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January 24, 2021

First & 10 | Looking ahead to free agency

Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters during the game at New Mosaic Stadium in Regina, SK, Saturday, July 1st, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

Let it be said that when Canadian Football League teams do get back to the business of blocking, tackling and generally trying to kick the snot out of each other, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will begin the most unique of title defences.

Actually, it could be said it will be THE most unique Grey Cup title defence in the long history of the three-down loop, thanks to the deadly Coronavirus pandemic which has put the entire planet in a headlock.

I mean, let’s face it: November 24, 2019 – the last time a snap was taken in anger in the CFL – seems like an eternity ago, does it not?

All of this takes us to a session Bombers GM Kyle Walters held with the media earlier this week and how the club’s plans for taking a shot at repeating crystallized even further.

We had already seen evidence of the blueprint with the re-signing of several players who were part of the 2019 run and then so many others who had agreed to restructure their current deals to help keep the band together.

And make no mistake, that is the blueprint.

Walters said that head coach Mike O’Shea’s message to him was to bring back as many players as possible from ’19. That was the plan this time last year, and the design hasn’t changed just because the league went dark in 2020.

In fact, as Walters explained in his availability there might be even more cause to go with what – and who – you know for ’21.

“There’s a lot of difficult conversations and one of the ones is who knows what this season is going to look like,” said Walters. “Obviously we’re all planning for a May training camp, but will there be parameters put on that, how intense practise will or won’t be, will it start… all the questions that everybody has that nobody has the answers to.

“Our strategy is we think it behooves us to try and bring a veteran group back. Is there going to be a preseason, who knows? Going through all the scenarios, this is slightly different than a normal training camp where you pencil in May the 10th and you know you’re going to get two preseason games, you’re going to have ‘X’ amount of practice time, ‘X’ amount of contact. Will you really be able to evaluate the young players and see who can maybe replace a veteran guy or plug in a couple younger guys?

“There’s so much uncertainty this year I think part of the strategy certainly was, with all the uncertainty, continuity – particularly this year – is going to help.”

Let’s trot out the list of those who have re-signed again, just to pound home this point:

Since just before the calendar flipped the Bombers have inked (in chronological order), Jermarcus Hardrick, Sean McGuire, Jake Thomas, Stanley Bryant Nic Demski, Thiadric Hansen, Mike Miller, Mercy Maston, Nick Taylor, Jackson Jeffcoat, Shayne Gauthier, Geoff Gray, Tobi Antigha (who was signed as a free agent last year and brought back again), Brandon Alexander, Kyrie Wilson, Rasheed Bailey, Andrew Harris, Josh Johnson, Pat Neufeld and Jesse Briggs.

The Bombers remaining pending free agent list includes kicker Justin Medlock, receivers Kenny Lawler, Lucky Whitehead, Daniel Petermann and Janarion Grant, defensive tackle Steven Richardson, guard/centre Cody Speller, defensive back Kerfalla Exumé, linebackers Thomas Miles and Brandon Calver, fullback John Rush and long-snappers Chad Rempel and Maxime Latour.

Winnipeg’s list also includes a pair of CFL veterans in receiver Julian Feoli-Gudino and defensive back Chris Lyles, both of whom were signed in free agency last year.

More on the Bombers offseason moves and other notes and quotes in this week’s edition of First & 10…


1. So much has been written, said and speculated about players restructuring their contracts – read: taking less in ’21 – but as Walters explained earlier this week everybody has ‘kicked in a little bit here and a little bit there.’

That’s especially so here in Winnipeg, but a trend across the league, too. Indeed if the ’21 season is going to be unique, then so will the free-agent period leading up to it. The market opens on February 9th, FYI.

“Everyone is trying to figure out a way to keep the best core together,” said Walters. “The guys we had under contract for 2021 are being asked to take a hit and the guys who were becoming free agents had to understand the 2021 free-agent market ain’t going to look the 2020 or 2019 (free agent class) so you have to take a reset on that.

“Everyone understood it. They get it. They understand what’s gone on in our league. With no revenue coming in this was an inevitability that everybody in the organization was going to be taking less money than they anticipated for 2021.”

2. The biggest names on the Bombers free agent to-do list are Medlock, Lawler and Richardson. All three would be huge re-signings for the club, but given some of the names on the league-wide pending free-agent list – the receiver and D-line has some intriguing names on it still unsigned – it could be said Medlock is the biggest priority.

And if you’re thinking this sounds familiar, it does. Medlock, 37, is not only the greatest kicker in Bombers history, but has also taken his time in the past on deciding whether he plays or hangs up his cleats.

We’ve written this before, but it bears repeating: all of this makes the drafting of Western University kicker Marc Liegghio last spring that much more important for the Bombers.

“We’ve done this before,” said Walters. “You’re never quite sure what Justin’s plans are for the following season as he takes his time, which he is entitled to do. We drafted a kicker a couple of years ago (Felix Menard-Briere, in 2017) just in case and we did the same this past year.

“Also, with this Global draft these Australian punters are strong group as well, so we kind of had a plan that if Justin did decide to move on between Liegghio and any Australian kicker we might need to add in the draft we’d feel pretty good about it.”

3. Walters said negotiations are continuing with both Lawler and Richardson and we’ll see if a deal can get done before the free-agent market opens.

Lawler could be on the verge of a big-numbers season, and he did lead the Bombers in receiving yardage in 2019 (although his 637 yards was the lowest team-leading total since Bob LaRose had 587 yards in 1975).

Richardson was a revelation in 2019, muscling his way into a defensive tackle rotation with Jake Thomas and Drake Nevis.

