Loaded group of Canadian receivers ‘going to make life tough’ for Riders’ decision makers with roster cuts looming

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

Ray Elgaard, Jeff Fairholm, Andy Fantuz, Chris Getzlaff, Rob Bagg and Jason Clermont.

The annals of Saskatchewan Roughriders history is full of great Canadian receivers who were difference-makers for their team.

Staring at the Riders 2021 roster, the average fan might struggle to name the candidates to continue that legacy. Of the six Canuck pass-catchers battling for spots, the most veteran, Jake Harty, has played just 34 games — none in green and white — and hasn’t suited up since 2017 after suffering back-to-back ACL tears. The remaining group includes two rookies, a pair of sophomore players with a combined 12 catches to their names, and a local kid who has spent all but two games of his three-year career relegated to the practice squad.

Those are hardly the type of resumes that inspire confidence and yet of all the players in Regina for training camp, it is the Canadian receivers that have received far and away the most buzz. You need only glance at the Twitter page of your favourite beat reporter to be regaled with tales of each of their exploits.

A new wave of Canadian aerial dominance appears to be on the horizon in Saskatchewan and the team is planning to start two homegrown receivers on offence this season. Who that pair is and how many of the remaining four players the team can manage to keep is a question that head coach Craig Dickenson will be spending a lot of time thinking about over the final week of training camp.

“We’re very pleased with our Canadian receivers. We feel we’ve got six good ones. It’d be nice to be able to keep them all, so we’ll see what we can do,” he told reporters when the subject was broached.

“There’s good receivers in that group. Good football players, not just good at catching the ball — those guys can run, they can block, they can play special teams.”

Early on, the run-away favourite for a starting job is second-year receiver Brayden Lenius, or at least what’s left of him. The second round, 15th overall pick in the 2019 CFL Draft shed a whopping 26-pounds after struggling to play with a tight end build in his rookie year and has been labeled a potential break out star after the transformation.

Back in 2019, it was sixth overall pick Justin McInnis who was the better of the pair, but the long Arkansas State product took a back seat to his teammate early in camp. While Lenius dedicated himself to the gym in the offseason, McInnis was tied up managing a young family and needed time to catch up.

“I think Lenius is slightly ahead right now. He’s had a really good camp, came into camp in better shape and probably in better shape than anybody else to be honest,” Dickenson said.

“McInnis came into camp a little bit overweight, so he’s trying to get his legs back. We feel like he’s done a good job of having back-to-back good practices and we’re going to try to add another one tomorrow on that.”

Jake Harty, who posted 226 yards in 2017 during his last game action with Ottawa, will also push for play time, but so will two rookies. 2020 fourth-rounder Kian Schaffer-Baker has delivered on all the athleticism he showed at the University of Guelph and earned some high praise from receivers coach Travis Moore who said “the sky is the limit” for his potential.

“He can become an all-star given the opportunity, if he keeps up the work ethic and keeps himself healthy,” Moore added. “He has good hands, he’s tall, he’s strong, he’s fast.”

Garnering even more hype before the season was 2021 second-rounder Terrell Jana. Some predicted the University of Virginia product would be taken first overall, before he fell 17 spots in the draft to the Riders. Now, he’s impressing the coaches with his professionalism and maturity.

“He’s doing a good job. I think he’s at the point now where there’s a lot of information and a lot of the receivers are getting a little bogged down by all of it, but that’s the goal. You want to see who can play and who can process and transfer that to the field,” Dickenson said of the draft steal.

“I’m really happy with Terrell. He’s come in and done everything we’ve asked of him. We told him initially we were a little concerned with his blocking and he’s answered that with exclamation points. He’s going out there and blocking guys and working hard. We think he’s going to be a good player and have a nice career in the CFL.”

That’s a crowded enough group already, but Dickenson has also made his immense affection for former Regina Ram Mitch Picton known without prompting. In his fourth camp, the possession slot receiver has shown up stronger than ever, partially do to the fact he was Lenius’ training partner over the long break.

“Mitch Picton’s had a great camp as well,” Dickenson emphasized. “He’s sometimes kind of forgotten, but he’s a darn good football player too.”

With all six players making a strong case for a roster spot, the Riders want to keep as many as possible in the fold. However, it’s impractical for all of them to make the active roster. That means if all are healthy, at the very least some will have to be released to sign on the practice squad and be exposed to other teams.

The difference between who catches the passes and who might walk out the door is a razor-thin margin and while Dickenson is a long way from a decision, he does know one thing.

“They’re going to make life tough for us,” he said, “in terms of the decisions coming up.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.