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January 18, 2019

Stability in a Sea of Turmoil | A look at Western Free Agents

Marcus Sayles (36), Kevin Fogg (3), Adam Bighill (4), Jovan Santos-Knox (45), Jackson Jeffcoat (94) and other teammates of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game against the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, AB on Thursday, August 25, 2018. (Photo: Johany Jutras / CFL)

Let’s begin with a Captain Obvious-like statement: the Grey Cup has never been awarded in January.

And a quick glance at the 2019 Canadian Football League schedule confirms the champion will be crowned, as per usual, on the last Sunday in November at McMahon Stadium in Calgary. But as the CFL creeps further into what is being billed an unprecedented offseason – what with all the uncertainty swirling about an expiring collective bargaining agreement – a popular take is emerging, both here in Winnipeg and across the league: The Blue Bombers – right here and right now – are on solid ground, especially as it relates to the rest of the West Division.

And before we proceed, yes, yes, yes, we understand that means absolutely nada with so much heavy lifting to do before training camps even open, let alone the start of the playoffs in November. Still, consider what is unfolding just west of here in Saskatchewan, where the club announced Jeremy O’Day as their new GM on Friday and is now looking for a new head coach after Chris Jones exited for the Cleveland Browns.

The B.C. Lions have already made a coaching change, poaching Calgary Stampeders defensive coordinator DeVone Claybrooks as their new boss. The Edmonton Eskimos have made a change at their defensive coordinator position, replacing Mike Benevides with Phillip Lolley.

The Bombers, meanwhile, plan to have their entire staff return in 2019, although that could change depending on the Riders rumoured interest in offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice. At the most important position on the football field – quarterback – four of the five teams have huge question marks, with Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell drawing NFL interest, Edmonton’s Mike Reilly, a free agent, linked to both B.C. and Saskatchewan, and with the Lions moving on from Jonathon Jennings and Travis Lulay and the Riders’ Zach Collaros and Brandon Bridge both scheduled to become free agents.

The Bombers, meanwhile, have Matt Nichols, Chris Streveler and Bryan Bennett all signed for 2019.

Again, none of this propels the Bombers any closer to the winner’s circle. But the recent announcements of the return of key pieces like Adam Bighill, Justin Medlock and Stanley Bryant does leave them in a much more comfortable position with free agency scheduled to begin on February 12th.

“Continuity is huge to an organization,” said Bombers GM Kyle Walters earlier this week. “(Head coach) Mike (OShea) talks about it constantly. In an offseason where there’s so much going on, we do seem to be a little bit… boring, I guess, but in a good way. There’s less chaos with regards to uncertainty right now, which is always a good thing for any organization.”

Walters made it clear dollars trump just about everything when the free agent market opens. But the CFL is a small league, and given what’s happening around the West, stability can be a selling point, too.

“It’s extremely important,” said quarterback Matt Nichols. “It’s extremely important for guys on those teams that do have instability that are going to be looking for homes here in a couple of weeks that maybe Winnipeg is a great place to go and win a championship. Those things will play into free agent decisions and guys that want to be here and want to be a part of what we have going here.

“That being said, even though there is instability in some places or it’s a couple more weeks before those things get ironed out, I still expect those teams to be very tough opponents. Depending on where everyone ends up, there’s still going to be a battle, especially for us, of trying to get over that hump of trying to earn a first-round bye and a West Final here in Winnipeg is the goal.

“We know they’re going to put good products out there and we feel we can be as good as anyone and guys want to be a part of that. It’s showing right now with some of the signings we’re having and I think it’s going to show in free agency when some guys choose to come here.”

With all this in mind, here’s a look at the current lay of the land in the CFL West:

WEST DIVISION MAKEOVER

B.C. LIONS

2018: 9-9, fourth in West Division, lost in East Semi-Final as crossover

Coaching/Personnel:
– DeVone Claybrooks replaces Wally Buono as head coach
– Seven coaches from last year’s staff not offered contracts for 2019, including defensive coordinator Mark Washington and special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold (now both in Hamilton).

NFL Exits:
K: Ty Long (Los Angeles Chargers)

Pending free agents: 34

Key FAs:
Recs: Emmanuel Arceneaux, Bryan Burnham, DeVier Posey, Ricky Collins, Jr.
QBs: Jonathan Jennings, Travis Lulay, Cody Fajardo
DBs Antony Orange, T.J. Lee, Garry Peters
LBs Bo Lokombo, Micah Awe, Otha Foster
RBs Tyrell Sutton, Jeremiah Johnson, Chris Rainey
DL Shawn Lemon
OL Jovan Olafioye, Hunter Steward

QB depth chart:
1. Jonathon Jennings (FA)
2. Travis Lulay (FA)
3. Cody Fajardo (FA)
4. Ricky Lloyd

To be determined: Who plays QB? The departure of Jennings is a slam dunk given what unfolded last year following public criticism from GM Ed Hervey, while Lulay is 35. Full-court press expected on Edmonton’s Mike Reilly.


