General manager Jeremy O’Day recently revealed that Canadian offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte will not play in 2021, which sent shockwaves through Rider Nation.
The nine-time all-star isn’t retiring and remains under contract for 2022. Saskatchewan is set to host the Grey Cup next season and LaBatte has expressed interest in having the opportunity to play in that game.
Even if LaBatte returns following the 2021 season, Saskatchewan’s offensive line will look very different when training camp gets underway on July 10. The Riders started five Canadian offensive linemen over the course of the 2019 season, four of whom are no longer with the team.
Philip Blake and Dariusz Bladek departed for Toronto via free agency, Dakoda Shepley caught on with the San Francisco 49ers, and LaBatte has stepped away. The lone holdover is Dan Clark, who started every regular season and post-season game at centre in 2019.
Assuming Clark remains at centre, the two veterans most likely to start for the Riders at guard in 2021 are Evan Johnson and Brett Boyko.
Johnson was signed away from the Ottawa Redblacks in February and is one of the CFL’s most underrated blockers. The Regina native can start at guard or tackle and is just beginning to enter his prime at age 26. He should win a starting job at an interior spot easily.
Boyko had a disappointing season with B.C. in 2019 during which he was relegated to a backup role. A move from tackle to guard should take some pressure off the Saskatoon native as he’ll be less isolated along the interior of the line. It also helps that Boyko had a year to readjust to the Canadian game following a nine-year stint south of the border.
The only other veteran on Saskatchewan’s roster is Josiah St. John, the No. 1 overall selection of the 2016 CFL Draft who rejoined the Riders in February 2020. I don’t think it’s fair to write-off the 29-year-old entirely, but it’s hard to envision him becoming a major contributor at this stage of his career.
The rest of the team’s Canadian offensive linemen are completely unproven. Logan Ferland spent the 2019 season on the team’s practice roster, while Mattland Riley, Jesse Lawson, and Logan Bandy were selected over the past two drafts.
Riley is a valuable depth piece because he played centre and guard with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. He’s a smart player who should make the adjustment to the professional level quickly, packing a nasty punch in the run game.
Lawson was drafted in the seventh round of the 2020 CFL Draft based on pure potential. The Carleton product has a six-foot-six frame with long arms, though he doesn’t move very well considering he only weighs 285 pounds.
Bandy is intriguing because he fell all the way to the fifth round of the 2021 CFL Draft out of the University of Calgary. The career left tackle will play guard at the professional level and should have a chip on his shoulder after being drafted significantly later than anticipated in May.
I expect the Riders will start Clark at centre to start the 2021 regular season with Johnson and Boyko as the guards. St. John will have to prove he can be the sixth man, though Riley’s versatility could help him win that job.
If the team suffers an injury down the stretch, keep an eye on Bandy. I think he’s better than his draft position indicates.
The Riders will start two American tackles with incumbent Terran Vaughn slotting in at left tackle. The right tackle spot is wide open following the retirement of Takoby Cofield last week.
Cyrus Kouandjio and Seantrel Henderson have extensive experience in the NFL, appearing in a combined 69 career games. Antonio Garcia was a third-round pick of the New England Patriots in 2017 but never appeared in a regular season game after developing blood clots in his lungs.
Cameron Jefferson and Andrew Lauderdale have more limited experience, though Jefferson spent four years bouncing around NFL training camps and practice rosters.
Saskatchewan’s offensive line will likely regress in 2021 without LaBatte and Cofield, but the unit should still be solid. Watch out for injuries, though — particularly at guard and centre. If a Canadian veteran goes down, the team will have to rely on youth to protect all-star quarterback Cody Fajardo.