Willie Jefferson (5) leaves the field during the first half of CFL action in Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, June 15, 2019. (CFL PHOTO - Jimmy Jeong)
Not too long ago, the shopping list Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters took into the Canadian Football League free agent market was long and it was built on hope and a prayer.
Dating back to 2014-15, the club needed quarterbacks, Canadians and anyone who could block up front. And if you could pass defend, tackle or get after the quarterback, no doubt your name was on Walters’ wish list, too.
The Bombers grappled for big ticket items like they had burst through the doors for a Boxing Day sale. And they desperately combed through the bargain bin looking for help, too.
Well, building a contender over the last four years and winning a championship last November tends to take the desperation off a free agent shopping trip. But it doesn’t mean Walters & Co. won’t do some serious browsing when the market officially opens Tuesday at 11:00 a.m.
The trend to one-year contracts and a player’s right to explore other options means CFL rosters are constantly in a state of flux at this time of year and the Bombers will be no different heading into the free agent period.
And while the Bombers had the fewest number of free agents at the conclusion of the 2019 season and have been busy locking up critical pieces – quarterback Zach Collaros, defensive end Willie Jefferson, offensive linemen Michael Couture, Stanley Bryant, Jermarcus Hardrick and Pat Neufeld, receivers Darvin Adams and Drew Wolitarsky, defensive backs Mercy Maston and Nick Taylor, defensive tackle Jake Thomas as well as pieces like running back Johnny Augustine and receiver/returner Charles Nelson – there’s still some work to be done.
Gone are two quarterbacks from last year’s roster in Matt Nichols (Toronto) and Chris Streveler (Arizona), two defensive backs from the boundary side of the secondary in cornerback Winston Rose (Cincinnati) and Marcus Sayles (Minnesota), and an emerging Canadian defensive end talent in Jonathan Kongbo (San Francisco).
As the market opens Tuesday and following Monday afternoon’s announcement that Jefferson had signed a two-year deal, four other players who started games for the club last year will soon be free to sign elsewhere. That list includes defensive tackle Drake Nevis, end Craig Roh, defensive back Chandler Fenner, safety Jeff Hecht and also features defensive back Derek Jones and linebacker Korey Jones, both of whom do most of their work on special teams.
Teams that scout effectively don’t need to fill all of their roster needs through the CFL free agent market, but instead unearth gems from down south and through the draft.
That said, as this year’s talent feeding frenzy opens, what areas are the biggest priority for the Bombers? And who are the best candidates to fill those spots on the depth chart?
Here’s a position-by-position look at the Bombers’ current roster as they head into Tuesday’s free agent market opening (*indicates Canadian).
Pending Bombers free agents: Drake Nevis, Craig Roh.
2019 games played/starts: Jefferson (18/18); Nevis (18/18); Roh (12/5); Steven Richardson (18/14); Jake Thomas (18/4); Thiadric Hansen (18/0); Jackson Jeffcoat (12/12); Jonathan Kongbo (12/0); Alex McCalister (1/1)
Practice roster: Connor Griffiths
New faces: Justin Alexandre, David Kenny, Meffy Koloamatangi.
Moving on: Jonathan Kongbo, signed with the San Francisco 49ers in December.
Synopsis: All eyes were on Jefferson and his decision does impact so many, not just on the D-line. Signing him to a two-year contract eats up a good chunk of the available cash heading into free agency, but he was a must-have for a club looking to repeat. Jefferson is the kind of difference-maker who thrives moving all around the defensive line and as offences scheming against that, the extra attention he gets does free up others to shine.
Defensive Linemen hitting the market: Dylan Wynn (Ham.); Micah Johnson (Sask.); Freddie Bishop III (Tor.); Cleyon Laing* (Tor.); Adrian Tracy (Ham.); Chris Casher (Cal.); Alex Bazzie (Edm.); Da’Quan Bowers (Edm.); Shawn Lemon (B.C.); Odell Willis (B.C.); Frank Beltre (Tor.); Davon Coleman (Tor.)
Pending free agents: Korey Jones, Thomas Miles*.
