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March 4, 2022

First & Goal: Off-season recap

It was a cupboard the Winnipeg Blue Bombers took the time to properly stock, with all-star starters being pushed by quality reserves and prospects.

Yet, this is also a business in which GMs and coaches are accustomed to expecting the unexpected. And so, in that regard what has unfolded this offseason to the Blue Bombers’ stockpile of homegrown offensive linemen talent with a starter, a talented reserve and a quality prospect no longer on the depth chart is both a kick to the nether regions and the reality of life in the Canadian Football League.

Training camp is inching closer, and the Bombers are now looking at a roster that is minus West Division all-star guard Drew Desljarlais, who signed with the New England Patriots, guard/centre Tui Eli, currently a free agent after missing the Grey Cup last November because he was unvaccinated, as well as 2021 first-round draft pick Liam Dobson, who was drafted by the New Orleans Breakers of the USFL.

“The Canadian offensive line depth took a hit,” said Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters in a conversation with bluebombers.com earlier this week. “There’s three young Canadian offensive linemen we had in the hopper that we’re not sure now about any of them.”

All of this isn’t to suggest the club isn’t still solid up front, because it returns all-star import tackles Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick, along with Canadians Michael Couture at centre and right guard Pat Neufeld, while veteran Geoff Gray, the University of Manitoba product, is pencilled in to replace Desjarlais at left guard. The club also has scrappy Chris Kolankowski, who dressed for the Grey Cup, to provide Canadian depth.

That’s a group that unquestionably remains the envy of the CFL. Still, while the departure of Desjarlais was expected given his NFL interest and Eli’ status is in limbo, it was Dobson’s recent commitment to the USFL that stings in the moment. The club’s top pick a year ago, Dobson made a commitment to the USFL before being drafted, as he first had to sign a contract with the league in order to be eligible to be selected.

“Liam and his agent decided that their best route to the NFL at this point in his career would be to try and have a good USFL season and get noticed,” Walters explained. “Even if he doesn’t, then it’s two years in the USFL and he can explore his options after that. His age and the NFL dream was the enticement for him to sign there.”

The Blue Bombers are eager to see Gray take his shot at left guard. Now 27, Gray started 12 games in 2019, was a depth guy in ‘21 and signed to a two-year contract extension in January.

“I’m excited for Geoff. Any opportunity, when he’s had a chance to play, he’s done really well,” said Walters. “This is a year, when you look at the depth chart, where you say, ‘Geoff is going to have to step up’ and I think everybody in the building believes he’s going to.”

More on the Bombers O-line and other notes and quotes in this week’s 1st & Goal…

1. Given what has happened to their stockpile of Canadian OL talent, Walters was asked if it changes his approach to the upcoming CFL Draft, more specifically, if the club would grab another OL with their first pick, 9th overall.

“We tend to draft O-linemen even when we don’t necessarily need them,” said Walters. “We draft offensive linemen in the first round, or with high draft picks, every year. That’s just the way it’s been around here over the last number of years. We’ll certainly look to strengthen the line of scrimmage like we always do.”

Just for the record, dating back to 2014 and Walters’ first draft as the Blue Bombers GM, the club has used six Top 10 picks to grab offensive linemen, with five of them morphing into starters:

2014, 2nd overall – Matthias Goossen
2015, 2nd overall – Sukh Chungh
2016, 10th overall – Michael Couture
2017, 8th overall – Geoff Gray
2019, 4th overall – Drew Desjarlais
2021, 3rd overall – Liam Dobson

2. The Bombers will pick 9th, 18th, 38th, 47th, 56th, 65th and 74th in this year’s draft. Walters said the prospect pool is deep at linebacker and defensive back and features some ‘high-end’ receivers.

As for the OL prospects…

“I don’t know if along the line of scrimmage there’s going to be a case where everyone says, ‘OK, here’s the Top 5 picks guaranteed,’” he said. “There are a group of offensive and defensive linemen that are all pretty darn similar, but it’s based on how you see them. There’s decent O-line depth, I just don’t know if there’s a consensus ‘This is the best lineman’ thinking at this point. It’s a solid group, same as the D-line.”

The CFL is approaching its annual combine season, with the Ontario Regional Combine going next Thursday in Waterloo, the Eastern Regional in Baie-D’Urfé, Quebec on Friday, the Western Regional a week later in Edmonton and the National Combine in Toronto at the end of the month. For those interested, a list of players already having earned a spot at the National Combine can be found here.

3. The impact of the USFL draft on the CFL isn’t necessarily quantifiable because of the confidentiality of each team’s negotiation list. But Walters said Winnipeg’s neg list of U.S. prospects, just like every CFL club, saw a number of players selected by the USFL. And that total is only going to grow further.

“It’s frustrating. The number of our neg list guys (selected is in the double digits) but then it’s just a matter of regrouping and going back,” said Walters. “And (the USFL) has another dispersal draft coming up, so we’re waiting around to see what happens then.”

