The CFL's 2011 free agents may have mostly found new homes already, but there's a somewhat surprising new name on the market. The Saskatchewan Roughriders announced today that they had released veteran import cornerback Omarr Morgan (as well as fellow import DB Willie Byrd). The release of Byrd, 27, isn't all that notable; he's spent three seasons in the CFL with Winnipeg, Calgary and Saskatchewan, but hasn't made much of an impact. Morgan's release is more unexpected; he's 34, but he's played 10 seasons and 174 games in the Riders' green and white, recording 556 defensive tackles, 36 special teams tackles, 26 interceptions returned for 399 yards and 10 fumble recoveries.
From this standpoint, it appears there are several possible motivations for Morgan's release. One is simply a desire to get younger; although many veterans excel in the CFL, teams are still always on the lookout for youth, and the Riders do have several impressive younger players in the secondary. Many of them haven't been significantly tested at the CFL level yet, including Nick Graham (Morgan's listed backup on the Grey Cup depth chart), LaDarius Key, Tamon George, Ludovic Kashindi, Courtney Robinson and the recently-signed John Eubanks, but it's quite possible the Riders' coaching and management staff has seen something from one of those guys in practice that indicates they're ready to replace Morgan (pictured above knocking a pass loose from Paris Jackson's hands in a Oct. 31 game) in the starting lineup, or that they've seen enough from a couple of players that they're willing to have a battle for the job in training camp. It's also possible they have their eyes on other prospects coming in through the Canadian college draft or from the ranks of recent NCAA graduates.
Another rationale could involve the salary cap. I don't have any information on Morgan's salary, but it is notable that his current contract was signed shortly before free agency began in 2010; thus, they probably got him at close to market value. That market value could be substantial, as Morgan has racked up three league all-star nods and four division all-star nods over the course of his career, and many teams like to have defensive backs with substantial CFL experience; 12-man coverage schemes are quite different than the 11-man ones found in the NFL, so it isn't easy to find capable replacements who can step right in. The Riders made a couple of reasonably big-name signings this offseason, grabbing veteran Canadian offensive tackle Alex Gauthier off waivers and veteran Canadian centre George Hudson in free agency; it's possible those signings put them close to or over the cap, and Morgan's release was necessary to give them cap flexibility.
Thirdly, it's possible that the Riders are looking to tinker with their import ratio. Veteran Canadian defensive back Leron Mitchell (recovering from surgery after breaking his leg during the Grey Cup) could see a larger role with Morgan gone, and other non-import defensive backs like George and Kashindi might see more playing time as well. If Morgan's spot in the secondary is filled either by a Canadian player or by shifting another import to his slot and replacing that guy with a Canadian, that could pave the way for an American to start elsewhere.
On last year's Grey Cup depth chart, the Riders were starting eight non-import players (guards Gene Makowsky and Chris Best, receivers Chris Getzlaf and Andy Fantuz, fullback Chris Szarka, defensive tackle Keith Shologan, defensive end Luc Mullinder and cornerback Mitchell), one above the league-prescribed minimum. Projecting rosters at this point of the year is always a guessing game, but Saskatchewan's ffseason moves thus far seem likely to increase that if anything. The Riders are likely replacing import tackle Joel Bell with Gauthier and import centre Jeremy O'Day with either Makowsky or Hudson, with the other slotting in at guard, so it's unlikely this move was made simply for ratio reasons (and it's probable Morgan will be replaced by another import player). However, Canadian flexibility is always a good thing to have, and the Riders' roster is in enough flux that this can't be completely ruled out.
Finally, there's always the chance the team thought Morgan simply wasn't going to produce at a high level this year. As previously mentioned, experience is a valuable asset in the CFL, so age alone isn't a compelling reason to release him, but pure athleticism does tend to diminish as players get older. Morgan's stats did drop last year; he recorded four interceptions and two fumble recoveries with the Riders in 2009, but didn't notch one of either in 2010. By itself, that doesn't necessarily mean his play fell off, as much of a defensive back's impact goes beyond the stats (how frequently quarterbacks throw at him, how many passes he knocks down, whether he gets burned deep, etc), but the stats don't suggest that he was performing at an incredibly high level lately (and he wasn't selected to either the divisional or league all-star teams).
It's possible Morgan's release could be due to any of these factors, a combination of several of them or something else entirely. Without being in on the Riders' thinking, the specific cause can't really be pinpointed. Regardless, though, the decision has to be tough for Morgan, who'd spent so many years with the organization (and came close to winning a Grey Cup ring with them both in 2009 and 2010; he was playing for Edmonton when Saskatchewan did win in 2007). He may still land somewhere else or he may retire; all we know for now is that green won't be the colour for Morgan in 2011.