Roughriders feeling good about early work in free agency after disappointing seasons

After back-to-back disappointing seasons, Saskatchewan Roughriders general manager Jeremy O’Day knew changes had to be made when the CFL free agency period opened Tuesday.

The Roughriders finished 6-12 in 2022 and 2023, missing the playoffs both years and closing those campaigns on seven-game losing streaks. As a result, head coach Craig Dickenson was out as his contract was not renewed after the 2023 season, while O’Day signed a three-year contract extension as GM and vice-president of football operations in October.

“When you have a year where you’re 6-12, you have to make some changes and you have to change the mix of players that you have in the building,” O’Day said at a media briefing Wednesday. “We went into it with some specific positions that we wanted to target. We feel good about where we ended up.”

He came out of the starting gate quickly on Day 1 of free agency, signing five players: American offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick, American running back A.J. Ouellette, American linebacker Jameer Thurman, American defensive lineman Malik Carney, and American cornerback Jalon Edwards-Cooper.

Dickenson, who had a 34-34 record in four seasons as head coach, was replaced by Corey Mace. He will serve as both head coach and defensive coordinator, with special teams coordinator Kent Maugeri being the lone returnee to the staff.

Mace joined the Riders after two seasons as defensive coordinator for the Toronto Argonauts (2022-23) and five seasons as defensive line coach for the Calgary Stampeders (2016-21).

O’Day recognized that the 38-year-old Mace, who signed a three-year deal in November, would be of great assistance in recruiting players when interviewing him for the job.

“Certainly having coach Mace here was a big plus going through the tampering window. Getting him on the phone with the players that we targeted was a big deal. You can feel his energy when he gets on the phone with you,” said O’Day.

“These are good players, they’re leaving teams where they’re entrenched in their community, with their team and their teammates. It’s not as easy as just giving them a little bit more money to come to your team. There’s a little bit of a recruitment that goes through there.”

And that wasn’t all O’Day came to realize about Mace.

“I felt like there was going to be a good chance that players would want to play for him,” O’Day said. “When you do your background work on Corey, you find that the players really love playing for him and they see him as a leader of men.

“That’s something that was important … In talking to players that have played for him in the past, they spoke so highly of him so that certainly helped.”

Mace, who won Grey Cup titles as a coach in Calgary (2018) and Toronto (2022), and as a player with the Stampeders (2014), isn’t the only newcomer to the Riders with Grey Cup pedigree. Hardrick won two Grey Cups with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2019 and 2021, while Ouellette captured a Grey Cup with the Argos in 2022.

Adding players and coaches with championship experience was important to O’Day.

“It certainly helps when you have guys that have won championships and won Grey Cups and know what it takes to win Grey Cups,” he said. “And not only that, the coaches and staff that we’ve brought in here have been successful and won championships, so it certainly helps.”

Day 2 of free agency was much calmer for O’Day, with no new signings announced. When asked if he still had a player or two in his sights, O’Day said he couldn’t say yes or no.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to be done trying to make the team better but in the salary cap world you just can’t keep spending or adding players,” he said.

“They have to make sense and at this time of free agency, they have to fit in with what you have left, if you have anything left at all. I wouldn’t expect much more but you never know.”

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