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May 16, 2017

Red and White Overhaul | Upping Canadian Content

It’s been less than a week since the last names were called out in the Canadian Football League Draft, and undoubtedly Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans are now aware of the club’s faith in Faith Ekakitie and the risk/reward in grabbing Geoff Gray, now a member of the Green Bay Packers.

Their stories have dominated discussions since last Sunday’s draft in which Ekakitie was selected first overall and Gray – a Winnipegger and University of Manitoba product – was chosen eighth.

But somewhat lost in those two additions is how the entire draft class, including the selections after Ekakitie and Gray, impact the team’s overall Canadian depth.

“A lot of this draft class, realistically, is about us looking at improving the bottom end of our roster and practice roster guys, truth be told,” said Bombers GM Kyle Walters.

“We’re willing to take some draft picks on guys we really don’t need to come in this year and help us win football games. But let’s develop them for a year and see where they’re at.”

That’s a dramatic reversal in the approach this team was forced to take through the 2014-16 drafts. Yes, the Bombers nailed a lot of the picks in those years – 13 of 20 selections are on the roster – but the Canadian talent needed an overhaul and that meant there was certainly opportunity for new faces to make an immediate impact.

Final selections

With the Canadian cupboards now full, there is considerably less pressure on the new draft class to contribute right away. Countering that, is this: the 2017 roster is going to be a lot tougher to crack.

“You look at your roster and you want to be able to draft guys who have a chance to make your team,” said Walters. “Guys with potential and higher upside… that’s what we targeted and we can be patient with these guys knowing we’re not expecting these guys to come in and start.

“I sat up here in years past and said, ‘We need this player to come in and contribute right away.’ Looking at these guys now… obviously, we want them to come in and compete, BUT, to be quite honest, it’s going to be difficult for these guys to come in and make our dress roster. But we want them to upgrade, whether it’s the bottom-end of the draft roster into our practice roster. This is about improving the overall Canadian content in our locker room and I know we did that.

“It speaks volumes for our organization in that we’re making sure all 21 Canadians on the dress roster, the guys on the practice roster, they’ve beaten out some very good football players. Just because you were here last year in that role… you’re going to be pushed this year. That’s a good feeling for our roster for sure.”

Some other leftover draft-related notes and tidbits…

THEY ARE BOMBER LEGENDS… all of them. And they could certainly serve as both a large shadow and inspiration for Ekakitie.

The defensive tackle now joins an impressive list of University of Iowa alumni who came north to the Bombers after their college days.

That crew includes Canadian Football Hall of Famers Ken Ploen – still a legend in these parts – and tackle Frank Rigney, as well as Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Famers Sherwyn Thorson and Bill Whisler and defensive back Jovon Johnson.

“We’ve had a lot of guys play in the NFL, but most recently, Nolan McMillan (OL, Ottawa) and Drew Tate (QB, Saskatchewan-Calgary-Ottawa) was one of our better players and has had a nice career in Canada,” Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz told bluebombers.com.

“And of course, Jovon Johnson was one of my favourite all-time players here. What he was down here is exactly what he’s done up there.

“When you start to mention people like Ploen and Rigney… those are some pretty good names.”

Ekakitie was called by some draft gurus as the most pro-ready prospect available in the draft – excluding those under NFL deals – and helps bolster a Canadian contingent along at the D-tackle that includes veteran Jake Thomas, 2016 draft pick Rupert Butcher, and Ian Marouf, who was selected in the sixth round Sunday.

“I want to strive to be the best at what I do,” said Ekakitie. “I haven’t been playing in the game for very long. I can’t tell you personally what my ceiling is or how good I can get. I think you have to ask the coaches who have been coaching for 30, 40 years and they would probably be a better evaluator of talent than I am right now.

“Hopefully it leads to being an all-star at some point. My goal is to drive.”

Faith Ekakitie, 2017 CFL Draft, first pick by Winnipeg Blue Bombers. (Photo by Darren Miller)

Faith Ekakitie, 2017 CFL Draft, first pick by Winnipeg Blue Bombers. (Photo by Darren Miller)

THE BOMBERS MADE A DEAL WITH CALGARY… to move down from sixth to eighth in the first round and secure the Stampeders’ fourth-round pick, 34th overall. The team had no fourth-rounder after dealing it last September in a trade with Montreal for Kevin Glenn.

Walters & Co. then used the 34th pick to select Montreal kicker Felix Ménard-Brière. Now, Ménard-Brière wasn’t just the top punter in the country and a U Sports All-Canadian. At the CFL Eastern Regional Combine in March, he also posted the fastest 40 time at 4.618 and tied for the third-highest vertical jump at 35 inches.

Ménard-Brière will get a lot of work in camp and the preseason to save the leg of veteran Justin Medlock and does have a year left of college eligibility should he return to the Carabins.

HE WASN’T PART OF THE BOMBERS DRAFT CLASS… but University of Regina defensive back Kahlen Branning is another Canadian prospect who could make some noise at training camp later this month.

Branning will be attending Detroit Lions rookie mini-camp this weekend after impressing with a 4.47 40-yard dash time at a regional combine in February. His draft year was 2016 but he was not selected and followed that up by being named a Canada West All-Star last season. He also ran track and was a member of the 4 x 200-metre relay team that won a silver medal at the CIS nationals in 2015.

Branning was added to the Bombers negotiation list after the regional combine this winter, meaning they own his CFL rights.

Walters said he potentially projects as corner because of his cover skills.

A COUPLE OF ITEMS, JUST FYI…

Last Sunday’s draft marked the first time since 1985 that the Bombers had two first-round draft picks. That year, the club selected Pat Langdon sixth overall and Bob Molle ninth overall. Molle was added to the team’s hall of fame last year… Geoff Gray’s selection marked the second-straight draft in which the Bombers plucked a member of the Manitoba Bisons after Alex Vitt was chosen in the seventh round in 2016.

Since 1991, the Bombers have chosen 12 Bisons in the CFL Draft: Jayson Dzikowicz (7th round, 1991), Wade Miller (fourth round, 1995), Mark Holmstrom (6th round, 1996), Wayne Weathers (6th round, 1997), John Baunemann (6th round, 1998), Chad Vath (6th round, 1998), Matt Sheridan (6th round, 2000), Howie Dryden (5th round, 2001), Mike Faisthuber (4th round, 2002), Joey Mikawoz (5th round, 2002), Scott Mennie (4th round, 2005) and Don Oramasionwu (5th round, 2008).

AND ONE MORE ITEM ON CANADIANS… The Bombers announced Thursday they have invited four members of the Winnipeg Rifles to rookie camp later this month.

Receiver Xander Tachinski and running back Michael Ritchott return for their second camps, along with defensive back Andrew Ricard and receiver Brendan Naujoks. They will be part of the crew on the field for the opening of rookie camp on May 24thand will continue through the first part of main camp, which opens on May 28.