I haven't blogged the Saskatchewan Roughriders' offseason quite as closely as in past years. But in advance of tonight's season opener against Hamilton, let's take a quick look at what's changed since the team's 2011 flop - and what remains to be improved.
To start off with, the team should have bought itself at least some time simply based on the sheer amount of new personnel it's brought in since the previous season. The gap between a team that's mostly working on refining a well-established system with a group of holdovers and one which is starting from scratch in evaluating and training players was obvious in the 'Riders' first pre-season game against the Lions. And a more respectable second effort shouldn't be taken to suggest the 'Riders aren't starting from somewhat of a disadvantage against many teams.
But that gap is bound to close over time as the 'Riders' new players get more familiar with the CFL, with each other and with the team's system. And the payoff for bringing in new blood is the prospect of far greater upside for this season and beyond as younger, higher-upside players settle into the league. (The 'Riders aren't lacking for players fitting that description at least on offence, as the likes of Justin Harper, Kory Sheets and Drew Willy have hinted at in the pre-season.)
On the defensive side of the ball, I'm a bit less convinced that the long-term growth the 'Riders need will be found near the top of the current depth chart. That's due in part to the team's apparent inclination to rely on older defensive linemen rather than giving much of an opportunity to younger players, and in part to what strikes me as a surprising focus on importing linebackers rather than following the path of converting defensive backs which previously gave the 'Riders stellar performances from the likes of Jackie Mitchell, Reggie Hunt and Sean Lucas. But in both cases, there's at least some additional talent further down the roster which may be worth developing.
Of course, we'd ideally prefer to see the 'Riders' new additions dominate from day one. And there's at least some precedent for that happening: take for example the 2008 Stamps, who went from a distant third to first in the West and a Grey Cup win while adjusting to a brand-new coach and integrating three rookies into their offensive line.
But more likely, we'll need to be patient - both within the 2012 season, and in the Riders' efforts to build a talent base for the longer term. And we shouldn't let some growing pains - nor indeed a few early-season losses - cloud our judgment of where the team might end up if it invests in developing the players now on the roster.