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February 13, 2018

Free Agency 2018 | Day 1 Wrap

B.C. Lions' Chandler Fenner, right, breaks up a pass intended for Edmonton Eskimos' Brandon Zylstra during the first half of a CFL football game in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, June 24, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers went fishing on Day 1 of Canadian Football League free agency and didn’t have to cast their lines far for their first two catches.

The Bombers reeled in two local products within two hours of the opening of the free agent frenzy, landing former University of Manitoba Bisons Nic Demski and Kienan Lafrance to bolster the offence and the Canadian content.

The club then worked to address its defensive needs by signing all-over-the-depth-chart defensive back/linebacker Chandler Fenner, ex of the B.C. Lions, in what amounted to a good haul on the first day in the annual talent grab.

Both Demski and Lafrance will meet with the media at a press conference at Investors Group Field on Wednesday, but Fenner did speak Tuesday afternoon of his decision to leave the Lions and sign with the Bombers, where he will be reunited with former Leos Anthony Gaitor and Steven Clarke.

“Talking to (the Bombers) I felt very appreciated,” said Fenner, who played in 26 games over two years in B.C., including all 18 last season. “I felt like we both wanted to do something big. They believe that I can bring that to the table and I believe that with the pieces that are there already, we can do that in Winnipeg. It was a great mutual understanding. It just felt right, like the right thing to do. It was effortless and you can see that by how fast it happened. It was great. I feel good about it.

“I feel like it’s important to do your due diligence,” Fenner added. “I saw that Steven Clarke was there, that Gaitor was there, I see that they just brought Demski on board, they have Adarius Bowman and then Darvin Adams is still there. It’s just really good to know who you’re dealing with as well as the quarterback situation being strong, and understanding that you have an offence that’s going to put some points on the board and a defence that’s going to turn the ball over. Not to forget the kicking situation and having a kicker who is one of the best in the league.

“Overall, looking at personnel, looking at the roster, it’s hard to deny, right?”

Fenner’s versatility makes him an intriguing add for a defence desperately trying to cut down on the explosion plays against. He can line up at the strong side linebacker spot, but also has the skill set to play corner, halfback and safety. The added bonus? He led the Lions last year with 27 special teams tackles, second in the CFL.

Fenner spoke of going through the free agent process for the first time in the CFL.

“It’s one of those things like when you jump out of an airplane,” he said. “When you get to the tip of the airplane, you’re afraid because you don’t know what to expect. You’re scared and you don’t want to jump out. That’s what it’s like going into free agency. You have no idea what’s at the other end.

“And then when you get in the air, you realize you shouldn’t have been so scared in the first place. There are people that do appreciate you and do want you there and you will land somewhere and you will land safely.

“So for me, it was very scary at first to take that leap of faith, but it helped me get to a place where I’m happy and I feel like I have a good journey ahead of me.”

 

The additions of both Demski and Lafrance, meanwhile, aren’t just moves to appeal to the local crowd. Both homegrown products beef up the Canadian depth and give an already potent offence more weapons.

Demski (6-0, 208), a former Oak Park High School/Bisons star, can play slot and wideout and is an adept kick returner. Drafted by the Saskatchewan Roughriders sixth overall in 2015 – much to the chagrin of Bombers fans everywhere – he suited up for 40 games there, pulling in 69 passes for 725 yards and three touchdowns while also returning 84 punts for 729 yards and one score, against the Bombers, no less.

The Bombers were said to be interested in drafting the hometown Demski three years ago, but used their first-round selection (2nd overall) to nab Sukh Chungh to plug holes on the offensive line, and the University of Calgary product has started 52 games in the three years since.

The Bombers also held the 11th overall selection in 2015 and had hoped Demski might still be available to them there. But with Demski off the board, they selected University of Regina receiver Addison Richards, who struggled with injuries before being released last year.

Demski began the 2017 season flashing every bit of his potential, recording 14 receptions for 169 yards through the Riders’ first two games, including seven catches for 82 yards and a TD versus the Bombers on Canada Day – but then saw his numbers drop before he suffered a season-ending foot injury. He ended last year with 19 catches for 222 yards and a TD.

Demski was one of the few Canadian offensive talents to hit the market and had been long-rumoured to be returning to Winnipeg, much the same way Andrew Harris did two winters ago.

Lafrance (5-9, 205) is a Sturgeon Heights High School product who was also part of that 2015 draft class, selected in the sixth round, (45th overall), by the Ottawa REDBLACKS. He parlayed an exceptional performance in the 2016 East Division Final, where he rushed 25 times for 157 yards and a TD in the snow in a win over Edmonton, to a free agent deal with Saskatchewan last year.

He rushed for 273 yards on 68 carries with the Riders in their revolving backfield, second on the club, adding two touchdowns.

The Bombers hit free agency with 10 of their players going to market: defensive linemen Jamaal Westerman and Jake Thomas, linebackers Sam Hurl and Kyle Knox, defensive back T.J. Heath, offensive lineman Travis Bond, receivers Clarence Denmark and Julian Feoli-Gudino, quarterback Dan LeFevour (who has since said he is retiring) and fullback Christophe Normand.