Ranking the 10 likeliest candidates to quarterback the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2023

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders/Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards

When Bo Levi Mitchell signed a three-year contract with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, hearts broke all across the province of Saskatchewan.

Many in Rider Nation had hung their hopes on the future Hall of Famer making his way to Regina and quarterbacking the Green and White in 2023. Now, with two weeks left until free agency, it is back to the drawing board.

As the Roughriders look to lay out a new path as an organization, there are several options available to them under centre. Not all are created equal but talent isn’t the only consideration — availability is important too.

In honour of everyone’s favourite candidate dropping out of the race, here are ten possibilities for the next starting quarterback of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, ranked according to their likelihood.

Photo: David Mahussier/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

10. Jake Dolegala
Status: Under contract
2022 stats: 16/35 CMP (45.7 PCT) for 154 YDS, 1 TD & 2 INT, 2 CAR for 12 YDS

The Riders got an extended preview of their six-foot-seven third-string quarterback when he was forced to start during a COVID outbreak in Week 7 and the results showed nothing to indicate that he’s ready for a larger role. An arrest later in the season for driving while impaired would seem to hammer home that fact.

However, Dolegala can’t entirely be ruled out due to his impressive measurables and NFL pedigree. The Central Connecticut State product has spent time with four NFL teams and earned a workout with the Chicago Bears just last week.

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

9. Cody Fajardo
Status: Pending free agent
2022 stats: 282/401 CMP (70.3 PCT) for 3,360 YDS, 16 TD & 13 INT, 81 CAR for 357 YDS & 8 TD

The Riders and Fajardo are seemingly destined for divorce but they wouldn’t be the first couple to have an 11th-hour reconciliation. Head coach Craig Dickenson has been realistic about the likely departure of the franchise’s former golden boy but careful not to rule out a return. 

Fajardo’s 2022 season was disappointing and it remains questionable as to whether he has the mental makeup necessary to thrive in Regina, but he is also less than three years removed from a M.O.P. calibre season. It can’t be ignored that injuries hampered his play for long stretches last year, as did a porous offensive line. Should neither side find what they are looking for on the open market, an awkward reunion could be possible.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

8. Caleb Evans
Status: Pending free agent (Ottawa Redblacks)
2022 stats: 114/185 CMP (61.6 PCT) for 1,301 YDS, 4 TD & 7 INT, 88 CAR for 354 YDS & 16 TD

Evans is a rarity among CFL quarterbacks, spending extended time as a starter in each of his first two seasons. The dual-threat pivot has shown brief flashes of brilliance in an inept Ottawa offence but has failed to establish himself as face of the franchise material.

There may yet be time for the 24-year-old to blossom but he would be one hell of a gamble for the Riders. It seems far more likely that he could return to Ottawa, where his style matches well with that of starter Jeremiah Masoli.

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

7. Matthew Shiltz
Status: Pending free agent (Hamilton Tiger-Cats)
2022 stats: 85/119 CMP (71.4 PCT) for 935 YDS, 4 TD & 2 INT, 28 CAR for 152 YDS & 1 TD

At 30 years old, Shiltz has yet to seize a full-time starting role in the CFL but came awfully close to unseating Dane Evans for the top job in Hamilton mid-way through last season. In a two-quarterback system, he showed he has the arm to make all the throws and vastly underrated mobility.

There are players with far less upside that the Riders could bet on but Shiltz’s age means his developmental potential is limited. He is likely a career backup and there is no better place to be that than sitting behind Bo Levi Mitchell with the Ticats.

Photo courtesy: CFL

6. Mason Fine
Status: Under contract
2022 stats: 67/102 CMP (65.6 PCT) for 690 YDS, 3 TD & 3 INT, 9 CAR for 52 YDS

The Riders benched Fajardo in favour of Fine for the final two games of 2022 and there will be a decision to be made on his future entering the final year of his rookie contract. The 25-year-old looked adequate when given the opportunity but hardly seemed ready to shoulder the burden of leading the franchise.

