February 8, 2021

GM Kyle Walters ahead of free agency

Winnipeg Blue Bombers #9 Justin Medlock

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have taken various approaches to Canadian Football League free agency under the watch of Kyle Walters over the years, from tentatively dipping their toes into the water to swan-diving off the platform into the available talent pool.

And this year – given the global pandemic and its financial implications and the heavy-lifting the club has already done to re-sign much of its core – they might very well just play the role of spectator.

Walters said on a media conference call on the eve of CFL free agency he expects it to be ‘pretty quiet’ — news that is hardly surprising given the number of players already inked dating back to late last year.

“With each year that’s gone by we’ve gotten a little bit less active through free agency, just adding a piece here or there,” said Walters.

“This offseason we really focussed on trying to bring the main core back that won and once we were able to do that there’s just not a lot of money left to be spending.

“We’ll take a look and see if there’s any names out there that we want to add for some competition or some value. We might kick the tires on a few guys, but there will be no big splash, I can’t imagine.”

The list of pending free agents already re-signed by the Bombers includes offensive linemen Stanley Bryant, Pat Neufeld, Jermarcus Hardrick, Geoff Gray, quarterback Sean McGuire, running back Andrew Harris, fullback Mike Miller, receivers Nic Demski, Kenny Lawler, Rasheed Bailey and Janarion Grant,  defensive linemen Jackson Jeffcoat, Jake Thomas, Steven Richardson and Thiadric Hansen, linebackers Kyrie Wilson, Shayne Gauthier, Jesse Briggs and Tobi Antigha, defensive backs Brandon Alexander, Mercy Maston, Nick Taylor and Josh Johnson.

As well, a number of players including stars like Adam Bighill, Zach Collaros and Willie Jefferson, have had their contracts restructured in a more cap-friendly manner.

CFL free agency opens at 11 a.m. Tuesday and the Bombers will see nine players who played in 2019 hitting the market in kicker Justin Medlock, receivers Lucky Whitehead and Daniel Petermann, linebackers Thomas Miles, John Rush and Brandon Calver, defensive back Kerfalla Ezumé and long-snappers Chad Rempel and Maxime Latour.

Two other players who were signed in free agency last year – receiver Julian Feoli-Gudino and defensive back Chris Lyles – will also see their contracts expire.

The biggest name on that list, of course, is Medlock – the future hall of famer and the most-accurate kicker in Bombers history. Walters said Medlock now has a full-time job and hasn’t committed to playing or retiring for 2021.

The club does have a Plan B already in place in Western kicker and 2020 draft pick Marc Liegghio, considered one of the best Canadian kicking prospects to come out of U Sports in years.

“It’s been nice luxury for us to have arguably the best kicker in the history of the CFL… to just put his name in there and not have to worry about it,” said Walters of Medlock.

“We knew at some point and we talk every year, ‘OK, what’s the plan if Justin decides to retire this year.’ We’ve obviously talked it through. We’ll see. We drafted a young kid from Western last year who had a very successful university career to come in and be groomed by Justin. That was the plan before this. Now, we didn’t get a chance (to do that), but he’ll be given an opportunity and there’s still good American kickers down there who can do them all (punt, placekick) and the Global Draft is filled with Australian kickers that are solid players as well.”

Whitehead, meanwhile, pulled in 52 passes for 521 yards and two TDs in 2019 and quickly became a popular player among the fan base. But he will hit the market looking for a better chance to start somewhere else than with the Bombers.

“Lucky is going to explore free agency up here,” Walters explained. “I don’t think anything came through from an NFL standpoint but Lucky wants a chance to get out there and play. I understand the players on your roster that weren’t starters last year and when you bring back most of the roster, guys who weren’t starting or weren’t dressing, I completely understand their and their agents’ mindset to go explore other options that might be better for them or a better opportunity for them to get on the field. That’s exactly Lucky and Daniel Petermann, as well. That’s in their mindset and I certainly don’t blame them for that.”

Walters spoke for almost 20 minutes during Monday morning’s session with the media. Among the other notable talking points…

Canadian special-teamers like Miles, Rush and Calver are likely being impacted by the salary restrictions, plus the fact the Bombers will have two draft classes ready to step in by the time training camp opens.

“We brought back the (special-teams) core… Mike Miller is obviously an important one and Shayne and Jesse are all back, which are huge for us,” said Walters. “Thomas and Kerf (Exumé) are unsigned. Thomas was weighing his options… he was deciding whether he wanted to move on from football into a career – he’s a real sharp young man and he’s got a bright future after football.

“Kerf’s just deciding. He’s got a baby on the way and staying close to home in Montreal is an option.

“But, to your point, with the group of Canadians last year and another group this year and to my prior point there has to be some jobs to be won and you have to give an opportunity for some of these young guys to get their feet wet on the field and that might be the case for some of these guys.”

Pandemic or not, you have to trust your scouts can unearth new talent and not just exclusively grab veterans from the free-agent.

“It’s the CFL… we scout for a reason, we draft for a reason and you’re going to have to have some competition with young guys, you’re going to have to have some roles for young guys,” Walters said.

“It’s very difficult for a rookie Canadian or American to come in and take a job away from an established American player. That’s just the way it is. Coaches like what they know, it’s just a fact of all sport which means you have to have some spots on your roster open to some players come in and compete and potentially win jobs. We’re no different.”

Some answers may also be available in the Global Draft, which figures to be much deeper than in the inaugural selection in 2019 that yielded the Bombers Thiadric Hansen.

“There will be a strong crew,” Walters said. “It’s going to look different in respect to the contributions of the Globals. I think you’re going to see much more Thiadric-Hansen-type contributions around the league and I anticipate us adding another piece to the puzzle in the Global draft to help the roster.”