The Winnipeg Blue Bombers landed one of the prized Canadian Football League free agents in Willie Jefferson and had their hooks in some big-name receivers before they wiggled free.
And so when it came to evaluating the work done through the first four days of free agency, GM Kyle Walters wasn’t going to separate his shoulders trying to pat himself on the back.
The team had already landed a good haul before free agency, locking up key starters like Adam Bighill, Stanley Bryant, Jermarcus Hardrick, Jackson Jeffcoat, Justin Medlock, Brandon Alexander – and Nic Demski, just after the market opened – along with key Canadians like Michael Couture, Jake Thomas, Mike Miller, Shayne Gauthier, Chad Rempel, Jesse Briggs and John Rush.
“We focused on retaining most of our guys and trying to add a piece here and there,” began Walters Friday in a 30-minute media session. “The addition of Willie Jefferson will be big in the West with these quarterbacks… you’re going to have to be able to get after them and we’ve got a real good group on that defensive line to be able to get after the quarterback. And with Adam in the middle we’ve got a strong defensive front. I think we’ve improved there, for sure.”
Walters riffed on a number of subjects during his address. Here’s the breakdown on some of his key takes.
1. IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ‘EM, SIGN ‘EM
Jefferson gave the Bombers nightmares over the last few years (see: Banjo Bowl, 2018) and even though the club has two solid ends in Jeffcoat and Craig Roh, adding another force off the edge will be mammoth in a division that now features Mike Reilly (B.C.), Bo Levi Mitchell (Calgary), Trevor Harris (Ottawa) and Zach Collaros (Saskatchewan) at quarterback.
“We just thought he was the most dynamic, best defensive lineman out there,” said Walters. “His ability to make plays – and we saw it, unfortunately, against us out here when he almost single-handedly beat us – meant that we wanted to add another complement to Adam with that big playmaking ability. He provides a little presence up there on the defensive front.
“At the end of the year the discussion was Adam Bighill, Willie Jefferson and Micah Johnson (then of Calgary, now with Saskatchewan) were probably in the running for the Western best defensive player. We now have two of those playing defence for us this year. And as I said, in the West with these quarterbacks you’re going to have to be able to get after them and play stout defence.”
2. THE RECEIVER CHASE
“You go after guys and it’s hard to predict why certain guys make their decisions,” said Walters. “Everyone has got their own reasons. We were the No. 1 scoring offence in the league last year. We were well rounded – obviously, Andrew Harris is the workhorse and catches a lot of balls – and Matt (Nichols) is efficient with it.
“But yes, the receiving corps is an area we discussed. We identified the top tier guys, as we would at every position, and we went pretty aggressively after the ones we could and put comparable bids in, and from my understanding, we were right there. It just seemed each decision didn’t go our way.”
3. THE RECEIVER CHASE – PLAN B
What happens next with the receiving corps will be one of the key stories during training camp.
The Bombers return Darvin Adams, Demski, Kenbrell Thompkins and Drew Wolitarsky from last year’s crew and still have a couple of promising young Canadians in Rashaun Simonise and Daniel Petermann, both now entering their second year.
Walters also referenced Corey Washington and Charles Nelson, who had their moments popping off the page in the regular season finale, along with Kenny Lawler, who was on the practice roster. The team has signed some intriguing prospects like Dom Williams, Garrett Johnson and Rasheed Bailey.
“We do like the young guys,” said Walters. “When you look at the high-end receivers, the majority of them have come into the league and paid their dues. Very rarely does a guy come in his first year and is a superstar, thousand-yard receiver. These guys spend a year on the practice roster or are pretty much invisible for a year or two before they have breakouts.”
4. THE RECEIVER CHASE – PLAN C
The money the Bombers had targeted to spend on receivers is still available and the club now plans to take a deep breath and re-evaluate. They will closely monitor the receivers in the NFL with CFL experience, and possibly be ready to pounce – as they did last year with Bighill when he became available in May.