If Saskatchewan were to go with an unproven commodity, it makes sense to promote from within. The North Texas product will need to show some growth entering 2023 and he might be just as likely to be out of a job entirely as he is to be named the starter.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

5. Nick Arbuckle
Status: Pending free agent (Ottawa Redblacks)
2022 stats: 291/423 (68.7 PCT) for 3,292 YDS, 6 TD & 14 INT, 18 CAR for 74 YDS & 2 TD

Just three years removed from his dalliance with success as the Calgary Stampeders’ backup, Arbuckle has flamed out in his attempts to be a starter in Toronto, Edmonton, and now Ottawa. The opportunities will soon dry up for the 29-year-old but he still provides a reliable option for a team in desperate need of a quarterback.

While Arbuckle hasn’t lived up to expectations, he did look like a much better pivot after taking over a badly-managed Redblacks offence and mustered a couple of 300+ yard games. The Riders could try to build off that growth with yet another change of scenery, though his addition would still require a competent 1-B option to be added as insurance.

Photo: Matthew Johnson/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

4. McLeod Bethel-Thompson
Status: Pending free agent (Toronto Argonauts)
2022 stats: 387/579 CMP (66.8 PCT) for 4,731 YDS, 23 TD & 15 INT, 35 CAR for 166 YDS

McBeth’s future in the CFL seems to be an enigma; nobody knows whether he’ll even be playing football at all next year. If he opts not to retire, the Argos seem to want him back, though some feel they’d be better off moving forward with their high-upside backup — more on him later.

Money isn’t an object for Bethel-Thompson now that his wife cashes cheques from Disney, but the Riders could be willing to pay the most on the open market for the league leader in passing yards. At 34, you know exactly what you are getting from him: a fiery gunslinger who runs hot and cold but will finish near the top of the CFL statistically.

Photo: Matthew Johnson/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

3. Trevor Harris
Status: Pending free agent (Montreal Alouettes)
2022 stats: 331/462 CMP (71.6 PCT) for 4,157 YDS, 20 TD & 12 INT, 24 CAR for 168 YDS

Given his previous relationship with new head coach Jason Maas and general manager Danny Maciocia’s clear affinity for him, it is difficult to imagine Harris not re-signing in Montreal. However, the absolute gong-show that has become Alouettes’ upper management and the pending departure of star receiver Eugene Lewis means anything is possible.

Should he reach free agency, the 36-year-old would immediately rocket to the top of the Riders’ wish list. After a blip in 2021, he has returned to form and offers a highly accurate passer who can get the ball out fast when placed in the right system.

Photo: Arthur Ward/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

2. Chad Kelly
Status: Under contract (Toronto Argonauts)
2022 stats: 26/45 CMP [57.7 PCT] for 297 YDS, 2 TD & 3 INT, 25 CAR for 137 YDS & 6 TD

Behind the big school pedigree, Hall of Fame bloodlines, jaw-dropping arm talent and Grey Cup heroics, Kelly is as unproven as they come in the CFL. However, his abundance of self-confidence is going to put an uncomfortable amount of pressure on the Argos as they decide what to do with him in the final year of his contract, knowing he might walk for nothing next year if his starting ambitions aren’t satiated.

Saskatchewan could alleviate those issues by offering a trade and taking a big swing at a 28-year-old with star potential. Kelly’s size, mobility and bravado seem uniquely suited for a market where the quarterback will take lots of shots on and off the field, but he comes with inherent risks. If the former Mr. Irrelevant’s arm becomes a turnover machine or his loose cannon persona becomes a problem, O’Day and Dickenson risk their own doom with a bold move of this nature.

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

1. Dane Evans
Status: Under contract (Hamilton Tiger-Cats)
2022 stats: 305/457 CMP (66.7 PCT) for 3,883 YDS, 16 TD & 16 INT, 59 CAR for 202 YDS & 4 TD

Even though he remains under contract with Hamilton, Dane Evans becoming the starting quarterback of the Saskatchewan Roughriders feels like an inevitability. The only question becomes who wins the game of chicken between an organization that has no incentive to rush to trade a quarterback they owe no offseason money to and a team that won’t overpay for a passer who has to be cut before training camp anyway.

Despite his turnover struggles, Evans has posted highs as great as any QB in the league and has started two Grey Cup games. The 29-year-old is a worthy salvage project who has shown the desire to improve the mental side of his game — though handling the Regina pressure cooker is another matter entirely.

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.