Lots of Questions, Few Answers

January 6, 2017 - 8:43am Updated: January 6, 2017 - 9:35am

Lots of questions, few answers as CFL Free Agency Draws Near

Over the holidays and the inevitable drinks that take place, the first question that comes out is usually whether Darian Durant will re-sign with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

According to Rod Pedersen, the Riders and Durant have not talked since early November, and with CFL Free Agency kicking in on February 15, some fans have made their peace with Durant moving on, probably to Montreal, or are lobbying hard to ensure he is re-signed for what may be his last contract.

After all, it would be nice to have something to look forward to when the new Mosaic Stadium opens later on this year.

Rider GM/Head Coach Chris Jones is taking what might be described as the Bill Belichek approach to salary cap management. The Riders feel they have X amount of dollars budgeted for a starting quarterback who can give them 14-18 games in relatively good condition. The Riders also have a number of free agents who need to be re-signed and may want to put in a bid or two on players up for free agency or who may come available in September after NFL training camps.

So since speculation is king, let’s say the Riders want to get James Franklin from the Edmonton Eskimos, who is in the final year of his contract. The price for Franklin may be somewhat steep involving a first round draft pick and maybe Josiah St. John, the first round pick from 2016.

If Edmonton is going to move Franklin, this would seem to be the best time, and there may multiple suitors for his services besides the Riders.

What makes this interesting is whether Franklin has shown he can be a starter in the CFL on a consistent basis. The bottom line we ask though, is can he win?

That is a point I’ll ask you to consider as we look back to 2008 and the Riders went through multiple quarterbacks before Durant, who had been a third string the year before, showed he could win on the field consistently. As Ron Lancaster once said, the only way to judge a quarterback is  based on whether he wins or not.

So while quite a few have made the argument Durant is no longer as effective as he once was, that his quarterback rating is amongst the lowest in the league, I have my doubts that if the Riders trade for Franklin, and give up a draft pick and Canadian offensive lineman, that they would be substantially better than the 5-13 team they were in 2016.

To get myself angry on the elliptical, I’ve been watching the Rider 2016 season which I taped, just to see if a second or third look provided any decent insights.

So the Riders finished with a 5-13 record, and looking at best case scenarios where the Riders got all the breaks they needed they would have finished 10-8. However, consider the Riders only win of more than 8 points was a 29-11 win over Toronto and many of the close games they won could have easily gone the other way. So looking at their record and assuming  they lose games where they won by less than eight points, the Riders would have finished 1-17.

If the Riders bring in a new quarterback and let Durant walk, they will again attempt to build continuity in a roster which may once again resemble the never-ending training camp of 2016. With the offensive line as porous as it is, and with no real running game to speak of and a new quarterback, the Riders would likely be looking at a 5-13 or 6-12 season again.

That isn’t to say the Riders would somehow vault to 10-8 with Durant at quarterback. There is the offensive line and the lack of an established running game to consider and unless the Riders show dramatic improvement in either the quality of their players or the coaching/training they receive, we will be treated to the sight of the Riders offense attempting to find itself and being unable to until they play together for several games.

So as I write, Arash Madani tweeted that the Riders made Durant an offer of a base salary of $300,000 with bonuses pushing it to $400,000. Madani said the Riders don’t want to be locked in on a high salary cap number on a quarterback with Durant’s injury history. Which behind this offensive line goes up.

If what Madani says is accurate, this is a deal both sides should be able to live with. But stranger things have happened.

So as the Riders build their 75 man off-season roster, bear in mind it is likely a few of the players announced now will not make it to training camp.

The Riders announced signings of International running back Daniel Thomas, national defensive back Jordan Reaves and national wide receiver Kelvin Muamba, brother of lineback Henoc Muamba. Thomas came from Miama and was a former high draft pick, but did not impress anyone. Not sure if he will make it to training camp. Reaves was one of Jones’ experiments he switched from offense to linebacker and made a pretty good play in the first Edmonton game knocking a short kick out of bounds.

Reaves’ problem is he only started playing football a few years ago and is likely a longer term project, but his measurables, and his ability to jump up and knock down short kicks or passes makes him worth a look. Muamba I know nothing about, but if he can contribute and keep Henoc happy, what the hell.

The Riders extended defensive back Ed Gainey contract through to 2019, which will help as the Rider defensive backfield looks for stability. Gainey’s presence in the backfield, along with Fred Bennett and Justin Cox, helped to keep the big plays down, although the defense did fall asleep in the Montreal appearance here and then the season ending series against BC.

So one intriguing question was Duron Carter, formerly of Montreal, who was cut by that team in an apparent salary cap savings move. He said the Riders were among the teams he was looking at, in addition to Calgary and Edmonton, although Edmonton appears to have backed off even though Derel Walker signed with Tampa Bay, who could use some weapons on offense.

Carter tweeted that he trusted new Montreal GM Kavis Reed, sparking speculation he would re-sign with Montreal. Which would be a good move for all concerned, since receiver is not exactly a position where the Riders lack talent. If Carter does re-sign with Montreal, then it seems likely that Rakeem Cato, who had several run ins with Carter that helped contribute to his release, would be released or traded by Montreal. That would make sense considering Montreal has Vernon Adams Jr. in the fold along with Jonathan Crompton and especially if they make a bid for Durant.

Toronto is interesting for its lack of activity, although Drew Willy re-negotiated his contract, which helps him and the Argos. If Scott Milanovich continues as Argo head coach, which I wouldn’t have expected right after the season but which seems to be more and more likely, then Willy is in a position to learn without hurting his team financially.

Former Rider QB Brett Smith was signed by the Eskimos, who might have been looking for a training camp arm, or maybe see if Smith shows some maturity now to go along with his fire. Smith got cut by the Riders after two roughing episodes in exhibition games combined with his happy feet routine which had him scrambling and a novice offensive line reduced to holding trying to buy him time because they didn’t know where he would be.

I’m not sure the Smith signing indicates Edmonton would be willing to deal Franklin, and I have to wonder why Ed Hervey would help either Saskatchewan or Winnipeg get better by allowing them to trade for Franklin.

Winnipeg hasn’t done a deal for Matt Nicholls yet, although I can’t see him not signing with Winnipeg. So while Adam Bighill signs with the New Orleans Saints, and seems poised to stay down there, the Lions also lose kicker Richie Leone to the Arizona Cardinals, which brings up Quinn Van Gylswyk who the Riders drafted last year but stashed and whom the Riders could interest the Lions with in a trade.

The Eskimos lost linebacker Deon Lacey to the Miami Dolphins which hurts them in the short term, although a lot depends if Noel Thorpe joins the Eskimos from Montreal and if the Eskimos recruiting is better than Chris Jones.

It will be interesting to see how this all unfolds.

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