Surprise reunion with Micah Johnson comes at affordable price for Riders

Photo courtesy: Hannah Souster

It is yet to be determined whether Micah Johnson’s third stint in Riderville will fit with the tired old cliché, but general manager Jeremy O’Day certainly felt like he was living a charmed existence when the veteran defensive tackle fell into Saskatchewan’s lap.

“This one was kind of a late development, to be honest with you, in free agency,” O’Day told the media in Regina. “We didn’t think we would have an opportunity to get Micah, we thought that his salary wouldn’t be in the range for us.”

The 34-year-old spent this past year with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats while recording 24 tackles and seven sacks over 16 regular season games, earning an East Division all-star selection. He added three tackles and a sack in the team’s East Semi-Final loss but was allowed to walk in favour of younger options.

With limited demand for older defenders once free agency opened, the Riders were able to sweep in and solidify their defensive interior for a song.

“I think just the way the market shifted and how it changed, we kept the conversations alive with his agent and then eventually, we realized that we could make a fair offer for him,” O’Day explained.

After he collected $158,000 in total earnings last season, Saskatchewan was able to ink Johnson to a deal worth approximately $118,000 in hard money for 2023. According to sources, his base salary will check in at the league minimum of $70,000 with a $25,000 signing bonus serving as the upfront guarantee.

With playtime and performance incentives, the nine-year veteran could take home just over $140,000 — though he is not expected to be able to reach all of those benchmarks.

After spending the first six seasons of his career with the Calgary Stampeders, Johnson first arrived in Saskatchewan in 2019 as a prized free agent signing. Coming off three consecutive CFL all-star selections, he managed 26 tackles and four sacks in 15 games while facing heavy public criticism for failing to live up to a contract reportedly valued at around $250,000.

Johnson left in free agency that offseason and signed with the B.C. Lions, but the COVID pandemic prevented him from ever playing a down in orange. He returned to Saskatchewan at a discounted rate for the shortened 2021 season, posting 19 tackles and two sacks in 12 games before departing for Hamilton.

Despite the bouncing around, the University of Kentucky product remained on good terms with the Riders and facilitating another return wasn’t difficult.

“I think he left here for different reasons and it wasn’t bad breakups or anything like that,” O’Day noted. “I think on both occasions that he went to a different team, we did offer him a contract back and Micah’s got a family that he has to take care of.”

Though Johnson’s current sack production is a far cry from the career-high of 14 he posted with Calgary in 2018, he continues to excel at the more unheralded parts of the game. The Riders’ pass rush got off to a hot start a year ago but stagnated after losing controversial defensive tackle Garrett Marino and his ability to eat up double teams inside, a role that the team’s newest re-addition thrives in.

With Pete Robertson returning off the edge and newcomer Stefen Banks expected to fill the other bookend spot, Johnson will be called upon to open up opportunities for others when rushing the passer. He will also take much of the pressure off budding star Anthony Lanier along the interior, creating space for him to add to his eight sacks from a year ago or holding down the fort so the 29-year-old can flex out to the edge.

“It’s one of the things that we’ve considered throughout the process that a lot of people wouldn’t know is we do see Anthony as an inside-outside guy,” O’Day noted. “We do see him as being able to be that flex defensive lineman that can move out to D-end if we want to.”

“Signing Micah just allows us some more creativity and flexibility on the D-line and obviously, we really wanted to focus in free agency on the offensive and defensive line.”

With a reasonable price tag attached, that surprise reunion could be remembered as one of the shrewdest moves of free agency.

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.