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February 1, 2018

Taking Inventory of the Secondary

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Chris Randle (8) celebrates his touchdown against the Ottawa Redblacks with teammates during first half of a CFL football game in Ottawa on Friday, Aug. 4, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

They have some big names inching towards free agency, potentially leaving gaping holes in their pass defence.

But the business of pro sports also means the Winnipeg Blue Bombers must always have contingency plans and competition in place, and to that end, the club continues to add pieces to their secondary.

The Bombers announced the addition of former B.C. Lions defensive back Anthony Gaitor on Thursday – the second ex-Leo after  Steven Clarke was inked last week – and since the end of the 2017 season, have now signed or re-signed 10 defensive backs.

In addition to Gaitor and Clarke, CFL All-Star cornerback Chris Randle was re-signed two weeks ago, joining Canadians Derek Jones, Abu Conteh and Brendan Morgan (who returns after being released last season). The team has also added Zavian Bingham, who was with Saskatchewan in camp last year before being added then released from the Bombers’ practice squad last fall, and newcomers Eric Patterson, Travis Howard and Sam Brown.

The Bombers have also adjusted their defensive coaching staff, as head coach Mike O’Shea plans to be more involved with defensive coordinator Richie Hall this season, with Glenn Young now handling both the defensive line and linebackers, and Jordan Younger now in charge of the defensive backs.

All this activity comes with CFL All-Star halfback T.J. Heath, cornerback/halfback Kevin Fogg, and linebacker/defensive back Maurice Leggett getting closer to becoming free agents on February 13th. Bombers GM Kyle Walters, FYI, is scheduled to provide an update on the status of all pending free agents later next week.

Gaitor (5-10, 182, Florida International) was a seventh-round draft choice of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011 and had two stints with the Bucs, along with opportunities with the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals before coming to B.C. in 2016. He played 11 games for the Lions that year, signed with the New Orleans Saints in early January 2017, and then returned to B.C., where he started 12 games last year. In those dozen games, Gaitor registered 38 tackles, one interception, one fumble recovery, one forced fumble and tackle for loss while adding five knockdowns.

These moves come not just with free agency fast approaching, but with the Bombers having identified defensive upgrades/changes as one of their main priorities heading into 2018.

One of the great conundrums of the last two years with the Bombers’ defence is balancing the yardage surrendered – over 400 yards per game and more than any other team in 2016-17 – with their league-leading 101 forced turnovers over that same span.

The Bombers placed three defensive backs on the CFL All-Star team in 2017 – Heath, Randle and safety Taylor Loffler – while giving up a league-worst 321.6 yards passing per game and finishing fourth in quarterback sacks (44) and third in pressures (116).

Here’s a look at the current state of the Bombers air defence:

PENDING FREE AGENTS

DB T.J. Heath: CFL All-Star the last two years; has 12 interceptions in 34 games; seven in 24 games as a Bomber after coming over from Toronto in the Drew Willy trade.

LB/DB Maurice Leggett: Game-changing playmaker who has spent his entire four-year CFL career with the Bombers. Coming off an Achilles injury, but is recovering quickly.

DB/PR Kevin Fogg: Has started games at corner, halfback and SAM linebacker in his two years with the Bombers. Has also led the team in punt-return yards over the last two years.

RE-SIGNED

CB Chris Randle: Leader, CFL All-Star last year, and the Bombers Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2017.

DB Derek Jones: A Canadian special teams dynamo who can line up at corner and started one game at safety last year.

DB Abu Conteh: Third-round draft pick in 2017; dressed for two games before being injured. Finished year on the practice roster.

DB Brendan Morgan: A 2015 draft pick who suited up for 29 games in 2015 and 2016 before being released last year.

NEW FACES

DB Anthony Gaitor: Former Tampa Bay draft pick who appeared in 23 games over the last two years with the B.C. Lions, starting 12 last season.

DB Steven Clarke: Battled injuries while appearing in 25 games over the past four years with the Lions. Still just 26 years old.

DB Eric Patterson: Starred at Ball State in college before stints in the NFL with the New England Patriots, St. Louis Rams, Indianapolis Colts, and Cleveland Browns.

DB Zavian Bingham: Short spell with Saskatchewan last year, was then scooped up by the Bombers and added to practice roster in September before he was released.

DB Travis Howard: Played four years at Ohio State, starting 23 of 43 games, and had NFL tryouts with the Houston Texans, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons.

DB Sam Brown: Comes to the Bombers after starting at Missouri Western State and then being waived by the Minnesota Vikings last September.

STILL ON BOARD

Safety Taylor Loffler: CFL All-Star for second straight season after leading the club with 75 tackles.

CB/DB/LB Brandon Alexander: Named the Bombers Most Outstanding Rookie last season after starting 15 games and registering 52 tackles, an interception, and four knockdowns.

CB Brian Walker: Dressed for 15 games and started 13. Had 41 tackles, seven knockdowns and a pick.

DB Kahlen Branning: University of Regina product joined the Bombers after attending Detroit Lions mini-camp last spring. Dressed for six games.

DB Robert Porter: Appeared in five games last year. NFL look with Chicago after starring at Jackson State.

CFL DBs CURRENTLY HEADED TO FREE AGENCY

Full list can be found here.
*Indicates Canadian