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February 11, 2020

“It’s night and day.” | GM Walters talks free agency

He’d already re-signed the biggest name on everyone’s Canadian Football League free agent wish list and cranked out a ton of the heavy lifting on keeping the core of a Grey Cup team intact.

And so when Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters stepped up to the podium Tuesday morning – roughly one hour before the opening of the CFL free agent market – there were no hints of desperation or panic in his voice.

That says two things: 1. Winning is indeed a magical elixir, and 2. Where the Bombers are now is light years removed from where this franchise was when Walters & Co. first dealt with free agency, circa 2014-15.

“It’s night and day,” Walters told the assembled media at a press conference Tuesday. “I remember those days of free agency where we’d be down in the office and we’d be looking at eight-to-10 guys turning over… It was Stanley (Bryant) and Chris Randle at the time… we were having to pay $20,000 more than market value just to convince them to come to Winnipeg in those days and that’s the truth.

“That’s just the way it is with teams that are in that situation where you want to lure players away. You just have to make it worth their while financially and we had to do that.”

“Now we’re not in that situation,” Walters added. “We’ve come the full 180 where we want to keep our guys, and it’s much easier and more cost effective to try and re-sign your own guys than to go out and try and sign free agents.”

The Bombers locked up three veteran pieces in the days before free agency, signing receiver Darvin Adams on Sunday and centre Michael Couture and defensive end Willie Jefferson – the most coveted player going to market – on Monday.

Linebacker Thomas Miles was re-signed just before free agency opened and veteran defensive back Josh Johnson, who spent last year with the Edmonton Eskimos, was added as soon as the talent feeding frenzy started.

In reality, the free agent priority for the Bombers was taking care of their own, and dating back to last November, the club has re-signed quarterback Zach Collaros; O-linemen Couture, Bryant, Jermarcus Hardrick and Pat Neufeld; Jefferson and Jake Thomas along the D-line; receivers Adams, Drew Wolitarsky and Charles Nelson; defensive backs Mercy Maston and Nick Taylor; running back Johnny Augustine as well as Miles, the homegrown linebacker.

“That’s the type of organization you want, where the culture is there and the players want to stay,” said Walters. “Certainly winning the Grey Cup helps, obviously. We have the culture and good team environment and now you add a Grey Cup championship on top of that it just builds on what we’re trying to do here and we want guys to stay and be a part of this.

“You’re seeing that – the players are choosing to come back versus leaving, which feels good organizationally that the players want to stay here and keep building on this and try and go get another Grey Cup next year.”

Here are the highlights – from a Bombers perspective, at least – of the Walters session with the media and Day 1 of free agency…

GETTING JEFFERSON BACK…

Jefferson will be bringing his game-changing act back to the Bombers for two more years after signing a two-year extension on Monday. He reportedly left more money on the table to return to the Bombers.

 

“Willie and I had good, positive discussions throughout the offseason and into the new year it picked up,” said Walters. “We discussed the contract, discussed the number and came to a number we both thought was fair, but he wanted to take his time and do his due diligence for him and his family and I respected that. That’s part of the process. (Monday) he made the decision to come back to Winnipeg. It was really nice around here yesterday when he picked us because he certainly could have gone anywhere he wanted.”

 

 

A NEW FACE, A FAMILIAR FACE…

Welcomed back Tuesday just before the free agent period opened was veteran linebacker Thomas Miles, the product of Churchill High School and the University of Manitoba who is a solid special teams player and has such a presence in the community as the 2019 Ed Kotowich Good Guy Award winner.

 

The Bombers did address one of their needs in the secondary with the addition of Josh Johnson, who has played in 64 CFL games – 58 of them starts – with B.C., Ottawa, Hamilton and Edmonton. The 29-year-old Purdue product started 17 games for the Esks last year at both halfback and cornerback with 43 tackles and two interceptions and then had three picks in a playoff win over Montreal.

 

Walters spoke prior to the Johnson signing becoming official, and indicated the secondary was a priority after losing Winston Rose (Cincinnati) and Marcus Sayles (Minnesota) to the NFL.

The club did want to add some experience in the air defence while hoping the scouting department can unearth more talent. But the work of Maston and Taylor in the playoffs, both signed off the street after being released by other CFL teams, did reinforce the need to have veteran voices back there.

“You want a combination of both,” said Walters. “You don’t want to go into the season needing two spots filled by young unknowns. But I don’t think it’s an issue going into the season saying we need one spot in the secondary to be filled by our scouting process.

