They have been the picture of stability for the better part of five seasons now, a rock-solid and sturdy group of pivot protectors and pile pushers.
So, let’s be blunt here: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive line crew has essentially spoiled us dating back to 2016 when consistency in play and in personnel first became commonplace around these parts.
Consider this: over the last five seasons the Blue Bombers O-line has averaged six different starters per year – a remarkable number which speaks of both their durability and quality of play.
It’s also no coincidence that over that span the club has posted five consecutive double-digit win seasons, has won back-to-back Grey Cup championships and has a combined record of 55-31.
Just to put that into perspective, from 2013-15 the club averaged 10 different starters up front, and the rumour at the time had equipment guru Brad Fotty attaching the jersey nameplates with Velcro, due to the constant turnover of personnel along the O-line. Not surprisingly, during that span the team missed the playoffs in each season and had a cumulative record of 15-39.
True to recent form, the Blue Bombers will open 2022 training camp with four of five starters returning from last year’s Grey Cup team, with Drew Desjarlais having signedwith the New England Patriots. That group of returnees includes CFL all-stars Stanley Bryant – also named the league’s top O-lineman last year for a record third time – along with right guard Pat Neufeld, right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick and CFLPA all-star Michael Couture at centre.
Veteran Geoff Gray, who made 12 starts in 2019, is the leading candidate to replace Desjarlais at left guard, but the club does have other Canadian options including, possibly, 2021 first-round draft pick Liam Dobson who was in mini-camp with the Chicago Bears last weekend and is scheduled to attend the New Orleans Saints mini-camp this week, along with Chris Kolankowski, who dressed for the Grey Cup last year, and 2018 Ben Koczwara.
There is also an outside chance the club tweaks the ratio and plays a third import along the line with Drew Richmond, Eric Lofton and Leon Johnson – all with CFL starts to their name – the veteran candidates along with newcomers Pat Allen and Dennis Bardwell.
Regardless of who slides into that spot between Bryant and Couture the offensive line – so capably tutored by Marty Costello – will continue to be the engine that drives an offence that led the CFL in scoring and was deadly in its efficiency.
Continuity and chemistry mean everything up front. So, too, does talent.
TRAINING CAMP 2022 PREVIEW: A LOOK AT THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Starters: LT Stanley Bryant, C Michael Couture*, RG Pat Neufeld*, RT Jermarcus Hardrick
Returning vets: Geoff Gray*, Chris Kolankowski*, Tomoya Machino (G), Drew Richmond (dressed for one game last year and was injured), Jalen Burks (was on the practice roster for a bit last season).
CFL vets: Eric Lofton (Ottawa/Edmonton), Leon Johnson (started one game with Calgary in ’21).
Departed: Drew Desjarlais* (New England), Tui Eli* (unsigned)
CFL Draft picks in camp: Ben Koczwara (2018 CFL Draft pick, attended camp in Winnipeg in 2018-19 and was with Toronto for a portion of ’21).
CFL newcomers: Pat Allen, Dennis Bardwell, Brandon Sanford* (UBC)
IMPACT NEWCOMER: ERIC LOFTON
It’s hard to crack into this group, given its longevity and its dominance. If Dobson arrives from his NFL mini camps he could be an option, but so, too, might Lofton. He has six CFL games to his name with Ottawa and Edmonton, as well as a stint with B.C. He was a First-Team All-American Athletic Conference all-star in his senior season with Temple.
X FACTOR: GEOFF GRAY
Gray, the University of Manitoba product and 2017 first-round draft pick by the Bombers, earned 12 starts in 2019 for an injured Neufeld and was the unit’s sixth-seventh OL for most of last year. He’s strong and exceptionally mobile for a big man – if you recall, he ended his tryout for NFL scouts at the U of M a few years back by hoping on a unicycle – and now has more experience to his name. The right guard starting spot is probably his to lose.
NOTABLE NUMBER: 16
The Blue Bombers surrendered just 16 sacks in 14 regular-season games last year, fewest in the CFL. That’s an average of 1.14 per game.
How relevant is that? Think about this: in 2015 the club saw its quarterbacks droppeda whopping 71 times, or 3.94 per game.