Will the Riders Still be Firing?

December 5, 2016 - 9:12am

Guns and Roses playing Mosaic Stadium August 27, but will the Riders still be firing?

It’s the first week of the CFL off-season and let’s start with the good news first.

Guns and Roses will be playing the new Mosaic Stadium August 27, 2017 as presumably the first major concert although I was under the impression they were looking for a May test concert event.

Tickets go on sale Friday, December 9 on ticketmaster.ca.

After this past week, the choice of Guns and Roses may seem a little strange considering the death of Rider running back Joe McKnight who was shot to death in a road rage incident in Louisiana.

Add to this the release of the shooter so far and no charges filed and you have to wonder about the concept about equal justice and how, perhaps, there should be background checks for prospective gun owners so people with rage issues don’t have a handy release for their own fears.

That being said, the first time I became aware of McKnight was watching the first regular season game between the Edmonton Eskimos and Saskatchewan Roughriders where McKnight fumbled a punt return and didn’t look entirely comfortable in the Canadian game following a starring stint in NCAA Football and a few NFL stops.

Then when McKnight showed up in Rider camp (hands up all of you who got a try out with the Riders this year!) he started against Toronto and I had a few worries about his ball security when he started, but then he ripped Toronto for 150 plus yards running and I thought the carrousel of our running back auditions may have come to an end.

OK, he ended the season on an injury, but he he was going to come back and the feeling wasthat with a year of familiarity, he would be a strong candidate to step into the shoes of Kory Sheets and Jerome Messam.

With this happening in the offseason, the Riders have been spread all over North America, but apparently people hard hit by this were Greg Morris, the Canadian running back who, I think, could be the next Andrew Harris and Jeff Lynch Jr. who may be going off to the NFL. Chris Jones, in the midst of auditioning players in Fort Lauderdale, admitted he had never had to deal with a situation quite like this one and said McKnight would have been a major player for the Riders moving forward.

So as Jones continues his never-ending audition process the loss of McKnight does have an impact on the Riders in several major ways, some of which won’t be known for months and perhaps even a year to come.

First off the Riders depth chart, such as it is, would now have Curtis Steele and probably Greg Morris at the top of the heap. The Riders released cornerback, Buddy Jackson; Canadian fullback, Bryn Roy and Matt Walter so from a Canadian talent viewpoint, the Riders seem set to proceed with Morris and will likely look to add another Canadian running back to platoon with him.

Despite a somewhat less than inspiring preseason, Steele at times during the season showed the ability to block, which will really help whomever lines up at quarterback for the Riders and he can still run. The trouble with Steele, as it seems with many Riders, is the ability to stay healthy. Of course, then again, Steele is a free agent.

The Riders list Spencer Moore and  Levi Steinhauer as the only other fullback/running back options, although to be realistic, Moore and Steinhauer are considered more fullbacks for their ability to block and catch (Moore) and since Steinhauer never stayed injury free enough it is hard to know what he brings to the party.

Roy was primarily a blocking back and Walter was brought in for Canadian depth, but once he got injured, well, stop me if you have heard this one before.

So running back is now on Jones’ list of things to get, but in comparison to last season, this year the number of free agent camps is not as wide ranging with camps every weekend. Or at least not every weekend as listed by the Riders. However the Riders strategy of little risk, big reward in terms of signing injury prone players and hoping they recover took another hit as defensive lineman Eric Norwood announced he would be retiring due to the inability to come back from injury.

His signing was a calculated risk, but the Riders lost out after Norwood went out after just two games with injury. The Riders had him under contract through 2017, which is more than they can say about William Jefferson, the former Edmonton Eskimo defensive end who came back from an NFL trial to sign with the Riders, made a positive impact, and is now an impending free agent as he likely ponders another NFL trial.

The other injury long shot is Linden Gaydosh, the former Hamilton Tiger-Cat defensive lineman whom the Riders got from Hamilton in the Xavier Fulton-Justin Cappicciotti trade. Gaydosh has a less than imposing career as a result of injuries to his back and Achilles tendon. While it is possible to come back, one of the things Jones has to look at this offseason is the Rider injury situation and if the Riders are doing all they can to help these players rehab and make a contribution to the club.

