After orchestrating the CFL off-season’s biggest trade, Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Chris Jones has set his sights on one of the league’s top pending free agents. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor.

Riders head coach/GM Chris Jones plans to touch base with receiver Duron Carter

After orchestrating the CFL off-season’s biggest trade, Chris Jones has set his sights on one of the league’s top pending free agents.

The Saskatchewan head coach/GM acquired veteran quarterback Zach Collaros from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last week for a 2018 second-round pick. On Thursday night, Jones plans to meet with receiver Duron Carter, a ‘17 CFL all-star who 73 catches for a team-high 1,043 yards and eight TDs while adding a 43-yard interception return TD in a start at defensive back.

“I saw him down in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the other day and I’m going to have dinner with him (Thursday night) and should have a better understanding about where he is mentally,” Jones said via telephone Wednesday from the CFL president and GM meetings in Banff, Alta. “We’re certainly hoping we get him back.”

Jones said Carter — who spent the ‘15 season on the Indianapolis Colts’ practice roster — garnered NFL interest from two teams this off-season but turned down opportunities with both the Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens.

“We’ll see exactly what his plans are and where he’s going,” Jones said.

Carter anchored a solid Riders receiving corps that included Naaman Roosevelt (75 catches, 1,035 yards, eight TDs) and Bakari Grant (84 catches, 1,033 yards, five TDs). His return would certainly benefit Saskatchewan’s offence but Jones said he’d also use Carter on defence if he returned to Regina.

“I would definitely use him on both sides of the football,” Jones said. “And if we needed him to be the full-time (kick) returner he could do it.

“He’s a tremendous talent. He’s a top-five talent that I’ve seen in my time in this league.”

But the athletic six-foot-five, 205-pound Carter can also be a polarizing figure.

In November before the East final, Carter paid $351 to take 26 Riders fans to a movie. Roughly five months earlier after making an acrobatic one-handed TD catch against the Toronto Argonauts, Carter gave the ball to a young cancer survivor.

However in 2016, he was suspended for one game by the CFL for bumping Ottawa coach Rick Campbell. Later that year, the Montreal Alouettes released Carter and his cousin Kenny Stafford, a fellow receiver with the team, following an incident with quarterback Rakeem Cato.

Jones is fine with Carter expressing his opinions. After all, Jones has won four Grey Cups with strong-minded players over his CFL tenure.

“He’ll challenge you,” Jones said of Carter. “We’ve had a bunch of them in the past (like) Marcus Ball, Brandon Browner, Dwight Anderson, Odell Willis and you can keep going.

“We’ve had guys who’ve had opinions and opinions aren’t necessarily bad. He played very good football for us this year and like I say, we have to coach him.”

Jones added it will be up to the Riders coaches to get Collaros back to his ‘15 form when he was the overwhelming favourite as the CFL’s outstanding player. Collaros was the league leader in passing yards (3,376), TDs (25) and passer rating (113.7) when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Jones-coached Edmonton Eskimos.

Collaros returned midway through the ‘16 campaign but lost his final 12 regular-season starts — one short of the league record — prompting interim Hamilton coach June Jones to name Jeremiah Masoli as his starter. It paid off as, following an 0-8 start, the Ticats finished 6-4 under Masoli.

Jones signed a three-year deal as Hamilton’s full-time head coach at season’s end. And the day after Collaros was dealt, Masoli opted against free agency to sign a two-year contract extension with the Ticats.

But Jones isn’t concerned about Collaros’s dubious streak.

“He was 41-1 in high school with two state championships and won 70 per cent of his games at Cincinnati, who never wins in football,” Jones said. “Up until his injury he was, quite honestly, the best player in our league.

“It’s our job as coaches to find out what he does and let him do a bunch of it and get him back on track.”

Jones never anointed Collaros his starter following the trade. Instead, Collaros will compete against veterans Brandon Bridge of Mississauga, Ont., and Vernon Adams Jr., along with youngsters David Watford and Marquise Williams for the No. 1 job with a Riders squad that fell one game short of last year’s Grey Cup.

“There’s no doubt it will be really good,” he said. “We’ve got guys like Brandon and Vernon Adams and two guys no one has even heard about.

“Marquise Williams started ahead of Mitch Trubisky (Chicago Bears first-round pick) for three years at North Carolina … and David Watford was a three-year starter at Virginia (before transferring to Hampton) who reminds me of Henry Burris. We’ve got five quarterbacks and look forward to seeing the competition.”

Last season, Jones rotated Bridge with veteran Kevin Glenn, who was released after the Collaros trade. Jones said he’d have no issues doing the same with Bridge and Collaros, should it play out that way.

“Best players play and I mean what I say,” Jones said. “If I need to put Brandon in or Brandon needs to start a game that’s what I’ll do.”

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