CALGARY STAMPEDERS

2018: 13-5, First in West Division, Grey Cup champions

Coaching/Personnel:
– Defensive coordinator DeVone Claybrooks left to become head coach in B.C.; replaced by Brent Monson, who had been the LB coach.
– Assistant GM Mike Petrie (stepped away from football)

NFL Exits:
LB: Alex Singleton (Philadelphia Eagles), Jameer Thurman (Chicago Bears)
DL: James Vaughters (Chicago Bears)
WR: Marken Michel (Philadelphia Eagles)

Pending free agents: 30

Key FAs:
QB: Bo Levi Mitchell
DLs: Ja’Gared Davis, Micah Johnson, Cordarro Law, Junior Turner
OLs: Shane Bergman, Ucambre Williams, Brad Erdos, Randy Richards
DBs: Tunke Adeleke, Emanuel Davis, Ciante Evans, Brandon Smith
LBs: Jamar Wall
Recs: DaVaris Daniels, Eric Rogers, Lemar Durant, Juwan Brescacin

QB depth chart:
1. Bo Levi Mitchell (FA)
2. Nick Arbuckle
3. Montell Kozart

To be determined: Bo Levi Mitchell, the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 2018, has reportedly had workouts with seven NFL teams – Denver, Jacksonville, Minnesota, New York Giants, Buffalo, Chicago and Indianapolis – and the Stamps would like an answer from him, whether he will leave or stay, before the opening of the free agent market on Feb. 12th.


EDMONTON ESKIMOS

2018: 9-9, 5th in West Division, missed playoffs.

Coaching/Personnel:
– Phillip Lolley replaces Mike Benevides as defensive coordinator
– Jordan Maksymic elevated from passing-game coordinator to offensive coordinator
– A.J. Gass replaces Cory McDiarmid as special teams coordinator
– Paul Jones, Executive Director/Player Personnel, leaves for Saskatchewan

NFL Exits:
WR: Duke Williams (Buffalo Bills)
DL: Jake Ceresna (New York Giants)
DB: Mercy Maston (Philadelphia Eagles)
WR: Bryant Mitchell (Arizona Cardinals)

Pending free agents: 30

Key FAs:
QB: Mike Reilly
DL: Kwaku Boateng
WRs: Derel Walker, Nate Behar, Vidal Hazelton
DBs: Chris Edwards, Aaron Grymes, Forrest Hightower
OL: Colin Kelly, Justin Sorensen
FB: Calvin McCarty

QB depth chart:
1. Mike Reilly (FA)
2. Kevin Glenn (FA)
3. Danny O’Brien (under contract)
New QB: Jeremiah Briscoe.

To be determined: All eyes are on Reilly, who has spent the last six years in Edmonton, but will be hotly pursued by B.C. and, possibly, Saskatchewan


 

SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS

2018: 12-6, Second in West Division, lost in West Semi-Final to Winnipeg.

Coaching/Personnel:
– VP of Football Operations/GM/Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator Chris Jones left for the Cleveland Browns one week after signing an extension with the Riders and re-signing 10 of 11 assistant coaches.
– Jeremy O’Day elevated to GM from Assistant VP/Football Ops on Friday
– Assistant VP of Football Ops and Player Personnel John Murphy resigned in December; was seen at the Toronto table during the CFL/LFA Draft earlier this week.
– Paul Jones, formerly in Edmonton as the Executive Director/Player Personnel, named the Riders assistant GM in early January.
– Head coach still be determined.

NFL Exits
LB: Samuel Eguavoen (Miami Dolphins)
WR: Jordan Williams-Lambert (Chicago Bears)

Pending free agents: 20

Key free agents:
QBs: Zach Collaros, Brandon Bridge
DL: Willie Jefferson, Eddie Steele, Toby Antigha
DB: Mike Edem, Mic’hael Brooks
WR: Naaman Roosevelt, Caleb Holley

QB depth chart:
1. Zach Collaros (FA)
2. Brandon Bridge (FA)
3. David Watford

To be determined: The departure of Jones has left the Riders in a bit of a lurch, now searching for a head coach who must take on a staff already in place and then find a QB. The concussion issues and price tag for Collaros make it unlikely he will return.


 

WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS

2018: 10-8, third in West Division; defeated Saskatchewan in West Semi-Final, lost to Calgary in West Final.

Coaching/Personnel:
– No changes, although offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice is rumoured to be on Saskatchewan’s head-coach candidates list.

NFL Exits:
-None. Both DE Jackson Jeffcoat and LB Jovan Santos-Knox have had interest

Pending free agents: 22

Key FAs:
DBs: Brandon Alexander, Taylor Loffler, Kevin Fogg
LB: Jovan Santos-Knox
DL: Jackson Jeffcoat, Drake Nevis, Tristan Okpalaugo
OL: Matthias Goossen, Sukh Chungh
Recs: Weston Dressler, Nic Demski

QB depth chart:
1. Matt Nichols
2. Chris Streveler
3 Bryan Bennett
(all under contract)

To be determined: The Bombers aren’t without their concerns, especially with seven starters from last year’s defence all heading to free agency – including all-star safety Taylor Loffler – as well as Canadian starters like Goossen, Chungh and Demski on offence.