2019 games played/starts: Adam Bighill (15/15); Kyrie Wilson (18/18); Anthony Gaitor (14/14 – dime back); Mercy Maston (3/2 – both as a DB and at the dime); Thomas Miles* (18/0); Jesse Briggs* (4/1); Shayne Gauthier* (18/0); Brandon Calver (5/0); D.J. Lalama* (7/0); Nick Temple (3/2).
New faces: Dylan Donahue; Otha Peters, Jr.
Moving on: Gaitor left late last season; Lalama was released and signed with Montreal; Temple was cut in July; Dale Warren spent last year on the practice roster but has since signed in Ottawa.
Synopsis: The Bombers are set with their starters in Bighill, Wilson and Maston, who played the dime spot so well late in the year and in the playoff push after Gaitor’s exit. There’s always room for depth and the Bombers will likely address that by adding more new faces rather than spend heavily in free agency.
Linebackers hitting the market: Cory Greenwood* (Cal); Larry Dean (Edm.); Chris Ackie* (Mtl); Anthony Cioffi (Ott. – dime); Justin Tuggle (Ham.); Micah Awe (Tor.); Justin Herdman-Reed* (Tor.); Nick Shorthill* (Ham.); Don Unamba (Edm); Maleki Harris (B.C.); Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga (Edm.).
Pending free agents: Jeff Hecht*, Derek Jones*, Chandler Fenner
2019 games played/starts: Winston Rose (18/18), Marcus Sayles (18/18); Chandler Fenner (17/17); Brandon Alexander (10/10); Mike Jones (7/1), Nick Taylor (4/4); Mercy Maston (3/2); Jeff Hecht* (18/14); Derek Jones* (18/0); Kerfalla Exumé* (18/0); Nick Hallett* (18/0); Dexter Janke* (3/0); Chris Humes (5/2); Deondre Wright* (3/0).
New faces: Malik Boynton, Clifton Duck
Moving on: The club has moved on from Janke, Humes, Wright and Rios.
Synopsis: The Bombers’ secondary underwent significant change before and during last season and that theme will carry into 2020 with the departures of Rose and Sayles to the NFL. The club has some decisions to make about the pieces they have in place already, including whether to leave Brandon Alexander at safety. There is a risk in simply adding players with no experience as communication in the back end is so critical. The late-season contributions Maston and Taylor made, both CFL vets, is a testament to that. Expect the club to explore the available DB options out there on the market
Defensive Backs hitting the market: Ciante Evans (Mtl.); Patrick Levels (Mtl.); Antony Cioffi (Ott.); Jonathan Rose (Ott.); Abdul Kanneh (Tor.); Richard Leonard (Ham.); Monshadrik Hunter (Edm.); Josh Johnson (Edm.);Brandon Dozier (B.C.); Chris Edwards (B.C.); Garry Peters (B.C.); Anthony Thompson* (B.C.); Jonathon Mincy (Tor.); Arjen Colquhoun* (Edm.).
Pending free agents: None.
2019 games played/starts: Matt Nichols (9/9); Chris Streveler (17/8); Zach Collaros (2/1); Sean McGuire (18/0); Trevor Knight (1/0).
New faces: none, as of yet
Moving on: Nichols has signed in Toronto after getting an earlier release; Streveler is now a member of the Arizona Cardinals; Knight ended the season on the practice roster.
Synopsis: A significant makeover for the Bombers QB room with the departures of Nichols and Streveler. The club loves what it has in Collaros and McGuire, but there must be concerns about the starter’s durability and the unknown quantity of the backup. But the cap crunch might make it unlikely they go after any of the names listed below.
Quarterbacks hitting the market: Antonio Pipkin (Mtl); James Franklin (Tor.); Jonathan Jennings (Ott); Logan Kilgore (Edm.); Brandon Bridge (B.C.).
Pending free agents: None.
2019 games played/starts: Darvin Adams (13/13); Charles Nelson (4/0); Lucky Whitehead (15/15); Nic Demski (17/17); Janarion Grant (11/0); Daniel Petermann (18/2); Drew Wolitarsky (17/17); Kenny Lawler (16/16); Rasheed Bailey (5/4); Chris Matthews (6/6); Malcolm Williams* (4/0); Kenneth Walker (2/0).
