There is reason for optimism in Riderville heading into the 2018 campaign.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders doubled their win total from 2016 to 2017 and following a busy off-season that featured a number of high-profile transactions, expectations have been raised.
The top storyline heading into the season revolves around the starting quarterback position. Canadian Brandon Bridge performed admirably when called upon last year but the team traded for Zach Collaros in the hopes he can become the next franchise pivot. Having two capable QBs is not so much a controversy as it is a good problem to have and if the oft-injured Collaros can regain his form he can re-emerge as one of the league’s top stars.
With division rivals Edmonton and Calgary boasting the likes of Mike Reilly and Bo Levi Mitchell, respectively, it will be tough to compete in the stacked West unless the Riders get solid production and leadership from their guy.
General Manager: Chris Jones
Head coach: Chris Jones
2017 Result: 10-8 record, fourth in West, lost to Argos in East final as crossover team.
Starting QB: Zach Collaros/Brandon Bridge
Key Departures: Kevin Glenn, A.C. Leonard, Ese Mrabure, Kacy Rodgers, Cameron Marshall, Bakari Grant, Rob Bagg, Chad Owens, Otha Foster
Key Additions: Zach Collaros, Jerome Messam, Charleston Hughes, Zack Evans, Tre Mason
Expected team strengths: The defensive line is loaded with talent and depth, which should make running the ball against them difficult and force opposing QBs to make plenty of mistakes. The team only registered 27 sacks in 2017 so Willie Jefferson, who’s coming off an eight-sack, 45-tackle campaign, and last year’s sack leader Hughes attacking off the edge will be a boon to Saskatchewan’s pass rush.
Expected team weakness: The offensive line was less than stellar last year and Chris Jones wasn’t happy with his team’s blocking following their pre-season finale against Calgary. That should be a concern.
The Riders averaged a measly league-low 82.1 rushing yards per game in 2017 and that won’t be acceptable this year. Improving the ground attack would take pressure off whichever quarterback is behind centre and since both Collaros and Bridge can move the chains with their feet, establishing a dangerous running attack will open up more run-pass-option plays and designed QB runs. Messam is still a powerhouse and Mason has been solid throughout camp. Add Marcus Thigpen into the fold once he serves his drug violation suspension and the Riders have a potentially potent three-headed monster in the backfield. That all hinges on how the O-line performs.
2018 Schedule Quirk: The Riders have a late-season stretch where they play four road games in five weeks. Considering the team was 5-4 on the road, that’s not what you want to see on the sked with the playoffs approaching.
What a successful season would look like: Breaking into the top three in the West. They managed to come within five points of advancing to the Grey Cup after qualifying for the playoffs as a crossover team but the East has improved in the off-season and there’s no guarantee a crossover spot will be available again.
What a disappointing season would look like: Finishing with fewer than 10 wins or settling for another crossover playoff spot.
Pre-season Grey Cup odds (Via Oddshark): +700
Notable findings/quotes from CFL Media Poll:
• Collaros was the overwhelming favourite when it came to which player on a new team will have the biggest impact. He received 61 per cent of that vote and fittingly the Riders were voted as the team that made the best off-season moves.
• “With Charleston Hughes taking some attention on the other side, I think we could see [Willie] Jefferson get close to 20 sacks after leading the league in QB pressure last year.”
• “Collaros could benefit greatly from a fresh start and with the complement of players assembled around him he could get back into the MOP discussion.”