Rob Vanstone: Saskatchewan Roughriders' starting lineup is virtually set

The Saskatchewan Roughriders don't have many holes to fill after the first few days of the CFL's free-agency period.

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The Saskatchewan Roughriders’ activity during the early days of the CFL’s free-agency period has created less excitement than a David Hasselhoff film festival.

As of this writing on a tranquil Friday afternoon, general manager Jeremy O’Day had generally, judiciously avoided plunging into the open market.

Consider the state of the Roughriders. If you assess the projected starting lineups on offence and defence, there appears to be only one cavernous hole — at a defensive tackle position.

O’Day, player-personnel guru Paul Jones and associates have the remainder of the off-season to focus on that one spot, if they indeed concur that it requires attention.

Who knows? The answer may very well be in-house. Or, a star may emerge out of nowhere. After all, was anyone raving about Cody Fajardo a year ago?

Speaking (or writing, as it were) of Fajardo, let’s begin a post-free-agency, position-by-position analysis of the Green and White by assessing the quarterbacks:

Quarterbacks: This was an area of strength even before James Franklin, formerly of the Edmonton Eskimos and Toronto Argonauts, was signed on Tuesday. Fajardo was a CFL all-star and the West Division’s most outstanding player in 2019. Isaac Harker, in his one start, helped his team register a victory that nailed down first place. Franklin gives the Roughriders a short-yardage option — he rushed for 14 touchdowns with Toronto in 2018 — and more experience at the No. 2 spot.

Running backs: The Roughriders are just fine, thank you, as long as William Powell continues to defy the calendar. Powell, who turns 32 on March 9, is coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,093 yards and 12 TDs. He has hit the 1,000 milestone for three successive seasons. Jamal Morrow, who spent the 2019 season on the practice roster, is next in line.

Receivers: The re-signing of 2019 CFL all-star Shaq Evans, who is coming off a 1,334-yard breakout year, was crucial. Evans, Kyran Moore (996 yards), Jordan Williams-Lambert (the West’s top rookie in 2018) and Kenny Stafford give Saskatchewan four proven pass-catchers. Paul McRoberts, a 2019 training-camp sensation, and ex-NFLers Rashad Greene and Carlos Henderson are also part of the equation. The reliability of Naaman Roosevelt will be missed, but his replacement (likely Stafford) could provide more explosiveness.

Offensive linemen: The starting lineup — tackles Terran Vaughn and Takoby Cofield, guards Brendon LaBatte and Dakoda Shepley, and centre Dan Clark — is set. However, the departures of Dariusz Bladek and Philip Blake to Toronto via free agency create some unease. Both players merited starting duty and, without front-line opportunities being available in Saskatchewan, a depletion of depth was inevitable. Braden Schram has fared reasonably well when called upon, though. Josiah St. John, whose return was announced Wednesday, was drafted first overall in 2016 and has been labelled a bust. He did, however, perform credibly while stepping in for an injured Bladek in 2018. (Today’s chuckle: Perhaps a global player can help out. Rimshot, please.)

Defensive linemen: The Roughriders are set at the end positions, thanks to A.C. Leonard and 36-year-old Charleston Hughes, as long as Father Time does not catch up with the latter player. Keep in mind that Hughes has excelled well into his mid-30s, as evidenced by four consecutive sack titles. The Roughriders’ only gaping hole is in the middle, now that Micah Johnson is a B.C. Lion. Sans Johnson, do the Roughriders possess a defensive tackle to whom the opposition must dedicate two blockers? The roster includes three capable nationals (Zack Evans, Makana Henry, Charbel Dabire) but is there an American destroyer? Can Jeremy Faulk emerge as that player?

Linebackers: Solomon Elimimian, re-signed shortly before Tuesday’s free-agent deadline, is once again the man in the middle. Cameron Judge, the West’s top Canadian in 2019, will play weak-side linebacker after re-signing last week. The strong side was a concern after all-Canadian Derrick Moncrief signed with the Las Vegas Raiders, but the recent addition of Otha Foster III softens the blow.

Defensive backs: Last year’s five starters — cornerbacks Nick Marshall and L.J. McCray, halfbacks Ed Gainey and Loucheiz Purifoy, and safety Mike Edem — all return. No problems here.

Special teams: The Roughriders are strong at punter (Jon Ryan) and placekicker (Brett Lauther). Granted, Lauther’s accuracy dipped below 80 per cent last year following his phenomenal 2018 campaign, but he continued to be proficient in clutch situations. The nagging question on special teams pertains to the return game. Purifoy has big-play capability on kickoff returns and Moore took two punt returns all the way in 2018, but they have other responsibilities. The Roughriders could use someone whose primary role is that of a returner. Improved tackling would also benefit the special-teams unit, which is co-ordinated by head coach Craig Dickenson. Ryan was criticized at times last season for outkicking the coverage. Well, how about assigning faster players to the coverage teams? And how about tackling somebody? Those questions remain to be tackled.