New faces: Julian Feoli-Gudino (played with Bombers from 2014-17); Travis Rudolph; Kayaune Ross.
Moving on: Matthews was released last summer, signed by Montreal and is a pending free agent. Also let go where Williams and Walker.
Synopsis: There is some solid Canadian talent to go along with the likes of Adams, Lawler, Bailey and Whitehead. The wide receiver market commanded top dollar last year, but the subsequent bang for the buck was all over the place. Expect the Bombers to make some calls again, but the prices might have to come down to see some of the league’s stars surface here.
Receivers hitting the market: Derel Walker (Tor.); Dominque Rhymes (Ott.); Armanti Edwards (Tor.); DeVier Posey (Mtl.) S.J. Green (Tor.); Jimmy Ralph* (Tor.); Luke Tasker (Ham.); Manny Arceneaux (Sask.); Naaman Roosevelt (Sask.); Juwan Brescacin* (Cal.); DaVaris Daniels (Edm.).
Pending free agents: none.
2019 games played/starts: Andrew Harris* (16/16); Mike Miller (18/0); Johnny Augustine (16/2); John Rush (13/0); Brady Oliveira (2/0); Larry Rose III (1/0).
New faces: none.
Moving on: Rose III was released in late September.
Synopsis: Harris will be 33 in April but that’s clearly just a number. He’s coming off a season in which he won his third straight rushing title and his performance in the Grey Cup was simply spectacular. Expect him to continue his assault on the Bombers and CFL record books. There is homegrown depth here, too, in Augustine and Oliveira, who had his rookie season cut short by a leg injury in June but was back practising by season’s end.
Running Backs hitting the market: C.J. Gable (Edm.); Don Jackson (Cal.); Cameron Marshall (Sask.); Tyrell Sutton (Ham.); Jeremiah Johnson (Mtl.); Marcus Thigpen (Sask.); Terry Williams (Cal).
Pending free agents: None.
2019 games played/starts: Stanley Bryant (18/18); Jermarcus Hardrick (18/18); Michael Couture* (18/18); Drew Desjarlais* (18/10); Patrick Neufeld* (6/6); Geoff Gray* (13/12); Cody Speller* (13/8); Tui Eli* (5/0); Darrell Williams (practice roster).
Moving on: Jamar McGloster, who spent part of last year on the practice roster, has signed in Ottawa.
New faces: Jarell Broxton, Kevin Lawrence.
Synopsis: This is the deepest and most talented offensive line the Bombers have had in years. The club locked up Couture on the eve of free agency, and Speller did handle those chores capably in the playoff run when the club’s starting centre was injured. Good Canadian and import depth across the board. Hard to imagine the club kicking the tires on any OL free agents.
Offensive Linemen hitting the market: Ryan Bomben* (Tor.); Ryker Mathews (Ham.); Tyler Holmes* (Tor.); Dariusz Bladek* (Sask.); Philip Blake* (Sask.); Thaddeus Coleman (Sask.); Derek Dennis (Cal.); Travis Bond (Edm.); Tommie Draheim (Edm.); Josiah St. John* (Edm.); David Foucault* (B.C.); Justin Renfrow (B.C.).
Pending free agents: none.
2019 Specialists: Kicker: Justin Medlock (18/0); Long snapper: Chad Rempel* (15/0); Maxime Latour* (3/0); Punt/kickoff returners: Janarian Grant (11/0); Lucky Whitehead (15/15); Charles Nelson (4/0).
Moving on: none
Synopsis: The Bombers are set across the board in the specialist department. One of the best kickers in CFL history in Medlock, good long snappers in Rempel and Latour, and outstanding kick-return depth in Grant, Whitehead and Nelson, all of whom could get more work on offence.
Specialists hitting the market: KR Martese Jackson (Edm.); KR Chris Rainey (Tor.); P Josh Bartel (B.C.); Ronnie Pfeffer* (Tor.); Zack Medeiros* (Tor.); LS Martin Bédard (Mtl.).