"Well, if we had to go play today, I would be a little nervous..."
These are the words of Saskatchewan Roughriders general manager Brendan Taman. The NFL has reaped havoc on the Roughriders' defense this off season as arguably the two best defensive lineman in the CFL, John Chick and Stevie Baggs have signed on with teams in Canada's neighbour to the South. Middle linebacker Rey Williams is another Rider player who is gone to the NFL as just a few days ago he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If the season were to start today the Riders would be in big trouble, luckily it is only February. There are still an abundance of players the Riders have yet to resign while who will stay and who will go is still a mystery to fans. Tad Kornegay, Wes Cates and Eddie Davis are among players who still haven't been resigned who would leave big holes in the Riders' organization should they leave.
Tad Kornegay is probably the most important player yet to be signed due to his versatility. He can play many positions and was one of the best defensive players for the Roughriders last season. However something Rider fans won't be happy about is that there is reportedly a large financial gap between the two sides and it is unknown whether a deal will be reached before the deadline on February 15th.
The three biggest holes that the Riders will need to fill before the season begins are at running back, defensive end and middle linebacker. Wes Cates was the Riders' back last season but it looks as though he will not be resigned. If the season was to start today the starter would be Hugh Charles. Charles played in four games last season and ran for a total of 136 yards, 3 touchdowns and 3 fumbles.
With CFL all-star John Chick signing a three year deal with the Colts and western divison all star Stevie Baggs signing a one year contract with the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, the Riders have many questions about who will be on their defensive line. Defensive tackle Marcus Adams has yet to be resigned which means the only starter they have left is tackle Keith Shologan. Optimists say this will open up opportunities for players like Michael Stadnyk, Joe Sykes and Kitwana Jones, but if these players don't seriously step up their game the Riders will go from having one of the league's best sack attacks, to one of the worst.
Roughrider linebackers have seemed to come and go from year to year, but there is only one who always stays put, Sean Lucas. Lucas is arguably the best Roughrider linebacker over the last few years and will be the heart and soul of the defense this season. With Rey Williams gone to the NFL and Tad Kornegay probably leaving with free agency, Lucas will anchor the Roughriders' linebacking core.
Although Mike McCullough has proven before he isn't quite starting middle linebacker material, he will probably be the starter for the Riders this season as there is no one else. Who will be the other starter on the outside is another question. If he resigns, the obvious choice will be Tad Kornegay. If not, the Riders have a large pool of linebackers to chose from. With Kye Stewart returning from injury this season, he will probably be the favorite as long as he stays healthy. Other candidates include Jerrell Freeman and Carlos Armour. The outside linebacker position should not be a problem no matter who is put there.
Even with all of these question marks, the Riders still shouldn't be in to rough of shape for next season due to two things; quarterbacking and the receiving core. Darian Durant is coming off of a fantastic season and should only get better with age and experience. It also helps that he has a fantastic receiving core lead by Weston Dressler and newly resigned Andy Fantuz. Throw in Rob Bagg, Chris Getzlaf and Jason Clermont, they will still have a high flying passing game that will be hard for any team to cover.
Many people are having concerns with the Riders coaching staff as Paul LaPolice the former offensive coordinator, Kavis Reed, the former special teams coordinator and former running back coach Jamie Barresi all have signed contracts with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as Head coach and both defensive and offensive coordinators. Although a large part of the Riders' coaching staff is gone, GM Brendan Taman is confident he will be able to fine very credible replacements for head coach Ken Miller to work with.
From season to season the Riders seem to lose key players and it seems all is lost. Even though this happens, they always seem to just keep on winning and because of this I am very much looking forward to seeing how the 2010 CFL season plays out.