Drew Wolitarsky (82) 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)
Kyle Walters and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers knew the first punch was coming. And the second and third didn’t exactly drop them to their knees, either.
There’s no sense running from it here – the Bombers took some shots to their Canadian content this offseason with the retirement of all-star centre Matthias Goossen to join the Delta Police Department, plus the exits of guard Sukh Chungh, a West Division All-Star, and safety Taylor Loffler – a CFL all-star in each of his three seasons – to free agency.
But dealing with change is simply part of the gig in professional sports. Players certainly know it, coaches understand it and general managers live it. Not surprisingly, the teams that manage change best are usually at or near the top of the standings on a yearly basis.
We bring this up today to open Part 3 of our ‘Bombers At The Draft Series’ as we look at the state of the club’s collection of homegrown content and how the pieces were acquired in advance of the Canadian Football League Draft on May 2.
The Bombers currently own the fourth and fifth selections in the first round and five picks in the Top 34 of what is generally regarded as a deep and talented draft.
And given GM Kyle Walters & Co.’s draft record over the past few years, there’s less panic in Bomber Nation at the notion of finding replacements to Goossen, Chungh and Loffler than there might have been just a few years ago when the club made a habit of bungling their drafts.
With that, the Bombers have their fingers crossed their replacements are already in-house and the Canadian cupboard will be further replenished in next month’s draft.
Consider, as evidence, that the Bombers have made 36 draft picks over the past five years that yielded four starters in Goossen, Chungh, Loffler and receiver Drew Wolitarsky, two others that are front-runners to start this year in safety Derek Jones and centre Michael Couture, and nine other players who dressed for games in 2018 – Jesse Briggs, Shayne Gauthier, Trent Corney, Frank Renaud, Abu Conteh, Rashaun Simonise, Daniel Petermann, Geoff Gray and Tylor Henry.
Corney, Renaud and Henry are no longer in the picture for this season, but three players from last year’s draft class will be competing in camp in defensive back Jake Firlotte, and offensive linemen Matthew Ouellet De Carlo and Ben Koczwara.
There are some givens and some question marks there, but the Bombers recent draft track record – coupled with the work done by the franchise to make it a desirable free agent destination again – means there is a very real sense the club has avoided the potential damage change brought this offseason and are now poised to counter-punch.
With all that in mind and with the Bombers currently holding nine selections – 4th, 5th, 14th, 25th, 34th, 43rd, 52nd, 61st and 70th – in the May 2nd draft, bluebombers.com looks at the current crop of Canadians and how they were acquired…
THE BLUE BOMBER CANADIANS
RB Andrew Harris
Acquired: Signed as a free agent on Feb. 9, 2016 after six years (102 games) with the B.C. Lions.
411 on Harris: He turns 32 in a few days, but has shown none of the wear and tear that comes with age – especially at the running back position. Harris was the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian in 2017 and a runner-up for the same award last season after winning his second-consecutive rushing title – setting a career high in the process with 1,390 yards. His work ethic, plus the competitive fire that still rages in his belly, simply dares those who might predict a sudden decline in his game.
G Patrick Neufeld
Acquired: Trade with Saskatchewan on Oct. 10, 2013 along with a 4thround pick in 2015 CFL Draft (FB Chris Normand) for DE Alex Hall and a 2nd round pick in the 2014 CFL Draft (DL Dylan Ainsworth). Re-signed November 16, 2017.
411 on Neufeld: Has settled into a spot at left guard alongside Stanley Bryant and developed into a steady and reliable force on the inside of the Bombers line. Neufeld missed 27 games during his first three years in Winnipeg, but has suited up for all 36 over the last two seasons. Versatile enough to play tackle and guard.
SB Nic Demski
Acquired: Signed as a free agent, Feb. 13, 2018 after three seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
411 on Demski: Began to blossom in Paul LaPolice’s offence in 2018, his first for his hometown squad after three years in Saskatchewan. Demski finished third in both receiving and rushing yards for the Bombers last year, while also leading the squad in kickoff returns.
