the defensive line, mid-season activations Gregory Alexandre and Ese Mrabure have been minor contributors and Makana Henry, who last played football as a junior in 2009, has proven himself the best of the aspiring linemen.
The most serious problems remain on the offensive line, where the Riders have been starting only two nationals — centre Dan Clark and left guard Matt Vonk.
Injuries sidelined LaBatte for the past 10 games, plus veteran guard Chris Best has missed the entire season.
Jones recently said he wouldn’t be surprised if neither LaBatte nor Best played again in 2016, so it was surprising when this week the Riders re-signed LaBatte, a pending free agent. LaBatte told reporters his concussion/neck injury might allow him to play this year and that he wanted nothing diminishing his chances of being with the Riders next season when they open a new stadium. There’s some optimism right now in Riderville, where the team is on its first two-game winning streak in three years as it returns from a bye week to face back-to-back road games.
Muamba is a CFL all-star who has been chasing NFL opportunities between an impressive, three-year stint with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and a baffling, short-lived three-month reappearance with the Montreal Alouettes. He’s not exactly a castoff, but other teams have been wary of signing him because of his troublesome agent (who is also St. John’s agent) and strong desire to try the NFL.
Adding Muamba to a decent linebacking corps — which had been all-international before his signing — gives the Riders some leeway in their roster allotments moving forward.
LaBatte will have to get medical clearance to play this year. And he’ll need to pass a physical again before the 2017 campaign, something the Riders truly hope happens for their six-time all-star, one national who could certainly start for any team in the CFL.