“We’ll see what happens in free agency, but I do expect us listening to somebody with some CFL experience who can come in and play in the secondary.”

ALEXANDER THE SAFETY; THE CANADIAN ON ‘D’

Walters confirmed the Bombers are committed to keeping Brandon Alexander at safety, both because of his skillset and communication skills. That means the club will likely start their one Canadian on defence at the tackle spot, with Jake Thomas and Connor Griffiths returning.

“That was a lot of our discussion in the offseason with (defensive coordinator) Richie (Hall) and JY (Jordan Younger, defensive backs coach).

“We’re focused on how we think our defence shakes up and the way Brandon played in the secondary last year and the versatility he can bring from that, they were certainly for him coming back at free safety and going with a Canadian defensive tackle.”

THE DEPARTURES

The Bombers had previously lost Sayles, Rose, Chris Streveler (Arizona) and Jonathan Kongbo (San Francisco) to the NFL, released Matt Nichols (who has since signed in Toronto).

On free agency day, defensive tackle Drake Nevis and defensive end Craig Roh were signed by the Argonauts, while veteran special-teamers Derek Jones (B.C.) and Korey Jones (B.C.) also exited.

Nevis was an underrated part of the Bombers defence, but a potential return was nixed by the work of Steven Richardson last year and the cost factor.

“It’s a combination of the cap plus the ratio,” said Walters. “The big thing on defence that we need to figure out is where we’re going to play our Canadian. We’ve generally played one and last year it went from free safety to a rotation on the D-line. I anticipate us being a little bit more traditional with a Canadian defensive tackle… heading into this season that’s where we’re looking. It just comes down to Steven and Drake both playing the American interior spot and one is under contract and one’s not.”

CANADIAN BEEF

The Bombers O-line remains the team’s deepest and most-talented positional group with American tackles Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick flanking a group that includes Neufeld, Couture, Drew Desjarlais, Cody Speller, Geoff Gray and Tui Eli.

Winnipeg doesn’t have a first-round pick in 2020, giving that up as part of the trade with Toronto for Collaros, but has plenty of Canadian depth up front.

“We said this when we were talking about Michael Couture: he’s really good, No. 1, and when you have a chance to re-sign a good Canadian offensive lineman then we can sort out all the depth later,” said Walters. “But when you look at Drew and Michael and Cody and Tui and Paddy and Geoff… we have six Canadian O-linemen that are all back and all played at varying levels and helped us win.

“My comment was, ‘If you’re going to be heavy at one position in the CFL and heavy talent-wise, then Canadian offensive lineman is not a bad spot to having those kind of assets.”

THE QB DEPTH CHART

There were some veteran No. 2 QBs that hit the market on Tuesday, with Saskatchewan adding James Franklin, Calgary re-signing Montel Cozart as well as Dakota Prukop and Edmonton bringing back Logan Kilgore.

The Bombers are comfortable going into camp with Collaros at No. 1 and Sean McGuire at No. 2 and will likely add their depth through their scouting department.

“Sean showed a lot,” Walters said. “Like any position we’ll take a look at all options, but I think Sean really, really made a good impression in his first year. It’s tough to evaluate the quarterback position until they get out there and play, but we’re optimistic at what we see. We think he’s got a bright future.”

NOW HEAR THIS…

Many fans had hoped the Bombers might dip into the free agent pool to add one of the high-profile receivers on the market. But when the club re-signed Adams on Sunday, those plans were scuttled.

“I like our group,” Walters said. “Darvin was a key piece to get back and (we’ll see) if he can pick up this year like he left off, which was making big plays down the playoff run and being a game-breaker down the stretch. I think Kenny Lawler, if he continues his growth, has a chance to be a really, really good receiver. You saw glimpses of it (last) year. And between Lucky (Whitehead), Janarion (Grant) and Charles Nelson we’ve got that explosive receiver, lightning-in-a-bottle type guy. We’ve got Rasheed Bailey who is that tough, physical guy. We have a well-rounded group of receivers.

“And then you throw in our Canadians, which I’ll go toe-to-toe with any team in the league with our group of Canadians with Nic (Demski) and Drew (Wolitarsky) and Petey (Daniel Petermann) and now Julian (Feoli-Gudino, who has returned). We’ve got four guys we think we can play. Maybe the flashy big-name receiver is not on this core, but I think we’re really well-rounded and a really good group.”