WR Drew Wolitarsky
Acquired: Selected by the Bombers on June 27, 2017 in one of the CFL’s Supplemental Drafts (the club forfeited a third-round pick in this year’s draft).
411 on Wolitarsky: Had a break-out campaign in his first year as a starter, finishing with 45 receptions for 650 yards and five touchdowns. Suited up for all 18 games and his receiving totals were the most by a Bombers Canadian receiver since Gerald Wilcox in 1995. Available to line up as both a wideout and slotback.
IN THE MIX TO START
OL Michael Couture
Acquired: 2016 CFL Draft, 2nd round (10th overall)
411 on Couture: The Bombers have been grooming Couture for three years for this exact scenario – he’s the leading candidate to replace Goossen at centre. He’s dressed for 54 consecutive games dating back to his rookie season and was drafted because of his versatility in college, where he lined up at tackle, centre and guard.
DB Derek Jones
Acquired: 2014 CFL Draft, 3rd round (29th overall)
411 on Jones: The Bombers have long raved about the athletic abilities of Jones, who has also been one of the club’s best special teams players. He’s the front-runner to replace Loffler at centre, and even after missing 15 games last year due to injury, could give the defence a different look at the safety position. He’s not going to be the physical presence over the middle that Loffler was, but could allow the club to do more defensively because of his speed and quickness.
DT Jake Thomas
Acquired: 2012 CFL Draft, 4th round (29th overall)
411 on Thomas: What you see is what you get with the veteran Thomas. He’s a lunch-pail and hard-hat tackle who is the longest-serving member of the Bombers. Has only missed three games in the last six seasons and posted seven sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles in the last two years in a rotational role up front. The potential shift to three Americans on the O-line could mean the team uses a Canadian on their D-line.
DT Maxx Forde
Acquired: Signed as a free agent on February 24, 2019 after two seasons with the B.C. Lions.
411 on Forde: A seventh-round draft pick of the Lions in 2015, Forde appeared in 22 games over two years in B.C. The Bombers return import defensive tackles Drake Nevis and Brandin Bryant from last season, but Forde gives them more depth should they decide to use a Canadian on the D-line.
OL Cody Speller
Acquired: Signed by the Bombers on December 11, 2017
411 on Speller: Slipped through the draft and was signed as an undrafted free agent and just kept getting better with his daily work at practice last season. He dressed for two games last year and shouldn’t be overlooked when discussing who might replace Goossen at centre.
OL Geoff Gray
Acquired: 2017 CFL Draft, 1st round (8th overall)
411 on Gray: The Bombers got their first real look at Gray last fall when he joined the club after spending time in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers, New York Jets and Cleveland Browns. He’s intelligent, athletic and his power-lifting background certainly means he won’t get bullied at the line of scrimmage. Could push to start at right guard, although the Bombers are hinting they might start three Americans up front this season.
WR Rashaun Simonise
Acquired: 2018 CFL Draft, 2nd round (12th overall)
411 on Simonise: There’s a smoothness to Simonise’s skillset that still hints at an unlimited ceiling. He dressed for all 20 regular season and playoff games as a rookie, flashing the talent that led him to sign with the Cincinnati Bengals before being drafted by the Bombers.
SB/WR Daniel Petermann
Acquired: 2018 CFL Draft, 3rd round (26th overall)
411 on Petermann: Another potential gem from last year’s draft class, Petermann, like Simonise, could be in the discussion if the Bombers decide to start three Canadian receivers in 2019 along with Wolitarsky and Demski. He’s got a gritty edge to his game to go along with an elusive element that is showcased whenever the ball is in his mitts.
RETURNING FOOT SOLDIERS
FB Mike Miller
Acquired: Signed as a free agent on March 3, 2017 after six seasons (104 games) with the Edmonton Eskimos.
411 on Miller: Simply put, Miller is one of the best special teams players in the CFL. He finished second on the club with 22 tackles on specials last year, two behind Chandler Fenner. Miller had the same number in 2017, leading the team.
