Training camp preview: Riders are back as Grey Cup contenders

For the first time since the start of the 2014 season, you can make an argument for the Riders being Grey Cup contenders.

Are they the contender? Maybe not. Though, I think you could make the argument that there isn’t a clear number one favourite this season. As in seasons past, the CFL seems tighter than ever ahead of the start of a new season. Especially in the West.

The Green and White open training camp this weekend in Saskatoon with a roster that seems mostly set if they can get through the next few weeks mostly injury free.

That said, there are some questions.

The offence

When it comes to the guys who put points on the board, most eyes will be on quarterback Zach Collaros.

The former Ticats pivot was dealt to the Riders after spending the last few years in Hamilton. Collaros is a former MOP-level quarterback who has dealt with some injuries in recent years and a shoddy Ticats offensive line at the start of last season.

The Riders are betting that Collaros can return to form with a fresh start in Saskatchewan. The good news for the team is Collaros doesn’t need to be a MOP level pivot for them to win games, they have skilled playmakers that can help Collaros out – just like they helped Kevin Glenn and Brandon Bridge last season. That doesn’t mean the Riders would say no to Collaros being an MOP candidate when all is said and done.

If Collaros isn’t the answer, then Bridge will be there waiting to take his shot.

A stacked receiving corps returns in 2018. The only thing to watch there will be who backs up Rob Bagg as the Canadian of the bunch. Same goes for Jerome Messam at running back, though having a stable of Americans behind Messam is a little worrisome. Will Trent Richardson ever show up?

The offensive line may be the most interesting position to watch during camp. Brendon LaBatte, Dan Clark and Thaddeus Coleman are more or less the only locks. Will the team only dress two Canadian o-linemen? Can Dariusz Bladek force his way into the starting lineup? Who starts at tackle? Is this a make or break year for Josiah St. John? As good as the rest of the offence is, on paper, none of it will matter if this group can’t be figured out.

Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Willie Jefferson (7) gestures as he celebrates blocking a pass by Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Trevor Harris (7), not shown, during second half Eastern semifinal CFL action in Ottawa on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The Defence

The Riders defence was their strength last season and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be again in 2018.

Chris Jones was busy this offseason bolstering their defensive line. Joining freak of nature Willie Jefferson is tackle Zack Evans and defensive end Charleston Hughes. Add in the promising Nick James and the Riders could boast one of the best defensive lines in the league. If there’s one thing you could point to as a flaw for the Riders defensively at times under Jones, it’s been getting consistent pressure on the quarterback. Like his time in Edmonton, he has the horses up front again. That should change this season.

Like the receivers, the secondary is mostly back and should be good again.

If the defensive line is the team’s strength, then their biggest question has to be linebacker. It appears that Sam Eguavoen has the inside track to start in the middle. Eguavoen has looked good at times at WILL. We’ll see if he can adapt to the being the man in the middle. Sam Hurl, who we know isn’t a starting middle linebacker in this league, could slide into the WILL spot. Linebacker feels like a spot where the Riders could use a surprise or two to help their depth.

Special Teams

Not a whole lot to think about here. Tyler Crapigna puts up consistent numbers every year, punter Josh Bartel has been solid the last couple of seasons and has become a master at pinning teams below the 10 yard line.

Craig Dickenson’s cover units have been solid since he returned to Saskatchewan with Jones.

Christion Jones proved to be the team’s most dynamic return man in years last season and will be looking to build off an electrifying 2017.

Overall, most of the Riders questions heading into camp have to do with depth, especially amongst Canadians. Finding answers will only make the case for them being Grey Cup contenders even stronger.