There should be less drama surrounding the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ defensive backfield in 2019.
That’s an improvement considering how much talk was devoted to Duron Carter seeing playing time at receiver and cornerback in 2017 and 2018.
Carter was an all-star receiver and a serviceable defensive back — albeit one who returned both his interceptions for touchdowns — with a big-time personality that attracted fans and media.
Was Carter worth all the hype and attention? Chris Jones, then the Riders’ general manager and head coach, eventually decided it wasn’t and cut Carter on Aug. 11.
Carter’s release was followed by improved play from the Riders, who had a 3-4 record before the stunning move. Without Carter, the Riders were 9-2 en route to posting a 12-6 record and playing host to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the West Division semi-fina, won 23-18 by the visitors.
One of the reasons for the Riders’ regular-season finishing kick was the performance of the defensive backfield. Two player-related transactions don’t usually turn around a season, but the deletion of Carter and the addition of defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy were key August moves made by the Riders.
Purifoy was signed to the Riders’ practice roster on Aug. 6, one day after being released by the Ottawa Redblacks — reportedly because he didn’t fit in.
He certainly fit in with the Riders. In 10 starts, Purifoy tied for the team lead with three interceptions and was also a difference maker on kickoff returns.
He could have tested free agency, but re-signed with the Riders in December.
By re-signing Purifoy, the Roughriders ensured that all five starting defensive backs from the West Division semi-final are scheduled to return in 2019.
A key holdover is Ed Gainey, who made a splash in 2017 when he had a league-best 10 interceptions and one return for a touchdown en route to being a CFL all-star.
Gainey had only three picks, one of which he returned for a touchdown, in 2018. He still had 51 defensive tackles, three more than in 2018, and was named a CFL all-star for the second consecutive season.
Nick Marshall returns after a solid first season at cornerback. He started in the season opener, during which he returned an interception for a touchdown, but was sidelined for the next five games with a broken wrist. Marshall’s injury contributed to Carter being moved to cornerback from wide receiver.
Marshall finished the season with three interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. He also rushed for seven touchdowns as the Riders’ short-yardage quarterback, enhancing his value.
Crezdon Butler finished the season as the starting wide-side cornerback. Jovon Johnson had started 10 games at the position before being benched.
Mike Edem returns at safety after a standout season. He was second on the Riders in defensive tackles (61), recorded 10 special-teams tackles and chipped in with two interceptions, along with several jarring hits.
Edem, a potential free agent, signed a two-year contract extension during the off-season and is entrenched as the starting safety.
The Riders, however, have national depth at safety with the return of Danzel Radford, the recent re-signing of Elie Bouka, and the selection of Jacob Janke in the fourth round (35th overall) of the 2019 CFL draft.
Bouka returned to the Riders after spending three injury-filled NFL seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles. The Riders originally selected Bouka, from the University of Calgary Dinos, in the third round (24th overall) of the 2016 CFL draft.
Janke, who remains unsigned, was a linebacker at York University and is projected as a safety as a professional.
An intriguing international prospect is Valentino Blake. The 28-year-old Blake dressed for a combined 78 NFL games with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2012), Pittsburgh Steelers (2013-15), Tennessee Titans (2016) and New York Giants (2017).
Blake, who has been out of football since being released by the Giants after the 2017 pre-season, recorded 183 defensive tackles and three interceptions during his six NFL seasons.
The remaining defensive backs are internationals Davon Jernigan and L.J. McCray and national Jacob Dearborn.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019