This is where the game can get dangerous for teams, players and agents, however. There is an intriguing group of receivers and defensive linemen inching closer to free agency.

Check out that list here.

4. A couple of leftover items from Pat Neufeld’s media conference call from earlier this week

A born and bred Regina product, he admitted being traded by Saskatchewan to the Bombers in October of 2013 – about six weeks before the Riders won the Grey Cup on home turf – was difficult.

But new being a Grey Cup champ in Saskatchewan does have its perks.
“It’s been awesome,” said Neufeld. “I have a huge support group here back home with family, with friends. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Unfortunately, we didn’t really get to do a big Grey Cup celebration here because of Covid and everything. But I had a ton of people who are still big Rider fans calling me and congratulating me and saying, ‘What an awesome moment for you, having gone what you’ve gone through to be able to get to the top and the pinnacle with the Grey Cup.’

“It’s cool being back here in Saskatchewan. I have a ton of friends here who are ex-Riders, some are still on the Riders, and they were happy for me on a personal level. It’s just been cool to be at home and  still have that support.”

5. We asked Neufeld if he’s had the chance to flash his Grey Cup ring around his hometown since receiving the jewelry late last summer.

“I do leave it on my bedside table so every morning I get to wake up and look at it,” he said. “It’s a nice little reminder of what we accomplished, but more so what we had to go through to get there.

“Once things open up a little bit more I’ll be a little bit more liberal wearing it.

“It’s a pretty great memento.”

6. Like many before him, Neufeld agreed to restructure his contract and his take on that is honest and straightforward.

“It’s just understanding the financial landscape of what’s happened and the reality of the situation it was going to happen,” he said. “That was something I was more than willing to do. It’s just for the greater good to make sure we can have a season and it’s going to be operable and possible to do.

“Obviously it hurts a little financially, but it was necessary to do it to make sure that we could get the roster the way we had it last year, or as close as possible, and try to take another run at it.”

The chance to become the first CFL team to repeat since the Montreal Alouettes of 2009-10, as has been stated before, is a big motivator for everyone who has chosen to return or restructure.

“There is a lot of confidence. I’m not trying to say that in an arrogant or cocky way, we’re just such a tight group,” Neufeld said. “We all knew how much fun we had, we’re a process-oriented group and are looking at it day by day and started stacking those results and by the end we got to hoist that cup.

“So, we figured let’s try and take another crack at this and we saw what we could do with that roster and with that group of guys. We all just loved that moment of winning the cup together so we figured let’s try to do it again.”

7. The Bombers are getting a lot of praise from across the league for their work in re-signing players and making it work under a tightened salary cap.

As an example, TSN’s Farhan Lalji said about the Bombers have done the ‘best job’ at re-signing players and getting others to restructure this week on CKRM Regina’s Sports Cage.

“When you look at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, they’re No. 1 on my list because they’ve done all the heavy lifting,” said Lalji. “… They’ve got everything. They’ve got their entire offensive line put together, and depth. They’ve got Andrew Harris done, they’ve got Adam Bighill done.

“I think if there was an offseason GM of the year – and I put this in a Tweet, much to the chagrin of other GMs – it’s got to be Kyle Walters right now.

“It speaks volumes for what Mike O’Shea has done in Winnipeg in terms of the culture he’s built in that locker room. Guys want to be a part of it.”

There’s a ton of CFL talk on the segment with Lalji, which begins at the 1:36:00 mark.

8. This week’s links and odds ‘n ends: CFL.ca’s Matthew Cauz continues his look at team’s uniforms over the years with the Bombers in his latest installment. Check out that piece here… Walters was asked this week about Marcus Sayles, who signed with the B.C. Lions after having two cracks with the Minnesota Vikings in 2020. He said the Bombers were in contact with Sayles but that B.C. made an offer which was ‘substantially bigger’ than Winnipeg’s… Sorry to hear of the passing this week of long-time Regina media personality Warren Woods. ‘Woodsy’ was one of those guys who was simply a treat to be around and his laugh could light up any room. He was also a prince to yours truly when I jumped into the market as a columnist for The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix for a year in the mid-90s. Rob Vanstone of The Regina Leader-Post penned a lovely tribute if you wish to read more… Good to see a solid team guy like Jesse Briggs re-sign this week. A second-round pick in 2014, Briggs has suited up for 91 games as a Blue Bomber. Among active and signed players, that ranks behind only Jake Thomas (137) and one ahead of Stanley Bryant (90)… One more on Bryant, courtesy Derek Taylor of Regina.

 

9. For all you CFL Draft aficionados out there – and there are many – the league’s Scouting Bureau released its second edition of their Top 20 prospects available for this year’s talent grab. The CFL announced Friday that all testing, drills and interviews will be conducted remotely. The Bombers, it’s worth noting, will select 3rd, 16th, 21st, 34th, 39th and 52nd.

10. And, finally, there’s a lot of frustration out there with the slow rollout of the vaccines and the restrictions in place. That has many looking skeptically at the CFL’s 2021 start on June 10th, in a Grey Cup rematch featuring the Bombers and Hamilton at IG Field.

Let’s end this week with an optimistic take, courtesy Neufeld:
“I’m really optimistic about playing and starting on time,” he said. “I know how hard Wade (Miller, Bombers President & CEO) has been working to get things going and his dedication to making sure we have a season. I’m extremely appreciative of that and just think collectively as a league, from the fans to the media, to the players, the coaches, the stadium support staff – everyone – that we really want to play and we really want to have a season.

“I’m very optimistic we’re going to play and we’re going to be on time and that we’re going to get 18 games in and a playoff run.”