NEWS
02/16/2012 08:11 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Saskatchewan Roughriders shell out for free agent lineman Brendan LaBatte

Brendon LaBatte returned home Thursday while Andy Fantuz continues to decide whether to follow suit.

LaBatte signed with the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders on Thursday, just over a day after becoming a free agent. The native of Weyburn, Sask., opted to return to his home province after weighing offers from the Edmonton Eskimos and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who drafted the six-foot-four, 304-pound offensive guard four years ago.

"At the end of the day you add up all the pros and cons from all the potential scenarios, I felt that everything that mattered most is at home and that's why I chose to return," said LaBatte, who played collegiately at the University of Regina. "To be able to play in front of my friends and family and know how much this team means to this province, I mean I've lived it my whole life, I'm extremely happy to be able to go out and represent this club."

The Roughriders also signed Dominic Picard on Thursday, a free agent centre who spent the last three seasons with the Toronto Argonauts.

While family and home both factored in LaBatte's decision, obviously money did too as the Riders paid handsomely to land the 25-year-old. But GM Brendan Taman vehemently denied published reports LaBatte's deal was worth about $200,000 annually.

"No, I didn't pay Brendon LaBatte that money," Taman said. "We matched Winnipeg's offer and we ended up getting him because he wanted to play at home.

"The $200,000 figure is ludicrous."

Winnipeg had offered LaBatte a multi-year deal reportedly worth about $170,000 a year.

Taman has been active in free agency, also signing former Montreal defensive back Paul Waldu. But he's not done as Taman continues to pursue Riders slotback Fantuz, a native of Chatham, Ont., generally regarded as the top free agent available.

"I know we have a chance," Taman said of getting Fantuz to return to Regina. "What kind of chance I don't know?

That's because also pursuing Fantuz, the CFL's top Canadian in 2010, are the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. And with the Riders having already invested in LaBatte, Picard and Paul Waldu, the Ticats could have more room under the $4.35-million salary cap to offer the six-foot-four, 220-pound Fantuz — currently vacationing in Africa.

And that's important considering Fantuz is expected to fetch between $175,000 and $200,000 in free agency. Another advantage the Ticats have is they would allow Fantuz to play closer to family and friends in southern Ontario.

Shoring up the offensive line in free agency was a priority for Saskatchewan after it released tackle Alex Gauthier and centre Marc Parenteau earlier this off-season. The addition of Picard, 29, and LaBatte not only makes the Riders tougher up front but also younger.

However, the big question now remains whether LaBatte and Picard will suit up with veteran lineman Gene Makowsky, 38, who continues to ponder his future after 17 CFL seasons.

"In my time in Winnipeg there would be days we'd just watch film and watch Gene," said LaBatte, the Bombers' first-round pick in 2008. "He's a technician and is probably the best I've seen play the game.

"I try and emulate and take a few things out of his game because in my opinion he's the best guy around."

Losing out on LaBatte capped a miserable start to free agency for Winnipeg GM Joe Mack. On Wednesday, the Bombers appeared to have an agreement with receiver Greg Carr, who later had a change of heart joined the Edmonton Eskimos.

Also on Wednesday, former Bomber defensive lineman Don Oramasionwu signed with Edmonton, which combined with the retirement of defensive tackle Doug Brown leaves a big hole for Winnipeg up front.

On Thursday, that brought and angry response from Winnipeg defensive back defensive back Deon Beasley, who on his Twitter account called the Bombers "cheap."

Teammate Jonathan Hefney tweeted "Man seems like every team has gotten better except us....I guess our 3 quarterbacks gonna play some receiver get the F outta here man."

Prior to the start of free agency, the Bombers re-signed starter Buck Pierce and backups Alex Brink and Joey Elliott.

Mack took player departures in stride Thursday but wasn't quite so diplomatic regarding the criticisms from Beasley and Hefney, who both later apologized.

"Those comments are the most disappointing thing for me because we talk about being a team, and those two comments aren't team oriented," Mack told reporters. "It is something I will address with them as soon as possible.

"There is always going to turnover in pro sports, that's just the nature of the beast so players have to get to the point where they're mature enough to understand that and to realize that they have a responsibility to the club. We will address that and I would assume they wouldn't make that type of mistake again."

B.C. added two players Thursday, agreeing to terms with former Saskatchewan running back Stu Foord and longtime Toronto cornerback Byron Parker. Foord, a 26-year-old Regina native, spent four seasons with the Riders and will combine with Winnipeg native Andrew Harris in the Lions' backfield.

Parker's arrival further solidifies a secondary bolstered Wednesday by the return of veterans Dante Marsh and Ryan Phillips. On Monday, B.C. also signed defensive back Lin-J Shell, who had been recently released by Toronto.

Parker and Shell will be reunited with Lions defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler, who had previously served as Toronto's defensive co-ordinator and head coach.