Reaction to the Riders’ moves since free agency opened on Tuesday have ranged from anger to sadness to apathy to “at least we didn’t sign Brandon Bridge!”… ok that last one might have been me. The general consensus though is that people are not happy about how we fared in relation to the rest of the West division.
Let me start out by stating what should be obvious… Grey Cups are not won on paper based on rosters on Day 2 of free agency. Many teams have been crowned the “winners of free agency” only to have it be the biggest victory they manage that season (the 2016 Riders and Winnipeg many, many times come to mind). A lot can still happen between now and the regular season. Also, keep in mind that the Riders won 12 games last season and retained a large part of their core. We are not in a full rebuild mode so the lack of a flurry of moves does not mean we are screwed. This is to hopefully clam down the overly outraged portion of Rider Nation (not sure that is possible, but one can try).
Let me also state something to address the other side of spectrum... the overly optimistic members of Rider Nation. The Riders’ key weakness last season was the lack of anything resembling a passing game. So what did O’Day do to remedy that? Re-signed a QB with a concerning concussion history and equipped him with a bunch of 30+ year old receivers with injury concerns of their own. You’ll forgive us for not finding that very confidence building. On paper we currently have the 5th best passing attack in the west (and I don’t even think it is close). Not doom and gloom but just honest.
I think many of criticism’s being thrown at O’Day are unfair. Lack of signings does not mean lack of effort on his part. We know for sure he made a huge offer to Bo Levi Mitchell. He was also for sure pushing for Derel Walker and Shaq Johnson (probably others too). So did he do nothing? No, he tried hard. Did he improve the team from where we ended 2018? I would also argue no.
Let’s look at who we did sign.
Zach Collaros – Look, by virtue of not being geographically closer to Seattle than Vancouver, we never had a shot at Mike Reilly. We tried our darndest but Mitchell was unlikely to leave Calgary anyway. As for Harris, we lacked the connections that Edmonton had. I told you heading into free agency that we were unlikely to land one of the big 3 (it's as if I was prophetic in that statement). In terms of combing the left overs, Collaros isn’t the worst option (now being the not the worst of a bunch of bad options doesn't make it great but...). He’s familiar with our system (this will be the first time in a long time where we have the same OC and QB in back to back seasons). He had his moments. Hiss durability is concerning as hell to me but O’Day opting for a known quantity over a question mark like Jennings is not the worst decision. Doesn’t make us better but doesn’t make us worse.
Cody Fajardo – So do we pronounce the J like in fajita or it a silent J like in jogging? By virtue of not being Brandon Bridge I like this already. We needed a back-up for Collaros and rather than bring in old men like Lulay or Glenn, we opt for a 26 year old with 3 years CFL experience. Will he amount to anything? Who knows but at least we are looking towards the future at QB for once. Lord knows we can't recruit a QB to save our soul.
William Powell – Powell is an impact RB no question and given Tre Mason’s injury we did need someone. I’m always hesitant to spend on a “name” RB when you should be able to recruit one… also Powell is 31 (a theme among O’Day’s signings). But given that I don’t see our passing game improving anytime soon, a strong running game is needed and Powell gives us that. This move more shored up an existing strength rather than improving our O as a whole.
Micah Johnson – This is THE big signing for us. Johnson is the best DT in the CFL. Pairing him with Evans makes for one hell of a push up the middle. This is a great signing! I do wonder how quickly him and Labatte will make up. They did not like each other at all the last time we met.
AC Leonard – I always thought Leonard was overrated and benefited from playing beside Jefferson in his first run here. That said he did hold his own in Ottawa, notching 6 sacks on a far weaker line. As a rotation DE along with Geter I think we should be ok along the D-line when you consider who the other starting 3 are.
Namaam Roosevelt – When we struck on all the other top end WRs out there it was predictable that we came back to Roosevelt. I love the guy. He is a heart and soul player. I would have preferred finding a younger #1 WR with less miles on them but he’s an OK consolation.
Manny Arceneaux – The value of this signing depends completely on his timeline for being healthy. Arceneaux says he’s pushing to be in training camp but there are unconfirmed reports that Labour Day is more likely. Much like Roosevelt, Manny is the wrong side of 30 and has a ton of miles on him but when healthy dude can still be an impact player.
Cory Watson – Makes Manny and Roosy seem like youngn’s by comparison. I guess as a depth Cdn WR he’s OK but with Harty once again lost to injury we need a lead Cdn WR not just depth. Solid meh on this one.
Dyshawn Davis – Very solid special teams guy (22 ST tackles last season). May be a guy who is ready for a larger role on defense. He will hopefully be in the mix to replace Eguavoen.
So here’s my overall assessment of Free Agency: Underwhelmed. It’s not doom and gloom but we are arguably a worse team at this point then when we ended the season. Defense was our strength last season (and by that I mean they bailed our asses out of sure defeat on many occasions). We lost 3 of our top impact players in Jefferson, Anitgha and Eguavoen and replaced them with Johnson. A one for 3 swap is not great. On offense we improved our run game which was not a weakness last season. In the passing game we essentially changed nothing. Swap Williams-Lambert for Arceneaux essentially. I expect guys like Moore, Cannon and Evans to take a step forward in year 2 but will it be enough to keep pace in the West?
We still have the draft and recruiting to fill out our roster and some of our best players have come from there in the past (Moncrief, Eguavoen, Marshall, Antigha, Lambert, Cofield, Geter). O’Day approached free agency like an old lady at a supermarket, looking only for deals and not wanting to spend big money. He is betting on the existing core of this team and their recruiting ability. Will it work out? Who knows. I have my doubts but I’m certainly not about to write off the season in February.