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February 7, 2020

Setting up free agency

Winnipeg Blue Bombers #5 Willie Jefferson during practice August 20, 2019

It’s a position the Winnipeg Blue Bombers haven’t been in since, well, seemingly forever. And it’s a perspective they most certainly would like to enjoy for a spell.

The crazy offseason talent carousel that is Canadian Football League free agency officially begins at 11 a.m. on February 11th, and how the Bombers approach the market in wake of the franchise’s 11th Grey Cup championship will be more than a little intriguing.

After all, a Bombers’ football brain trust hasn’t been here since the winter of 1990-91 and the steps the club makes to both keep a championship squad intact while tinkering with the roster and dealing with exits to the NFL will make for a different challenge for GM Kyle Walters & Co.

We will post a free agent primer on Monday, but in the meantime here are the key questions/issues the club is juggling as the free agent signing period nears…

WHO’S BACK

The Bombers began the CFL offseason with the fewest pending free agents in the league at 24. Since then they’ve re-signed quarterback Zach Collaros, left tackle Stanley Bryant, right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick, guard Patrick Neufeld, wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, defensive backs Mercy Maston and Nick Taylor and defensive tackle Jake Thomas – all starters – as well as running back Johnny Augustine and receiver/returner Charles Nelson.

WHO’S PENDING

There’s still time for players to sign before the market opens on Tuesday, but the remaining Bombers who are scheduled to become free agents are defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Craig Roh, wide receiver Darvin Adams, centre Michael Couture, defensive backs Chandler Fenner, Derek Jones and Jeff Hecht, linebackers Korey Jones and Thomas Miles and defensive tackle Drake Nevis.

Adams and Nevis started in the 107th Grey Cup – Hecht, Miles and both Derek and Korey Jones dressed as reserves – while Couture and Roh were on the injured list and Fenner was listed on the roster but did not suit up.

THE QB PICTURE

The Bombers ended 2019 with just one of their four quarterbacks – rookie Sean McGuire – under contract for 2020, and Collaros, Matt Nichols and Chris Streveler all scheduled to become free agents. Chris Streveler signed this week with the Arizona Cardinals and after the club made the ‘gut-wrenching’ decision to commit to Collaros, Nichols has landed in Toronto with the Argonauts.

The salary committed to Collaros, reportedly in the $450,000 range, and the price of trying to keep a championship squad intact means adding another veteran QB might be too tight a squeeze financially.

THE WILLIE WATCH

Defensive end Wilie Jefferson – the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player last year – is atop many free agent wish lists and he’s undoubtedly been swamped with offers during the league’s new negotiating window.

Jefferson’s decision could affect the Bombers’ initial free agency, as the organization clearly wants him to return but also has to hold back committing to or moving on from his salary until they get an answer from the defensive game changer.

WAIT… WHAT IS THE CFL’S NEW NEGOTIATING WINDOW?

In an attempt to counter the tampering that existed in the weeks before free agency in past years, the CFL’s new collective bargaining agreement calls for a window that will allow teams to communicate with pending free agents prior to the market opening.

The week-long market opened on February 2nd and closes at 11 a.m. this Sunday.

During that time, teams can make formal offers to players, with the base salary and bonuses/incentives all then submitted to CFL headquarters and the CFL Players Association. Once that window closes teams then have 48 hours to exclusively negotiate with their pending free agents while knowing what offers are already on the table. A player then has the opportunity to select any offer prior before 11 a.m. on Tuesday, or then become a free agent.

HOLES IN THE AIR DEFENCE

The Bombers lost two key pieces to their secondary in December when CFL All-Star Winston Rose signed with the Cincinnati Bengals while Marcus Sayles, a West Division All-Star, became a member of the Minnesota Vikings.

Not only are they outstanding players, they also manned the same side of the Bombers’ secondary, leaving a gaping hole on the boundary.

Taylor and Mercy Maston, who played the dime, have both been re-signed while safety Brandon Alexander and field corner Mike Jones – who was excellent in the Grey Cup – are also under contract.

So, it’s no coincidence the Bombers have targeted defensive backs since the end of the season and might be shopping in that department come Tuesday. Included among those already signed are Chris Lyles, who played seven games with Saskatchewan in 2017; Malik Boynton, who attended camp here last year and showed some flashes before being one of the final cuts, and former Appalachian State star Clifton Duck, who was in camp with the Chicago Bears last year.

THE CANADIAN CONTENT

The Bombers lost Canadian defensive end Jonathan Kongbo to the San Francisco 49ers in December. One of the club’s two first-round draft picks in 2019 – Drew Desjarlais was the other – Kongbo worked well in the D-line rotation for the final two thirds of last season and his departure affects the homegrown depth on defence.

The Bombers will likely still use six of seven starting Canadians on offence in Andrew Harris, Nic Demski, Drew Wolitarsky, Pat Neufeld, Desjarlais and Cody Speller up front – the latter possibly as Michael Couture, who started all 18 regular season games at centre last year before being injured prior to the playoffs, inches to free agency.

Worth noting: re-signing Collaros also meant the Bombers surrendered their 2020 first round draft pick, 9th overall, to the Toronto Argonauts as part of the deal. That means Winnipeg’s first pick in the draft will be 18th overall.

Monday: A position by position look at the Bombers roster on the eve of free agency.