Riders Remake Their Defense in a Day

February 11, 2016 - 2:15pm

If Day One of CFL free agency was a bit of mixed bag for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, then the second day made it clear the defense has been seriously upgraded.

The catch of the day was Canadian Justin Capicciotti, a defensive end formerly of the Ottawa RedBlacks who was the Riders Plan B if the plan to land Canadian tackle Ted Laurent fell through. Laurent opted to stay with the Hamilton Tiger Cats for apparently less money than what he was being offered, because he liked the organization and the way he was being treated.

Capicciotti is interesting having spent the last two seasons with Ottawa after being drafted by Eskimos. His emergence as a pass rusher came after he was developed by Edmonton and placed in a system where he could succeed in Ottawa. His signing helps the Riders meet a goal of having a Canadian on the defensive line and the Riders have back-up in players like Dylan Ainsworth, Rob Connop and Brandon Tennant.

While Capicciotti could be described as a younger version of Ricky Foley, perhaps the biggest move came when the Riders signed Greg Jones, formerly of the Toronto Argonauts. Jones was the Argos middle linebacker and also played on special teams, and Jones said after day one he was looking for versatile players who could also play special teams.

Jones is a tackling machine and he represents probably the most significant upgrade at middle linebacker since the Riders lost Rey Williams in the 2013 season. So our linebacker corps looks like Jones in the middle and Otha Foster (formerly of the Eskimos) and Jeff Lynch Jr (one of the few holdovers from last year) on the ends. That beats the crap out of anything the Riders put on the field last year.

As previously mentioned, the Riders signed Otha Foster from the Eskimos and this shows the Jones influence from his two years was a positive one. Foster shows the Jones preference for versatility, also playing middle linebacker and other linebacker and defensive back positions and also special teams.

The Eskimo connection continued with the signing of Kendial Lawrence, a running back who is likely the second coming of Corey Holmes if Jones has his way. Lawrence is remembered for running the Riders into the ground in the 2014 Western Semi Final.

Lawrence is flexible enough to return kicks, catch passes and do a number of things that will allow what is shaping up to be a ball control offense designed to hold the ball for long periods of time. It is interesting in terms of size, Lawrence is short, unlike the receivers that Jones prefers, but his familiarity with the offense played a huge factor, along with his ability to return kicks.

The Riders also signed Curtis Steele, formerly of the Argos who was also a pretty nifty running back until he ran into the injury bug. His knee injury will likely have reduced the size of the contract, but he will provide competition and if he has recovered, could very well be effective.

Ed Gainey was signed by the Riders from the Hamilton Tiger Cats and he is known as the guy who got beat in the Eastern Final and allowed Ottawa to go on to the Grey Cup. Maybe he was scapegoated by Hamilton, but one way or the other, this signing doesn’t do anything but suggest Gainey is being brought in for depth. His connection to the Jones regime probably comes from his start in Montreal which might have been when Jones was there as a defensive coach years ago.

The Riders traded a fourth round draft pick and the rights to Oklahoma Sooners QB Baker Mayfield to Toronto for offensive lineman Bruce Campbell, who if you have any pop culture knowledge, will likely have the offensive line known as the Army of Darkness. Trading a Canadian draft pick for an American offensive lineman is not the best move, but apparently Campbell has the ability to be in the NFL and if the Riders sign him to a contract beyond this year, then the offensive line got better.  He will be playing left tackle, so I don’t think we will be seeing Xavier Fulton anymore.

Other players we won’t be seeing anymore are Jake Doughty, formerly a linebacker with the Riders, and Ray Early, our American punter from last year. The Riders signed Josh Bartel last month, who fills the bill of a Canadian punter/kick off artist, but Bartel didn’t impress many here in his last go around. Early had a 45 yard average and was not bad at all, but his American status doomed him. But I did pick up his retro jersey at the Rider Outlet Store.

So the Rider roster is currently at 68 players and in the off-season they can go to 75 players. For training camp they will need to get to 68 players, not including draft picks and what are called territorial exemptions, or what we football fans would call Saskatoon Hilltops or Regina Thunder players. This means expect to see more players released.

The Riders lost offensive lineman Cory Watman to the Toronto Argonauts. Watman was drafted a few years ago, but lost the competition for centre to Dan Clark, formerly of the Regina Thunder. It was highly unlikely Watman would have made the starting roster, especially with the number of offensive linemen being lined up, so going to Toronto does give him a chance to become a starter.

Levy Adcock, one of the Americans on our offensive line, signed with BC on the recommendation of Dan Dorazio, who was our offensive line coach last year.  Another meh move, especially with the Riders getting bigger on the offensive line and perhaps moving slowly but surely to an all-Canadian line.

Keith Price, formerly a quarterback with the Riders, is no longer on the roster, leaving Brent Smith as the sole survivor of last year’s battle of the back-ups. The status of Chris Getzlaf is also in question, but assuming that Getzlaf takes a salary cut considering his injury history the last couple of years, he could be back.

Then the Riders on Thursday traded for defensive back Trevaughn Campbell, formerly of the University of Regina Rams. Campbell was drafted by Calgary last year, saw some spot and special teams activity, then got a shoulder injury. He is currently running track for the University of Regina, so he appears to be in good shape, and with the number of Canadian defensive backs, the Riders may be looking at an outside defensive back to be a Canadian in addition to being a safety.  Campbell also had a pretty good career running back kicks for the Rams.

As this is being completed early Thursday afternoon, there haven’t any more Rider signings, but with the large group of players left and the limited roster size and salary cap room, whoever gets signed will not be getting big money. The next step for the Riders will be finishing their list of free agent camps with the last being a Rider/Bomber/Argo joint camp in California in April. The Riders have a camp in Michigan on Feb. 14, New Jersey Feb. 27 and Buffalo on March 20.

Rider Coach Chris Jones said Wednesday afternoon the team has identified its needs and are moving on them, despite what other people may want them to do. Jones has been having his coaches identify players that they feel would help the team, in addition to evaluating the players left over from last year, and the more I can see Jones operate, the more hopeful I feel about the upcoming season.

There is a caveat though – a fair number of these free agents are coming off of injury and are somewhat of a risk. I would imagine the contracts are lower, so if they don’t work out in training camp, the team can move on. If definitely makes it an interesting off-season in Riderville, or Jonestown as some are calling it.


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