So let’s add defensive linemen to the shopping list as well.

On offense the Riders are looking at the following as free agents: Phil Bates, Shamawd Chambers*, Thaddeus Coleman, Darian Durant, Jeff Fuller, Mitchell Gale, Curtis Steele, Matt Walter. Of course with Walter being released, that answers one question. Another interesting question is if the Riders will stick with Chambers, whose career has been spotted with injuries but has the measurables as Jones would like to say, to be a contributor, but has never been healthy enough, although this season was not as bad as some others.

On defense the Riders are looking at the following free agents: Dylan Ainsworth*, Gregory Alexandre*, Ivan Brown*, Randy Chevrier*, Otha Foster, Jeff Hecht*, Jorgen Hus*, Corvey Irvin, Anthony Jackson, Willie Jefferson, Jeff Knox Jr., Andrew Lue*, Bryn Roy*, Matt Webster*, Jonathan Williams.

The stars behind the names indicate the Canadian players, and Canadian depth was something the Riders lacked last year, and probably the year before. Williams will be interesting because he was another somewhat high profile signing on defense before going down with an injury.

Of course the big name is Darian Durant and whether he will return to the club in 2017. The Riders would probably have him back at a lower price, citing injury history as a reason to make his contract more incentive based.

Jones is probably looking at James Franklin, the back-up in Edmonton making $55,000 if rumor if correct and is stuck behind Mike Reilly. Franklin saw some action in the last regular season game and impressed, although it was the last regular season game that really meant nothing.

Jones scouted Franklin from his time in Edmonton and brought him aboard and is familiar with what he can do. Whether he can break through in Riderville is another question, one that is complicated by the Rider offensive line which was truly offensive last year.

Any evaluation of Rider quarterbacks has to be tempered by considering the quality of pass protection they received. The losses of Brendon LaBatte and Chris Best hampered the Riders development and forced juggling in areas that probably the coaching staff didn’t expect. The loss of those two players also highlighted the lack of Canadian depth on the offensive line, something that could be contrasted quite unfavorably with Calgary andf their Canadian offensive line depth.

If the Riders are unable to pry Franklin from the Eskimos, and rumor has it that even Mike Reilly could be moved and Franklin promoted. That would be interesting to sell to Eskimo fans after the Ricky Ray trade, but then a deal with Durant becomes more likely.

The Riders are operating on the football version of Moneyball, a system where salary is paid based on performance in game situations. For a quarterback, wins-losses are important, and some would argue the most important, but there are other things such as making the right reads, even if the pass isn’t completed. Not all imcompletions are the fault of the quarterback, as not all sacks are the fault of the quarterback, but sometimes they are and the Riders are looking for a quarterback who can reduce the margin of error in their play which should in theory help the team achieve more wins.

So tying salary into performance is what the Riders are looking for, while Durant is looking for money up front which may be lost to the team if Durant goes down with an injury in training camp or early in the season with the Riders opening a new stadium. The Riders are looking for a return on their investment, especially if their investment does not pay off due to unforeseen injury, and with the salary cap only going up $50,000, Some players may be getting raises while others will have to get pay cuts and the basis for determining that is peformance on the field.

The Riders did announce some free agent signings after the Grey Cup - International quarterback Bryan Bennett; ·  International offensive lineman Terrence Campbell; ·  International defensive lineman Kenny Horsley and International wide receiver Thomas Mayo.

Bennett was in the Bomber practice roster and comes from Southeastern Louisiana, while Campbell started six games for Hamilton before going on the practice roster, Horsley was on the Riders practise roster for the last two games and Mayo was a receiver with Winnipeg for five games and was on the Rider practice roster back in 2013.

I’m not sure if the Bennett signing indicates anything, but I would think the Riders will likely cut a quarterback or perhaps two.as they determine starters and back-ups. As the final regular game against BC proved, the Riders don’t have much to open a new stadium with, and the new stadium smell will last about a year without a team to get excited about.

But in the meantime, we do have Guns N’ Roses.

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