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Roughriders sign veteran quarterback Harris on busy opening day of CFL free agency

B.C. signed quarterback Dominique Davis and offensive lineman Michael Couture
The Saskatchewan Roughriders signed receivers Juwan Brescacin and Jake Wienke on Tuesday. Hamilton Tiger-Cats defensive back Ciante Evans (0) tackles Toronto Argonauts wide receiver Juwan Brescacin (11) during second half CFL Eastern Conference final action in Toronto, on Sunday, December 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

The Saskatchewan Roughriders landed veteran quarterback Trevor Harris on a busy opening day of CFL free agency and gave him plenty of support.

The Riders signed Harris to a two-year deal Tuesday, not a surprise given sources had said last week the veteran quarterback had agreed to terms during the CFL’s free-agent negotiating window. Saskatchewan not only gave the former Montreal Alouette a familiar receiver but also some much-needed help up front.

The Riders also signed receivers Juwan Brescacin and Jake Wienke on Tuesday. Wieneke, a six-foot-four, 215-pound American, is not only a good friend of Harris’s but also a former Alouettes teammate, registering 142 catches for 2,056 yards and 21 touchdowns over three seasons in Montreal.

Brescacin had 11 catches for 97 yards and two TDs in 11 regular-season games with the Grey Cup-champion Toronto Argonauts. The six-foot-three, 227-pound Mississauga, Ont., native has appeared in 55 career CFL regular-season games with Calgary and the Argos, recording 80 catches for 1,143 yards and eight TDs.

Harris, 36, completed 71.6 per cent of his passes for 4,157 yards last season, leading Montreal to its first East Division final berth since 2014. The six-foot-three, 212-pound American is entering his 12th CFL season, with Saskatchewan becoming his fifth different team after stints with Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton and the Alouettes.

Harris has played in 161 career regular-season games, passing for 28,610 yards with 154 touchdowns and 71 interceptions. He has been part of two Grey Cup-winning teams (Toronto 2012, Ottawa 2016) but is 48-46-2 as a CFL starter.

Saskatchewan (6-12) finished fourth in the West Division standings last season, missing the playoffs. While Harris and Wieneke are expected to help an offence that was second-last in offensive points (19.8 per game) in 2022, there’s still the matter of improving an offensive line that allowed a league-leading 77 sacks last year.

So the Riders signed veteran Canadian offensive linemen Philip Blake and Peter Godber to help resolve that matter.

The six-foot-three, 310-pound Blake, a Toronto native, earned a Grey Cup ring with the Argos last season. Blake also spent 2018-19 with the Riders and is entering his ninth CFL campaign.

The six-foot-four, 304-pound Godber started 18 regular-season and two playoff games last year at centre for the B.C. Lions. In 2022, the Lions led the CFL in net yards (384.6 per game) and were second in scoring (27.7 points per game).

American defensive lineman Micah Johnson also returned to the Riders after spending last season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The six-foot-two, 278-pound Johnson will combine with Anthony Lanier II and Pete Robertson to give Saskatchewan a formidable defensive front.

Saskatchewan’s opening-day activity wasn’t surprising, as GM Jeremy O’Day said last week he expected to be busy in free agency. And time is of the essence, as both O’Day and head coach Craig Dickenson are in the final year of their respective deals.

“This is a day where teams got better,” said Neil McEvoy, the B.C. Lions co-general manager and director, football operations. “That’s just the reality of it.

“At the end of the day, when you’re a team that didn’t make the playoffs, you have to maybe dip in a little bit more than what you might want. Teams like us who feel that we have a good core group, we were able to add to what we wanted and add to complement the current group that we have. And I think that we’ve certainly been able to do that.”

Other notable signings include:

— Receiver Eugene Lewis, the East Division’s top player last season, signed a two-year deal reportedly worth over $300,000 annually with Edmonton. The six-foot-one, 208-pound Lewis set career highs in catches (91), receiving yards (1,303) and touchdowns (10) last season in helping Montreal reach the East Division final for the first time since 2014. The Elks also signed fellow American receivers Kyran Moore and Steven Dunbar Jr.

— Receiver Kenny Lawler signed a two-year contract to return to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The six-foot-three, 197-pound Lawler had 58 catches for 894 yards and five touchdowns in 12 regular-season games last year with Edmonton after winning Grey Cup titles with the Bombers in 2019 and 2021.

— B.C. signed backup American quarterback Dominique Davis, who ran for 13 TDs last season with Montreal, and Canadian offensive lineman Michael Couture, who spent six seasons with Winnipeg.

— American defensive lineman Julian Howsare signed with Calgary Stampeders. The 30-year-old had 112 tackles (10 for loss), five special-teams tackles, 21 sacks, one forced fumble and two interceptions over four seasons with Hamilton.

— Toronto signed Canadian offensive lineman Darius Ciraco, defensive back Adarius Pickett and defensive lineman Folarin Orimolade, both Americans.

— Hamilton signed veteran American receiver D’haquille (Duke) Williams, who had 29 catches for 480 yards and four touchdowns in eight games last season with Saskatchewan.

— American linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox signed two-year deal with Ottawa. The six-foot-two, 233-pound Santos-Knox had a career-best 105 tackles in 2022 with Hamilton.

But there were no announcements involving quarterbacks Dane Evans and McLeod Bethel-Thompson as well as linebacker Darnell Sankey.

Evans remains under contract with Hamilton, which signed veteran Bo Levi Mitchell to a three-year deal earlier this off-season.

Bethel-Thompson, 34, became a free agent Tuesday after leading the CFL in passing last year and helping Toronto win the Grey Cup.

Sankey hit the open market after registering a CFL-high 122 tackles last season with Saskatchewan.

Before the start of free agency Tuesday, the CFL announced it had taken over operation of the Alouettes. It named former club president Mario Cecchini as interim president and stated GM Danny Maciocia would continue “to focus on the important work of building the team’s roster for the upcoming 2023 season.”

The CFL also took over the Alouettes in 2019 before selling the franchise to Ontario businessmen Sid Spiegel and Gary Stern, Spiegel’s son-in-law, in January 2020. Spiegel died in July 2021 having never seen the club play as the CFL didn’t operate in 2020 due to the global pandemic, but his estate had maintained a 75 per cent ownership stake in the franchise, with Stern assuming the other 25 per cent.

The league added “multiple parties” have expressed “serious interest” in purchasing the Alouettes.

Despite losing the likes of Harris, Wieneke and Lewis in free agency, Montreal did sign former Riders starter Cody Fajardo to a two-year deal.

Fajardo, 30, spent the past three seasons with Saskatchewan, leading the Riders to the West Division final in 2019 and ‘21. Montreal also secured him a reliable receiver as a CFL source said the Alouettes signed veteran Greg Ellingson to a one-year deal Tuesday.

Fajardo threw for 3,360 yards last season in 17 regular-season games despite a persistent knee ailment. Fajardo had 16 touchdown strikes but also threw a career-high 13 interceptions and enters 2023 with 27-17 regular-season record as a CFL starter.

Ellingson, 34, had 38 catches for 598 yards and three TDs in eight regular-season games last year with Winnipeg. The six-foot-three, 211-pound American has 587 catches for 8,550 yards and 45 TDs in 125 career regular-season games with Hamilton, Ottawa, Edmonton and Winnipeg.

—Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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