4. A couple other tidbits courtesy our conversation with Walters. First, we asked him about the holes on special teams with kicker Sergio Castillo and returner Janarion Grant still free agents. Here’ the update on both…

Castillo will be attending a kicking camp next week that all NFL teams attend, hoping to get one more shot at ‘The League.’ There’s also the possibility he could examine the USFL if nothing instantly materializes for him with the NFL. The Bombers do have Ali Mourtada and Marc Liegghio under contract for 2022, but if Castillo doesn’t return the club will likely add more prospects to push them in camp.

“Both those guys made field goals,” Walters said of Mourtada and Liegghio. “Ali just kept getting better as we went along and Marc was a dynamite field goal kicker, he’s just young.

“Plus, we’ve done pretty well in our organization scouting and finding kickers and if it ends up that way, we’ll be alright. We’ll bring some to training camp and see what happens.”

As for Grant, Walters said the returner recently had a chat with Blue Bombers special teams coordinator Paul Boudreau. On whether Grant may be coming back in ’22, he added, “I’m cautiously optimistic that’s trending in the right direction, but there hasn’t been a lot of communication from me to their camp.”

5. The CFL will hold its fourth Global Draft on the same day as its Canadian talent draft, May 3rd. The Blue Bombers have had the best Global player in the brief history of the program in defensive lineman Thiadric Hansen, but he remains as an unsigned free agent.

Now 29, Hansen has told the club he’s uncertain if he’ll keep playing and is contemplating life after football. In the meantime, he has found an admirable calling back in Germany.

 

 

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Two other players from last year’s Global draft class – British linebacker Ayo Oyelola and Japanese offensive tackle Tomoya Machino – have also moved on from the club. Oyelola is back with the NFL Pathways Program as one of 13 players now trying to impress enough to get an invite to an NFL training camp, while Machino has returned to Japan in order to get more playing time.

That leaves Japanese linebacker Les Maruo as the Blue Bombers’ lone Global player heading into this year’s draft. If the collective bargaining agreement remains the same, teams will be required to dress at least one Global player this season, and the club is quite comfortable rolling with Maruo, who dressed for seven games in 2021.

6. We’re still weeks away from the start of training camp, but we can only imagine how fast the wheels are turning for Blue Bombers offensive coordinator Buck Pierce as to how he might use new QB Dakota Prukop this season in short-yardage situations. Released by Edmonton last month, he was signed here just a couple days later as a veteran presence behind Zach Collaros and in the wake of Sean McGuire’s decision to move on from playing.

“It’s interesting, from a scouting standpoint you look and evaluate things from a traditional quarterback skillset. And then you get Buck involved and he was very excited about the short yardage component he offered – that Chris Streveler skillset,” said Walters of Prukop. “It’s not comparing him to Chris Streveler, but he is that type of athlete.

“It’s not necessarily something you think about, but Buck is making sure we have a really good short-yardage guy on the roster to do all the stuff he wants to do. Buck was certainly excited about that element that Dakota brings.”

Worth noting McGuire led the CFL in rushing TDs in ’21 with eight, while Streveler led the league in the same category in 2019 with 12 and finished tied for third with seven in 2018.

7. ICYMI – and yours truly did while taking a breather last week – here’s the very cool story about R.B. Russell Vocational High School welding technology student Dallas Smith and the customized fire pit he made for Adam Bighill:

 

8. And, finally, it’s been a while, but Darren Cameron and I finally got back to stoking up the podcast machine again and recorded two episodes this past week of Handled Internally – one with Zach Collaros, the other with Brandon Alexander.

A couple of highlights, first from Collaros, who spoke about the change in his fortune since the summer of 2019 when he was injured and then his trade to Winnipeg that October. Consider that since then he’s had two daughters, won two Grey Cups, was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 2021 and the 2021 Grey Cup MVP:

“Just being around a talented group of guys – and I say this to Nicole (his wife) a lot – but there are guys on that team that may be younger than me than I look up to as teammates and people just because they’re guys that do things the right way. We have so many of those guys in that locker room, it’s why we win football games.

“I’m grateful to be around those guys as well as everything else that has happened in our life that is just amazing. The fact that I’ve met so many good people in the locker room, in the coaching staff, in the front office… we’ve been really blessed.”

And from Alexander, who spoke about how he tried to grab as many reps as possible in his two-day rookie camp with the Blue Bombers in 2017 to try and make an impression:

“On Sunday (after rookie camp) we get a meeting before we go outside and Coach O’Shea comes in and says, ‘Who’s 26?’ I’m 26 at the time, so I stand up. He was like, ‘This guy right here… he’s coming to (main) camp and he’ll be on the team this year.’ I was like, ‘What?!’ People were wondering what was going on and he said, ‘This is why…’ He told me to sit back down, he turned on the film and we’re looking at one-on-ones and I go, I go, somebody else goes, I go, I go, then somebody else goes. We watched the ‘D’ reps and I was on the field 40 times out of 50. Yes, I’m getting cooked sometimes. Yes, I’m tired and all those things. But it doesn’t matter to me because this was my last opportunity.”

Stay tuned for those two podcasts, coming soon.