CFL draft preview: Riders need to be better

As the CFL draft approaches, the best way to get a sense of what any given team might do is to assess their current Canadian talent. With that in mind, in the days leading up to the May 3 talent grab, we’re doing a deep dive on the state of each squad’s Canuck components that examine their starters, backups, special teams depth while also taking a look at what they need.

Here’s the past pieces on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Ottawa Redblacks, Montreal Alouettes, Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Up next: the Saskatchewan Roughriders

Where they’ll likely play their seven Canadian starters:

Offensive line (3): centre Dan Clark, guards Brendan LaBatte and Dariusz Bladek
Receiver (1): Rob Bagg
Running back (1): Jerome Messam
Defensive tackle (1): Zack Evans
Safety (1): Mike Edem

Backups and other possible starters: offensive linemen Josiah St. John and Jeremy Zver, receivers Devon Bailey and Jake Harty, fullback Spencer Moore, defensive tackle Eddie Steele, linebacker Sam Hurl, safety M.O. Brouillette.

Analysis: The offensive line features a couple of solid veterans in Clark (29) and LaBatte (31) who must stay healthy this season, particularly after the team decided to release Peter Dyakowski, who started all 18 games at right guard last season. Bladek will need to continue the development he showed last season after his selection with the 11th pick – Chris Jones said Wednesday he’s on the cusp of starting – and this a huge year for 2017 first overall selection, Josiah St. John, who is threatening to become Josiah St. Bust. Jeremy Zver, a former Lion’s second-round pick who jumped from the B.C. practice roster, still has potential.

Bagg is 33 and saw his numbers fall off a cliff last season with just 35 catches in 15 starts but Bailey has yet to deliver on the potential that made him first-round pick in 2014. Harty showed steady improvement his last two years in Ottawa before signing as a free agent in February. Still, the Riders are stacked with quality American receivers so they just need a warm body to play the ‘Z.’

The team made two splashy free agent signings this winter in acquiring Canadian running back Jerome Messam and defensive tackle Zack Evans. Messam is 33 with eight hard seasons of mileage but has run for 1,000-plus yards in back-to-back years. There is, however, no insurance behind him. Meanwhile, Evans returns home after four solid seasons in Ottawa and promises steady performance in the middle. Re-signing Steele, who started all 18 games last season, provides them with a veteran back up and another possible starter if injuries require a ratio change.

Sticking with the defence, Edem started eight games at safety last season while the other ten went to Jeff Hecht, who was shown the door the same day as Dyakowski. Brouillette signed as a free agent last winter, retired, then returned for the last seven games. He’s 32.

Hurl was another free agent pick up in February, returning to the Riders after three up-and-down seasons in Winnipeg. He can start but the consensus seems to be that’s not generally the preferred option. Judge was a first-round pick last season but played in just three games and may be dealing with off-field issues.

Needs and possible draft targets: The Riders pick at No. 5 and would have had an extra pick at No. 10, which they acquired in sending quarterback Darian Durant’s rights to Montreal, but then dealt it to Hamilton for another QB in Zach Collaros. Drafting an offensive lineman might make sense for the Riders, depending on how they feel about the upside of St. John and Zver and the durability of their vets. Receiver, however, is a clear need and they’d likely be overjoyed to see Mark Chapman fall to them at No. 5. Otherwise, Rashaun Simonise – a.k.a. the Canadian Duron Carter – could be a perfect fit on all kinds of levels. A stud defensive back to shore up that safety spot wouldn’t hurt, either.

The final word: This will be Chris Jones’ third draft in Saskatchewan and the results thus far have been decidedly mixed: of the eight players they selected in 2016, just two – St. John and eighth-round receiver Josh Stanford – are still on the roster. Jones has also shown a willingness to take guys with NFL opportunities in defensive lineman David Onyemata, receiver Antony Auclair and defensive back Elie Bouka and that has yet to pay off, at least so far. If they stay healthy, the Riders should be fine in 2018 but at some point, they need to start drafting and developing their own Canadian players in order to have sustained success.