Riders Training Camp Preview: Linebackers

On the defensive side of the ball there is no bigger battle than the one at linebacker as all three starers are gone from 2011.

In: Daren Stone, Jamar Williams, Daniel Sheffield, Sam Hurl, Kevin Regimbald-Gagne, Abraham Kromah
Out: Jerrell Freeman, Barrin Simpson, Sean Lucas, Kye Stewart
Staying: Mike McCullough, Chris Francis, Shomari Williams, Chris Graham, Cory Huclack

Camp Battle Grade: A+ - Not very often does the entire positional group of a football team leave in the offseason but that’s what the Roughriders are facing as Simpson (asked to be released), Lucas (retired) and Jerrell Freeman (NFL) are all gone.

The biggest loss is clearly Freeman, who was runner up for Defensive Player of the Year in the CFL and led the league in tackles and led the Roughriders in sacks in 2011.

The team hopes Chris Graham, who showed well late last season, is able to make a jump to regular duty. Graham has a tweener type physique like Freeman which enables him to blitz off the edge in certain scenarios.

Graham is going to have to prove he can go side line to side line as well as Freeman and that is why there is such a pile of linebackers signed this offseason. The four other additions along with Chris Francis are going to be interesting to watch. Kromah, Francis and Williams are the front runners to push Graham just based on their more traditional linebacker size.

Stone and Sheffield are smaller and more likely to fill the void left behind by Sean Lucas, although I think a few players listed as DBs will get a shot. Lucas was asked to cover more so than stop the run during his time in Saskatchewan. Look for Macho Harris, Tyron Brackenridge as well as James Patrick, who seems to be without a home in the defensive backfield, to take reps at that spot. All three are tremendous pass defenders. (Remember, Sean Lucas was a DB in university before making the move to LB in Canada) This is a passing league after all.

The other big shift for the Roughriders is at middle linebacker where it appears they want to make the move to a non-import. Shomari Williams has moved to his natural position after two years along the defensive line following his selection as first overall pick in 2010. With the ratio change, that was a big reason why the Roughriders drafted Sam Hurl and Kevin Regimbald-Gagne this season to get quality depth behind Williams and perennial back-up MLB Mike McCullough.

McCullough may be the day one starter and captain of this defense because he is so gifted between the ears, rarely gets out of position and always gets the other players in the right spot pre-snap. It’s just so often he gets overshadowed by a more athletic player (ex. Maurice Lloyd - who by the way I was surprised to see cut before the team even gave him a shot in his second go around)

We know this, nobody is etched in stone as a day one starter at linebacker. It is going to be fun to watch who stands out from the pack, especially in the two pre-season games.

In mentioning the defensive backs, I’ll break down those battles on Friday.

Other previews:

Defensive Line

Offensive Line

Defensive Backs

Running Backs