The free agent period in the CFL started Feb. 15. “Frenzy” is too strong a word to describe all the roster moves, but there were some notable signings. To recap, and to look ahead to the CFL draft in early May, we’re joined by pigskin prognosticators Earl Camembert, Ron Mexico and Cal Corduroy.

Before we talk free agents, any thoughts on the off-season moves the Riders have made so far releasing running back Wes Cates, centre Marc Parenteau, tackle Alex Gauthier, linebacker Sean Lucas, kicker Luca Congi and back-up QB Ryan Dinwiddie?

CC: I’m fine with all of them. They maybe could have kept Cates for a platoon role as he’s a good blocker and pass catcher, and he may have been able to assist the newer backs with schemes, etc. My only concern with losing him is the pass (blitz) blocking which he was pretty good at. I’m guessing that Gauthier’s salary versus his on-the-field performance weren’t worth the price.

RM: I agree with all those moves. Cates was a valuable contributor for many years, but his time had come. The same can be said for Sean Lucas who really lost a step or three last year. I thought Gauthier was better than Dan Goodspeed so I was a little surprised to see him go. Free agent signing Dominic Picard is better than Parenteau, but takes a lot of bad penalties. Congi should be able to land a job somewhere in the league if he is healthy. He was a pretty reliable kicker over the years. I’d be very surprised to see Dinwiddie surface anywhere.

EC: With a record like the Riders’ last year there certainly was a need to make changes. Cates was old for a running back and didn’t give the team any explosiveness from the position at all. Dinwiddie was a mistake when they picked him up. And clearly offensive line upgrades were in order. Lucas was done. Congi’s injury was too severe for anyone to come back from let alone a kicker — done in by Jim Daley’s atrocious special teams.

As far as free agents go, the Riders lost receivers Andy Fantuz and Cary Koch to Hamilton and Edmonton respectively, and running back Stu Foord to B.C. On the plus side, they picked up three Canadians: defensive back Paul Woldu from Montreal, centre Dominic Picard from the Argos and guard Brendan LaBatte from Winnipeg. They also resigned cornerback/returner Tristan Jackson. How do you feel the Riders fared?

CC: I’ve been bidding “good riddance” to Fantuz for over a year now, and I’ll take a top O-lineman over a receiver for the same price. I would say the Riders fared okay. Our O-line is better now with the two additions. Jackson played quite well last year, save for some gestures that put him in front of the team. Many talked about Koch as being a solid receiver, but we didn’t really get a chance to see him much over the two years he was here. Stu Foord headed back to B.C. to pick up the remainder of his equipment after getting hit into next week in a pre-season game last year. No big loss for the Riders there.

RM: I think the Riders fared very well. I may be crazy but I predict that Fantuz will be mediocre in Hamilton. He was invisible in the final three games of 2010, did nothing to impress the Bears or any other NFL team in 2011, and was ineffective upon returning to the Riders before his injury in 2011. Look closely at his career stats and see if you agree that the fuss may be overblown. I predict that Koch will end up being one who we see as a big loss. I don’t care about the loss of Stu Foord. In some ways, it will be nice to not have to listen to people complain about why some local guy isn’t getting the ball enough so they can all yell “Stuuuuuu”. A lot of different coaches came to the conclusion that he wasn’t good enough to warrant getting the ball more … much like Chris Szarka. As for the signings the Riders made, Labatte is very good, Picard is quite good, and Woldu is actually not bad. He has played a little bit of D-back over the years for Montreal and been a good special teams player. I think he’s better than Nick Graham.

EC: The Riders faired very well in free agency. Fantuz wanted to go home, and the Riders rode that train with Labatte so what can you say? Koch is a dime a dozen American receiver and Stu Foord, although popular, didn’t exactly contribute a lot last year.  

What about other teams in the CFL? Anyone stand-out as either a big winner or loser?

CC: Hamilton is going to have a tough club year. They seemed to open the checkbook and attract some pretty good talent losing only defensive end Justin Hickman to the NFL. The remainder of the teams (including the Riders) seemed to fare about even. Winnipeg got burnt and fared the worst.

RM: Hamilton could be described as a winner, not so much for Fantuz but for signing defensive end Greg Peach from Edmonton to replace Justin Hickman. They also signed linebacker Kevin Eiben (Toronto) and o-lineman Tim O’Neill (Calgary.

EC: Overall I think the Riders were the winners in free agency. None of the other teams made a splash.

Because of their 5-13 record in 2011, the Riders hold the number one pick in the CFL draft. U of S Huskie O-lineman Ben Heenan is regarded as the top-ranked player. Would you like to see the Riders draft him, or given the moves they’ve already made to strengthen the O-line via free agency should they consider someone else?

CC: My personal opinion has always been to get the best player available which would make Heenan the logical choice. There may be a caveat this year as Tyrone Crawford is the #2 pick as a D-Lineman — something the Riders still need. Having said that, I’m not sure that the Shomari Williams pick has exactly panned out as planned. If forced to chose, go with Heenan.

RM: I believe they should draft Heenan. It sure sounds like he is the consensus #1. Add to that that he’s a Huskie and it’s a no brainer. Linemen and slotbacks seem to be the best bang for the buck in Canadian players. Given last year’s performance by Canadian running backs, that’s another possible position for a homegrown player to contribute at, but I haven’t heard of a stud Canadian running back being available. Add Heenan to these two free agents, plus Chris Best, Patrick Neufeld and Nick Hutchins and the line could be set for a generation.

EC: Given the relative youth of the O lineman, I would be tempted to deal the #1 pick for some Canadian receivers and linebackers. This is where they need upgrades.

Considering all the moves that have been made so far, what areas on offense and defense do you feel the Riders still need to improve on?

CC: One still has to be nervous about the front seven, in particular the D-Line and our lack of pass rush. Brent Hawkins has declared himself ready to play, but I’ll believe it after we get a full productive year out of him. Word is that he isn’t as committed to the cause as he needs to be to be the player that many think he can be. Plus, he seems to be injury prone, particularly with a bum shoulder. We’ll see how we fare with the line-backing core with Jerrell Freeman no longer with the team. Our DBs should be fine with an extra year of experience for Butler and the resigning of Jackson who had a good year last year.

I remain nervous about our offence. With Fantuz gone, it will be difficult for Getzlaf and Dressler again unless we get some outside help. They’re going to have to get the ball outside and hopefully have some breakaway speed out there for a change. Rob Bagg could help there if he’s able to return to form after tearing his ACL last June. I’m also curious to see who guards Durant’s blind side with Gauthier gone. The run game should be okay if West pans out as expected.

Most importantly, this is the year where Darian has to prove he’s an elite quarterback. After a mediocre 2011 and a weak second half of 2010, he hasn’t really taken this team to the next level as many have thought he should. As a starting quarterback, his give-away total is among the worst in the league. He needs to be better in all aspects of his game, including taking more responsibility for the Rider performance on the field. Let’s hope he does, because the way that the Riders handled Cole Bergquist at the end of last year leaves us completely nude if Durant goes down.

RM: The difficulty with this is not knowing much about some of the new Americans who have been signed. One of them might be the next George Reed or John Chick and we don’t know it yet. Acknowledging this uncertainty, I would say defensive end, defensive back and running back. Coaching staff looks fine. The head coach seems quite impressive. I think the Riders have a good chance to battle for second in the West.

EC: See previous question.