There are some free agent receivers still available, like Chris Matthews, Terrence Tolliver, Vidal Hazelton, among others. And Weston Dressler’s name did come up, too.
“We’re exploring all options at all positions,” said Walters. “But clearly, the receiver spot is one we talked about adding a piece if we could and haven’t yet.”
5. THE RATIO DISCUSSION
We’ve hammered away on this for over a month, but where the Bombers will use their seven Canadian starters will be an intriguing plot to watch unfold into the regular season.
The club returns running back Andrew Harris, receivers Wolitarsky and Demski, along with left guard Pat Neufeld. Either Michael Couture or Cody Speller will likely start at centre for the retired Matthias Goossen, and Derek Jones is the leading candidate to start at safety now that Taylor Loffler has left for Montreal. Walters pointed out that at the end of training camp last year, there was some debate about Jones having won the job. He’s coming off an ACL injury, but it occurred early in 2018 and the team expects him to be ready to go this year.
Walters indicated again on Friday the club could start three imports on the O-line – Bryant, Hardrick and perhaps Manase Foketi in Sukh Chungh’s old right-guard spot – and then line up a Canadian at defensive tackle.
“Michael Couture has paid his dues and is ready to play,” said Walters. “Cody Speller has been a very pleasant surprise and Geoff Gray is a first-round draft pick who spent a year in the NFL. We’re comfortable with that group of Canadians.”
6. WITH THIS ROSE…
Walters weighed in on the addition of Winston Rose, who started 17 games last year for the B.C. Lions at cornerback and tied for the team lead with five interceptions.
“He’s a very good corner and in our evaluations at the end of the year our DB coaches targeted him as a guy they really liked who had a lot of potential,” said Walters. “We really liked him. He can play boundary or field (corner) and we’ve had some success from a scouting standpoint in finding corners. I like the way our secondary is looking this year.”
The club is happy having both Marcus Sayles and Brandon Alexander back to play inside at halfback, along with Anthony Gaitor and Chandler Fenner, and continue to tout the skills of Chris Humes, who started one game last year.
7. GOOD LUCK SUKH/TAYLOR/JOVAN
The Bombers made what they thought were solid offers to Chungh, Loffler, and Santos-Knox. But free agency allows players to explore other options, and frankly, those three were able to find more on the open market.
“We put in a fair offer (to Chungh) and come to find out he got substantially more,” said Walters. “It was similar to the Jovan case… we put a solid offer in that we thought we could do and when the numbers come out it’s ‘No wonder (they signed elsewhere).’ You can’t blame the guys for going there.
“Sukh called and thanked us for drafting him and was very respectful. We wish them the best of luck. It hurts to lose guys that you draft and develop and scout like Jovan, but organizationally you can wear it like a badge of honour where we’re drafting these guys, scouting them and developing them and they’re going to get big, fat raises from other teams.”
8. NEXT LEADER UP… BRANDON ALEXANDER
The Bombers locked up the veteran defensive back just before free agency and the signing flew under the radar with all the giddiness that leads into the market opening. But the Bombers fully expect him to be an even stronger voice of the secondary, especially now that Chris Randle has departed and signed with Ottawa.
“Brandon is ready to take over that role,” said Walters. “That’s the type of young man that he is. It was critically important we got him back. Not only is he a good halfback, he’s physical, he’s tough… it’s the leadership qualities that are needed in that defensive back room with Chris Randle moving on.”
9. THE PRODUCTION OF DEMSKI
Re-signing Nic Demski just a few hours after free agency opened was also important. He finished third on the club in both rushing and receiving yardage and Walters believes he’ll continue to blossom in Paul LaPolice’s offence.
“His versatility and his skillset is a nice fit,” said Walters. “It’s no secret he wanted to be here in Winnipeg and LaPo loves his skillset for the way it works in his offence and his ability to take some carries off of Andrew and do some of the underneath stuff and speed-sweep stuff. It took a while to get to a (contract) number we both thought would be fair.”