‘His skill set is very limited’: former CFL all-stars Wes Cates, Nik Lewis agree Riders’ QB Cody Fajardo is not elite

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

Former CFL all-stars Nik Lewis and Wes Cates spent many years clashing as heated West Division rivals but they both share the same opinion about current Saskatchewan starting quarterback Cody Fajardo.

The pair recently made back-to-back appearances on The Rod Pedersen Show and delivered the same harsh verdict on the Rider’s face of the franchise. While Fajardo may be many things, both agree he’s not an elite CFL quarterback.

“I think Cody is everything you want in a quarterback outside of actually playing the position,” Cates said first. “I don’t think he’s got the biggest arm. I think he can be accurate but he hasn’t always been accurate this season. I don’t know what it is.”

“I’ve tried to be critical [without] being too critical. I’m just looking at his feet and his placement and the way he moves before he’s throwing, when he’s getting ready to throw, when he gets the ball fresh off the snap. He just doesn’t seem to have any kind of consistent foot movement. He’s not stepping into throws and that’s why he’s so inconsistent.”

Fajardo initially joined the Riders during free agency in 2019 and was thrust into action during the first game of the season. He made his first start at quarterback the following week and went on to throw for a league-leading 4,302 yards and 18 touchdowns against eight interceptions while rushing for 611 yards and another 10 scores.  

That performance captured the hearts and minds of Rider Nation, leading to the career backup receiving a lucrative contract extension. However, his follow-up season in 2021 failed to live up to the expectations of many.

Fajardo completed 70 percent of his passes for 2,970 yards in 13 games last year, posting 14 touchdowns against 11 interceptions while rushing 78 times for 468 yards (6 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. Those numbers were inflated by a hot start to the year that cooled off quickly, but Fajardo still led the Green and White to a 9-4 record as a starter and Saskatchewan’s first home playoff win at new Mosaic Stadium.

Nevertheless, Lewis believes that a drop off in play was simply inevitable.

“I feel like Cody’s a really good leader, you see him communicate well with the guys and do those things, but his skill set is very limited,” he said frankly.

“When you get on a roll and things are connecting, the defence is creating turnovers, you’re having short fields, it doesn’t come into play that much. I believe in 2019 when he took over, the defence was playing lights out, there was a lot of short fields, things like that. I just never thought he was going to be the guy.”

The 2022 season has been another step back, as Fajardo has played in seven games and sits sixth in the league with 1,656 passing yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. As a result, the Riders are fourth in the West Division and fading fast at 4-4.

Some of that decline has been due to uncontrollable factors, including poor play from the Saskatchewan offensive line.

“He’s just always expecting a rush, always trying to escape the rush, even when there is no rush and it’s affecting his accuracy and just hitting guys on time,” Cates noted. “He has constantly been late and behind on throws and I think guys are really working hard to get open for him but he’s just too scared of the protection that he’s getting from his o-line.”

Lewis, meanwhile, believes the most serious problem is the disconnect between the way Fajardo is physically able to play the game and how offensive coordinator Jason Maas wants to coach it.

“I don’t know if Maas and Cody are a perfect fit,” the Hall of Fame receiver suggested.

“Maas was his best self when he had [Henry Burris] and Mike Reilly, two guys that had arms to throw the ball down the field. He struggled with Trevor Harris who didn’t throw the ball down the field, he struggles with Fajardo because he doesn’t throw the ball down the field.”

Fajardo’s lacklustre deep ball has been a consistent talking point in Saskatchewan over the past two seasons but this year it has been overtaken by conversations around his health. The quarterback has been playing with a brace on his left knee due to an MCL injury suffered in Week 2 and his mobility has been significantly hampered.

Many called for Fajardo to be pulled out of the lineup for his own safety after the injury was seriously reaggravated in the Touchdown Atlantic game. The quarterback did miss one start after contracting COVID-19 but returned for the team’s Week 8 loss to the B.C. Lions.

With the Riders now coming off a bye week, Cates is among those who are tired of the narrative around Fajardo’s knee and frustrated by Saskatchewan’s handling of it.

“Are we going to blame this whole season on the knee? That’s what I didn’t want but now that’s going to be a factor,” he queried. “I think they should have just sat him and tried to steal one at home from B.C.”

Lewis went one step further, implying that third-stringer Jake Dolegala — who was 13-of-28 for 131 yards, one touchdown, and one interception during Fajardo’s Week 7 absence — could be the future at the position.

“To me, he’s the best quarterback on the roster; he just don’t know the game,” Lewis insisted, scoffing at the prospects of Riders’ backup Mason Fine.

The heavy criticism leveled by two CFL legends is certain to ruffle feathers in Riderville, where many fans have fallen in love with Fajardo’s affable “sprinkle of Jesus” persona. However, three years of data is causing the former pros to have serious doubts.

“There’s no reason not to love Cody. He’s a religious guy, he’s a great leader, he’s on social media, he’s great to the fans, he seems to get along with all his teammates but that doesn’t mean that you’re out there executing at the level you need to execute it,” Cates warned.

While neither of the Grey Cup-winning quarterbacks he played with in Saskatchewan were perfect, Cates ranks both Kerry Joseph and Darian Durant well above Fajardo. The Riders’ current starter is good, not great and nowhere near the CFL’s upper echelon.

“He’s still better than you at home, I promise you that,” Lewis emphasized. “We’re just saying that compared to other pro quarterbacks, he’s very limited in his skill set.”