TSN insider Farhan Lalji gives Riders a C+ grade for offseason moves

It’s offseason report card season in the CFL and it doesn’t look like anyone will be taking Saskatchewan Roughriders GM Jeremy O’Day out for ice cream this year.

TSN insider Farhan Lalji joined Derek Taylor on The SportsCage in Regina on Wednesday to tease the upcoming release of his offseason grading for all nine CFL teams and drew some flak from the home crowd after revealing the Riders sat sixth in the class with a middling grade of C+.

Lalji emphasized the mark was only for offseason moves made and not a prediction of 2021 success, but stood by his decision when pressed on the low mark.

“When you look at their changes, getting Micah Johnson back was significant for them but they’re having to replace their entire linebacking corps,” Lalji explained.

“Certainly getting Larry Dean back to take over for Solomon Elimimian is a good swap given where those two are at at this stage of their careers, but you lose a Cam Judge, you lose a Deon Lacey. I thought those were significant changes they have to overcome.”

Those changes haven’t gone unnoticed by fans either. Cameron Judge, a former second overall pick by the Riders out of UCLA, ascended to stardom in 2019, earning the West Division nomination for Most Outstanding Canadian. The ratio-altering weakside linebacker had NFL opportunities this offseason and the Riders chose not to set their offseason calendar around him, with the impatience allowing Judge to walk to the Toronto Argonauts. 

An equally vacant hole exists at the SAM linebacker spot. After 2019 starter Derrick Moncrief cashed in with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, the Riders repatriated one time Edmonton star Deon Lacey after three NFL seasons. The canceled 2020 CFL season earned Lacey another shot with the Buffalo Bills however and the Riders have not yet re-signed the former standout.

Problems in the linebacking corps drop the Riders’ grade significantly in Lalji’s eyes, but one factor not taken into consideration is just how well-equipped the team is to rebuild on the fly.

“Look, the Riders do a really good job in terms of scouting. Paul Jones is the gold standard in the Canadian Football League in terms of finding those types of players and he’s always done a fantastic job,” Lalji said.

“If anybody can do it, he’s the guy. I certainly have a lot of faith in him and I don’t think the cupboard is bare in Saskatchewan.”

One big name that did land back in that cupboard is standout defensive tackle Micah Johnson.

Johnson was a CFL all-star in 2018 with the Calgary Stampeders, producing 28 tackles, 14 quarterback takedowns — second most in the league — with three forced fumbles and one interception.

Known as the most disruptive inside force in the CFL, the 32-year-old signed a one-year contract with the Riders worth $250,000 in 2019. That made Johnson the highest paid defensive player in the CFL at the time, but he recorded just 26 tackles and four sacks in 15 games during his first year in green and white.

Even though Johnson had a lower sack total than expected in his first season in Saskatchewan, advanced analytics in the football operations department displayed clear data. Johnson was doubled teamed on over 80 percent of the snaps while on the field for the Riders.

Those numbers were good enough for the B.C. Lions to make a big swing with him in 2020, but Johnson has now returned to the Riders without ever playing a down in Vancouver. Lalji believes his potential impact is hard to measure.

“Give me all the analytics you want, but I can go to a coach and ask who do you gameplan around, who frightens you defensively and Willie Jefferson and Micah Johnson will be the two names mentioned right away.”

That type of dominance can cover up a lot of holes on the second level and with top scouting to fall back on, the Riders could exceed Lalji’s expectations in 2021.

They say Cs get degrees, but Rider Nation hopes a C+ is good enough for a Grey Cup.

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