DB Jeff Hecht
Acquired: Signed as a free agent on July 11, 2018
411 on Hecht: The Bombers found a solid depth piece when they added Hecht last summer following a rash of injuries to their Canadian content. An eight-year veteran with Montreal, Calgary and Saskatchewan and 100 games to his name before his arrival, Hecht appeared in 14 games last year, making two starts, and did a little bit of everything with eight tackles, seven more on special teams, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
LB Thomas Miles
Acquired: Signed as a free agent on March 4, 2017 after three years (40 games) with the Toronto Argonauts
411 on Miles: A solid pick up for the Bombers in 2017 after spending the first three years of his career in Toronto. The Winnipeg product has posted 26 tackles on special teams over the last two years – including a career-best 14 last season.
LB Jesse Briggs
Acquired: 2014 CFL Draft, 2nd round (17th overall)
411 on Briggs: He’s been a steady under-the-radar contributor on special teams and durable, too, having missed just three games in five years with the team.
LB Shayne Gauthier
Acquired: 2016 CFL Draft, 4th round (28th overall)
411 on Gauthier: Gauthier missed eight games due to two stretches on the injured list last season after starting the season with a bang. Did manage to post 11 special teams tackles in just 10 contests.
LS Chad Rempel
Acquired: Signed as a free agent on May 30, 2015 after originally selected by Edmonton in 2004 and playing 10 years in the CFL with Winnipeg (9 games in 2005), Toronto (99 games), Hamilton (11 games) and Saskatchewan (6 games).
411 on Rempel: Has carved out a long career as the best long-snapper in the CFL. A self-taught craftsman whose work is critical to the success of kicker Justin Medlock.
FB John Rush
Acquired: First signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015, Rush was released in training camp and returned for 2017.
411 on Rush: The former Presidents’ Trophy winner as the top defensive player in Canadian college football has switched from linebacker to fullback and appeared in 13 games a year ago, exclusively on special teams.
RB Johnny Augustine
Acquired: Signed as a free agent on May 16, 2018 following stints with Edmonton and Saskatchewan.
411 on Augustine: His skills as a rusher have never been doubted, as he put up huge totals during his college days at Guelph and then cranked out 81 yards on just eight carries in a preseason game last year to force himself into the picture. He’s worked to find a role on special teams after not playing a lick of it at Guelph.
DB Abu Conteh
Acquired: 2017 Draft, 3rd round (23rd overall).
411 on Conteh: Released during camp, Conteh returned after a swack of injuries and appeared in 12 games with five special teams tackles. Good size at 6-1, 200 pounds.
LB DJ Lalama
Acquired: Signed as a free agent on February 16, 2019
411 on Lalama: The University of Manitoba product was a 2016 draft pick of Edmonton and spent 2017 in Montreal before blowing out his shoulder and then suffering through a blood clot in his lung last year, wiping out his season. He had 10 special teams tackles with Montreal in ’17.
Acquired: Signed as a free agent on February 7, 2019
411 on Janke: A 2015 draft pick of Calgary, Janke suited up for 16 games over three years for the Stamps. Janke had to overcome three ACL injuries before playing in his first CFL game. Released last May, Janke turned to bobsleigh and made Team Canada as a brakeman.
Acquired: 2018 CFL Draft, 7th round (58th overall)
411 on Firlotte: Attended camp last year, was released and then added to the practice roster last fall before re-signing in late December. Could line up as a safety, but might be more comfortable as a weak-side linebacker.
Acquired: 2018 CFL Draft, 8th round (67th overall)
411 on Janke: Was in camp with the Bombers last year, but was released and returned to the University of Waterloo where he was a OUA First-Team All-Star guard.
Matthew Ouellet De Carlo
Acquired: 2018 CFL Draft, 6th round (49th overall)
411 on Ouellet De Carlo: Similar story to Koczwara – was in camp and then returned to Bishop’s University. Was an Atlantic University Sport All-Star in both 2017 and 2018.