Linebacker Cameron Judge at the centre of Riders’ free agency decisions

2021 CFL free agency will likely be defined by who isn’t back with the Saskatchewan Roughriders rather than who is brought in.

The biggest question surrounding the Green and White is what will happen to their two remaining biggest pending free agents in linebackers Cameron Judge and Solomon Elimimian.

There were some questions surrounding the future of defensive end Charleston Hughes, but the Riders made things clear when they released Hughes prior to the opening of free agency.

While it’s certainly understandable that fans will be disappointed by Hughes’ departure, there are clear reasons why moving on is a good move. Hughes is now 37 and coming off a year where he didn’t play — there’s no saying how he will perform.

As the old saying goes — better a year early than a year late. The Riders already got a few good years out of Hughes after he was let go by the Calgary Stampeders for similar reasons.

Was it worth putting limited salary resources into Hughes at this time? Probably not. That’s not to say that Hughes won’t have a good season, but at some point, the decision needs to be made to go younger.

General manager Jeremy O’Day has clearly decided that the defensive line is a spot where the team can get younger. Micah Johnson, Zack Evans and Hughes — all of whom were on the team in 2019 — won’t be in 2021. These are decisions past general managers of this team haven’t always been willing to make, so it’s good to see O’Day make the tough choices.

It’s not a fun discussion or decision, but unfortunately, that’s football.

Otherwise, what happens to Judge will go a long way in deciding what happens with the rest of the roster.

Judge is currently one of the best linebackers — Canadian or otherwise — in the CFL. His departure would not only hurt the Riders’ ratio but leave them with basically an entirely new linebacking corps in 2021.

Right now, Judge is exploring NFL opportunities, but given that he hasn’t signed yet and didn’t produce any new game tape in 2020, it feels unlikely that he’ll end up signing with a team south of the border. However, stranger things have happened.

It goes without saying that Judge should be a priority for O’Day, should he have interest in returning to Saskatchewan. If the reigning West Division Most Outstanding Canadian returns, then it would seem extremely unlikely that Elimimian would be back.

If Judge signs elsewhere, then there might be some temptation by O’Day to bring back the future Hall of Famer, so there’s at least one returning and a known quantity in the second line of defence.

Judge’s departure could also cause a ratio shuffle for the Riders.

As it stands right now, the Riders appear poised to start Canadians at three offensive line spots, receiver, safety and defensive tackle. Judge’s linebacker spot is currently the seventh spot. If he’s not back, they may have to explore starting a Canadian at right tackle, elsewhere in the secondary or at receiver — unless they believe someone like Micah Teitz is starter material.

Judge’s decision might affect how the Riders approach the draft as well, given the ratio implications.

Another notable hole for the Riders heading into free agency is special teams with punter Jon Ryan and kicker Brett Lauther still not under contract for 2021. If neither are back, then free agency could be an option for the team to replace them but it shouldn’t be a top priority. At worst, both positions could be addressed at the draft or after it.

Saskatchewan could also use some depth along the offensive line, especially when it comes to Canadians. There are rumours that the team is “going hard” after University of Saskatchewan product Evan Johnson, who spent three seasons with the Ottawa Redblacks.

In 2020, O’Day approached free agency in a methodical way, re-signing the guys he wanted and looked for value plays on the open market. Overall, I’d expect much of the same in 2021.

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