Riders’ quarterback room ‘still up in the air’ as cutdown deadline approaches

It’s a completely different type of cutdown day from what Cody Fajardo is used to.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders’ star quarterback is familiar with all the nerves and anxiety that accompany decision time in pro football. He’s felt the pain of rejection before and sometimes escaped it by the skin of his teeth — even going so far as to play special teams to keep his job. But after a breakout 2019 season, Fajardo is now as untouchable as they come.

“I don’t think I’ll be looking at my phone as much as in the past or telling my mom or my wife, Laura, not to call me on cutdown day,” he said with a smile ahead of Friday’s CFL roster deadline, before returning to a serious tone.

“It is a tough time and I’ve lived it. I’ve lived it where I’ve got the call and where I haven’t got the call. It’s a very stressful time to be one of those bubble guys and I don’t wish that on my worst enemy.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t Fajardo’s enemies that will be waiting anxiously by their phones as training camp wraps up in Regina. In fact, many will be close friends.

The Riders will be facing some extremely tough decisions as Thursday fades into Friday, among the most difficult is at the quarterback position. Four talented passers battled it out for the backup job behind Fajardo and, in all likelihood, two won’t be there on August 6 when the team welcomes the B.C. Lions for their season opener.

Head coach Craig Dickenson and general manager Jeremy O’Day will be hammering out just who will make the cut after dinner on Thursday and the man in charge expects the quarterback decision to take the longest of all.

“We’re still up in the air. We went through a few scenarios yesterday and then we’re going to go through a few more this afternoon, but it’s going to be tough without the pre-season,” Dickenson explained to reporters.

“That’s the one position you really need to see them in a game, see them handle the huddle and handle the play clock and get guys in and out. It’s going to be a tough one. That’s probably going to go into the night.”

The candidates for the job are a fascinating mix. Incumbent Isaac Harker has the hearts of Rider Nation, but he’s being chased by former NFL first-round pick Paxton Lynch, undersized North Texas standout Mason Fine, and Towson signal caller Tom Flacco, younger brother of Super Bowl champion Joe.

Fajardo is well aware of just how difficult a decision sorting out that group will be.

“What I will say about this quarterback room, we’ve had very talented guys who have picked up the offence extremely quick and definitely did the due diligence of studying and working hard,” he praised.

“Every single guy in that room could throw it and the good thing about having a solid quarterback room like that is it just made the competition so much better. It made being around each other better and it brought the best out of everybody.”

Among the newcomers, there is no questioning that Lynch has generated the most hype. Selected by the Denver Broncos No. 26 overall during the 2016 NFL Draft, the six-foot-seven, 244-pound passer carries the label of first-round bust but has raw talent and a resume like few others that have come up north.

Fajardo has been impressed with the way he’s picked up the Canadian game, but is quick to remind those gathered that Lynch’s candidacy can’t be judged on his NFL pedigree. He’s operated from a blank slate like the other two rookie Americans.

“NFL experience and CFL experience are two completely different things. He’s still got to learn all the new rules, all the different plays, all the different motions, all the different defences,” Fajardo stressed.

“We talked about this a lot. There’s not so much that you can draw from the game down south to up north. You’re pretty much starting all over from square one.”

While he plays the diplomat well, it’s clear that Fajardo is pulling for his close friend and Rouge Report podcast co-host Harker to stick around. He’s built a rapport with his 2019 backup and believes they complement each other in the locker room.

“Isaac and I have great banter and I think you can hear it on our podcast, just the back and forth that we have,” Fajardo said when asked who he best meshes with. “I think we’re two completely different people in terms of how we view the game or how we play the game, but our friendship is very solid.”

While the opinion of the starting quarterback carries weight, Dickenson is perfectly frank about just how much stock a player’s relationship with Fajardo will have on their choice.

“A tiny amount,” the head coach said flatly, with emphasis on the tiny.

“The reality is we want the best players in the house. We want the team to get along, so if it’s close then being a good guy and being a good locker room teammate is going to be the deciding factor, but it’ll be the tiebreaker.”

“We want the best quarterbacks in house. We want the best linebackers in house. If they’re not good dudes, they’re already probably gone, so it’s going to be the best players.”

With arguably the deepest quarterback room in the league to whittle down, that means only Fajardo can truly claim safety. It’s the turn of the four others to wait anxiously by the phone as he once did, hoping to be granted the opportunity to rise to his level.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I know that they’ve got some tough decisions to make upstairs,” Fajardo sympathized. “Everybody in that quarterback room could be a talented CFL quarterback.”

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