Our ongoing preview of the 2021 Riders moves to by far the most interesting position for the team. In 2019, we had arguably the best linebacking ground in the league. Moncrief was a league all-star at cover LB. Elimiman was a division all-star in the middle. Judge was an impact Canadian starter. All are now gone. Moncrief to the NFL, Judge to Toronto, Elimimian to retirement.
That leaves a massive hole in what was a solid defensive front in 2019. Our ability to replace those 3 positions will have a big impact on how far the Riders go in 2021.
Projected Starters: Seun Idowu, Larry Dean, Lorenzo Jerome
In the mix: Gary Johnson, Justin/Jordan Herdman-Reed, Louchiez Purifoy, LJ McCray, Micah Teitz
The Rest: DeMarquis Gates, Jacob Janke, Nakas Oneyka, Matthew Thomas, Deshaun Davis, Blair Smith, AJ Allen, Kevin Francis, Nigel Harris
The arrival of Larry Dean was extremely important. All the top defenses have a steady rock manning the middle and we needed one more than ever with a complete change of all starters here. He’s the one sure thing. Beyond that there is nothing but options and questions. I have Idowu and Jerome pencilled in but that’s based on nothing more than gut and the fact they both have game experience.
I think there are 3 viable options at Cover LB. Jerome has starting experience at the position in Calgary. It’s limited but beggars can’t be choosers at this point. The other options would be move one of Purifoy or McCray up. Both play their DB spots so well that you’d hate to move them but the need for a solid cover LB is huge. Outside shot you play Edem here but that leaves a hole at safety we can’t really fill.
At outside LB, a lot depends on the ratio. I have a feeling we are going Canadian at wide-side corner (with G Oneyka/Bouka) which would allow us to plan an American here. But if keep McCray there then you need to go Canadian with some combination of the Herdman’s and Teitz. Teitz did get a start at the spot last year and didn’t look out of place. Still “didn’t look out of place” is a far cry from fulltime starter.
Note: I get the anger over losing Judge but I’m pretty OK with how O’Day handled it. He was in a no win situation. When free agency opened we didn’t not know if Judge was coming back. So O’Day either had to wait and risk getting nothing (which you all would have vilified him for) or move on and use the money to get what he could for sure (which you are vilifying him for). Even if we had waited, I’m not convinced we would have kept Judge. Maybe, but if I’m a GM I take the sure thing (like using the money to get Micah, Dean and E Johnson) rather than risk having money and nothing to spend it on but another ivory back scratcher.
Of the Americans we got a mixture of prospects. Idowu played 15 games for us in 2019. Johnson spent the year on the PR and dressed in 3 games. Thomas and Harris both have a few games of NFL experience. Gates just seems like a guy looking to play football as he has played in the NFL, XFL and AAFL over the past couple years. Davis (who is confusingly is not the DeShawn Davis we had last season) was a 6th Rd NFL pick.
We do have a number of solid Canadian special teamers like Kevin Francis, Blair Smith and Nakas Oneyka. How/if they fit into the roster remains to be seen.
Prophet’s Players to Watch: Gary Johnson. The Riders are very high on him. He dressed in 2 regular season games and the playoff game. He’s just 24 and will have a huge leg up this time having spent all of last year with the team. Look for him to push for a starting spot.
Wild Possibility (something that may not be likely to happen but is not outside the realm of possibility): I see this a group with bi-polar potential. Chances are equally good that the combo of a new weakside LB, Larry Dean and McCray/Jerome/Purifoy make this a rock solid group that remains among the best the division. There is honestly equal chances that outside of Dean, this group struggles and is the achilles heel of an otherwise solid defense.