Rejected by premier pivots, the Riders are no longer a premier free agent destination

With their glitzy new stadium and facilities, a devoted fan base, hefty bank account and a competitive team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders used to be one of the CFL’s premium destinations.

Not anymore.

After the league’s top three quarterbacks chose to sign with other franchises during the first day of CFL free agency, it’s evident Saskatchewan is not viewed as a top-flight contender.

Players are always best at handicapping — better than anyone they know which teams are contenders and which teams are pretenders. Which is why Mike Reilly, Bo Levi Mitchell and Trevor Harris took their free-agent quarterback talents to, respectively, the B.C. Lions, Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos.

The Big Three certainly knew the Roughriders needed — and were willing to pay — for an elite quarterback. All Saskatchewan managed was to drive Calgary’s contract offer higher, allowing the Stampeders to retain Mitchell and leaving the Roughriders to re-sign last year’s starter and oft-concussed pivot Zach Collaros.

The contract of Brandon Bridge, last year’s backup, also expired Tuesday, leaving unproven David Watford as Saskatchewan’s only signed quarterback heading into free agency. O’Day said the Roughriders are not interested in Darian Durant, a long-time Riders veteran who has expressed an interest in playing despite missing last season

After the first day of free agency, the prominent names remaining on the quarterback list were B.C.’s Jonathan Jennings and Travis Lulay and Edmonton’s Kevin Glenn.

Say what you want about Chris Jones, the team’s former VP/GM/head coach who deserted Saskatchewan late this offseason for an NFL job and left his successor (Jeremy O’Day) well back in the starting lane, he improved the Roughriders during his three-year stint.

Jones admittedly never resolved Saskatchewan’s quarterback quandary, but his track record as a four-time Grey Cup winner as a head coach and/or defensive coordinator with four different franchises helped him attract talented players and improve Saskatchewan’s wins total from five to 10 to 12.

With O’Day on the job for less than four weeks, and first-time head coach Craig Dickenson being promoted one week later, there’s undoubtedly some uncertainty about the Roughriders throughout the CFL.

With a non-descript receiving corps the Roughriders were woefully weak on offence last season, but Jones’ focus on a well-prepared, unpredictable defence — he was also the defensive co-ordinator — partially offset the offence’s ineptitude by scoring 11 touchdowns.

The Roughriders were able to lure all-star defensive tackle Micah Johnson away from Calgary, allowing him to join friend and former teammate Charleston Hughes on the defensive line. For about the same price they lost all-star defensive end Willie Jefferson, the team’s outstanding defensive player in 2018 and a fan favourite, to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

In addition to acquiring a quarterback, Saskatchewan’s roster needed bolstering at the linebacker and receiver positions. The best free agents at those positions also decided to go elsewhere, with linebackers Larry Dean and Jovan Santos-Knox going to Edmonton along with wideouts DaVaris Daniels and Greg Ellingson,

Darrell Davis has reported on the Riders for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2006.