The Saskatchewan Roughriders re-signed two national starters on Wednesday in guard Brendon LaBatte and centre Dan Clark.
Let’s start by acknowledging that both offensive linemen are very good players. LaBatte could retire tomorrow and still be a lock for the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, while Clark was a CFL all-star in 2019.
Retaining talented players is always positive. There’s also the added bonus of both offensive linemen being local. CFL fans across the country love watching homegrown talent and that’s probably more true in Saskatchewan than anywhere else.
With that said, there’s no denying that LaBatte and Clark are long in the tooth.
LaBatte turned 34 in September and has a ton of mileage, having been a regular starter since he was drafted in 2008. He’s played 181 career regular season games and struggled with injuries in 2019, appearing in just six contests.
Clark will turn 33 in June and has a history of injuries over his long CFL career. The Regina native went five years from 2014 to 2018 without starting all 18 regular season games with a low of nine in 2017.
If there’s one position in professional football where age isn’t a huge factor — outside of kicker, anyway — it’s along the interior of the offensive line. Strength, smarts, and leverage are everything at centre and guard with blockers often playing into the mid-thirties provided they still have some lateral quickness.
One factor in Saskatchewan’s decision to re-sign LaBatte and Clark is a lack of depth at the position.
Philip Blake and Dariusz Bladek left for Toronto in free agency in February 2020. The pair combined for 16 starts at guard in 2019, helping Cody Fajardo lead one of the CFL’s best offensive attacks. Blake is even older than LaBatte, but the loss of Bladek really stung as he remains just 26.
Another factor is the recent retirement of Jake Bennett. The Colorado State product was a supplemental draft choice of the Riders in 2019 with the team forfeiting a third-round selection in the 2020 CFL Draft to secure his rights. It was considered a shrewd move at the time, but Bennett announced his retirement in May 2020.
Had Saskatchewan known that Bennett would be retiring, it’s unlikely that the team would have allowed Blake and Bladek to depart via free agency.
The club suffered another tough break in August when Dakoda Shepley opted out of his contract to pursue the NFL. The UBC product started 14 games at guard during his rookie CFL season in 2019 and appeared primed for a brilliant career in Riderville.
Shepley has since signed with the San Francisco 49ers and recently cracked their active roster. That’s great news for Shepley and Canadian NFL fans but bad news for Rider Nation.
Saskatchewan has three other national offensive linemen on the roster for 2021 but none who are proven commodities. Braden Schram has played sparingly since his draft year, while Vincent Roy and Logan Ferland are project players.
The Riders drafted University of Saskatchewan offensive lineman Mattland Riley in the first round of the 2020 CFL Draft. The team also holds the second overall pick in the 2021 CFL Draft with a number of talented blockers available, one of whom is Connor Berglof, Riley’s teammate from the U of S.
It’s possible that Saskatchewan can use free agency to add a national offensive lineman, though doing so is notoriously expensive. Brandon Revenberg, Shane Bergman, Geoff Gray, Darius Ciraco, Patrick Neufeld, Ryan Sceviour, and Mark Korte all remain unsigned for 2021, though Regina native Evan Johnson would probably be atop the team’s wish list.
The other factor in the Riders’ decision to re-sign LaBatte and Clark is the 2022 Grey Cup.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Grey Cup is being played at Mosaic Stadium in Regina in 2022, which matches Wednesday’s extensions. Regina was supposed to host the CFL’s title game in 2020 but it was cancelled along with the rest of the season.
LaBatte and Clark were part of the team that won the Riders’ first and only home Grey Cup in 2013. I think it’s fair to speculate that the pair want a chance to recreate that experience in 2022, winning the first-ever Grey Cup at the team’s beautiful new facility.
The 2022 Grey Cup is still a long way off, but a lack of depth behind the local veterans means LaBatte and Clark will probably still having starting roles with the team through that year. Now the Riders just have to get to the Grey Cup to make winning a second home-field championship a possibility.