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April 23, 2023

First & 10 | Ranking All-Time Receiving Corps

Let’s begin this week with the acknowledgement that what follows is completely subjective and based primarily on statistics. It’s also a storyline which could be potentially pulverized to smithereens –and admittedly most likely by yours truly – by the end of the 2023 Canadian Football League season. That long-winded caveat out of the way, we then ask this: how likely is it that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers current collection of receivers may soon rank among the all-time best bunches in franchise history? Our best guess? They’ve got a helluva chance.

Consider that the Blue Bombers landed all-star Kenny Lawler as their big free-agent catch this February and add him to a crew that already features league leading receiver and Most Outstanding Rookie Dalton Schoen, along with Nic Demski and Rasheed Bailey – both coming off career years – and the always steady Drew Wolitarsky. Factor in intriguing other options like Greg McCrae, Carlton Agudosi and Brendan O’Leary-Orange – plus what the club’s crack scouting staff might have unearthed this winter – and this will be not only the most talented, but the deepest crew of pass catchers in eons in these parts.

All of this is still TBD of course, and there are so many factors – especially injuries –  that could turn this narrative completely upside down. Still at the end of a long offseason it’s worth tossing out for discussion, especially with training camp on the horizon (rookie camp opens May 10th, main camp on the 14th).

To that end we dipped into the archives and tapped Steve Daniel – the CFL Senior Director, Team & Football Analytics – on the shoulder for some help putting together a list of the best receiving corps in Blue Bombers history. In an attempt to not over-complicate things, we began by looking at seasons where there were at least three receivers who finished with 1,000 yards and also at the receptions and touchdown totals for the top trio in any single year.

So, what follows is a look at what Lawler, Schoen, Demski, Bailey, Wolitarsky et al have for competition in the all-time best Blue Bombers receiving corps debate, dating back to 1950.

*Worth noting here: we are including seasons in which the Top 3 receiving totals were from receivers which excludes, for example, the 2017 season when running back Andrew Harris had 105 receptions for 857 yards.

1981 (16-game regular season)

Blue Bombers in ’81: 11-5, second place in West Division; lost to B.C. in West Semi-Final

Top 3 receivers:
– Eugene Goodlow
– 100 receptions for 1,494 yards and 14 TDs
Joe Poplawski – 84-1,271-8
– Rick House – 61-1,102-10

Top 3 totals: 245 receptions for 3,867 yards and 32 TDs

Notes: Running backs Obie Graves and William Miller and fullback Dan Hucklack finished 4-5-6 in receiving for the Bombers that year… Goodlow became the first player in CFL history to finish a year with 100 catches… Strangely, Goodlow was a West Division All-Star, but not a CFL All-Star (both Saskatchewan’s Joey Walters at 1,715 and Edmonton’s Brian Kelly at 1,665 had less catches, but more receiving yards). Joe Poplawski was named to both… Poplawski was also named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian.

1984 (16-game regular season)

Blue Bombers in ’84: 11-4-1, second place in West Division; Grey Cup champions
Top 3 receivers:
– James Murphy – 70 receptions for 1,220 yards and 12 TDs
– Joe Poplawkski – 67-998-3
Jeff Boyd – 65-1,106-11

Top 3 totals: 202 receptions for 3,324 yard and 26 TDs

Notes: The Blue Bombers placed six offensive players, and 10 in total, on the CFL All-Star team, including Poplawski. The others, FYI: QB Tom Clements, RB Willard Reaves – who was also named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player – OL John Bonk, Nick Bastaja and Chris Walby and on defence LBs Aaron Brown and Tyrone Jones and DBs David Shaw and Ken Hailey… Reaves finished fourth on the club in receptions with 40, for 407 yards and four TDs. Rick House missed five games and was 38-494-3.

1986 (18-game regular season)

Blue Bombers in ’86: 11-7, third place in West Division; lost to B.C. in West Semi-Final

Top 3 receivers
– James Murphy
– 116 receptions for 1,746 yards and 12 TDs
– Perry Tuttle – 83-1,373-8
– Joe Poplawski – 75-1,075-8

Top 3 totals: 270 receptions for 4,194 yards and 28 TDs

Notes: Fullback Sean Kehoe finished fourth in receiving with 45 catches for 440 yards and one TD. Jeff Boyd missed 11 games that season and finished fifth at 35-619-5… Murphy was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 1986 while Poplawski was again honoured as the CFL’s top Canadian… Both Murphy and Poplawski were named CFL All-Stars and West Division All-Stars… Poplawski retired at the end of 1986, at age 29… Murphy’s 116 receptions established a CFL record and that total now ranks 7th all-time (Derell Mitchell holds the record of 160, set in 1998).

1987 (18-game regular season)

Blue Bombers in ’87: 12-6, first place in East Division; lost to Toronto in East Final.

Top 3 receivers:
– James Murphy –
84 receptions for 1,130 yards and 10 TDs
– Perry Tuttle – 75-1,310-8
– Jeff Boyd – 57-1,039-9

Top 3 totals: 216 receptions for 3,479 yards and 27 TDs

Notes: Tuttle was named to the CFL All-Star and East Division All-Star Teams; James Murphy was also an East All-Star… Three Blue Bombers captured the CFL’s top awards that season: QB Tom Clements was the Most Outstanding Player, safety Scott Flagel was the top Canadian, while Chris Walby was the Most Outstanding Offensive lineman… The loss in the ’87 East Final was made even more painful with the decision by Clements to then retire from playing.

1993 (18-game regular season)

Blue Bombers in ’93: 14-4; first place in East Division; lost to Edmonton in Grey Cup.

Top 3 receivers:
– David Williams – 84 receptions for 1,144 yards and 15 TDs
– Gerald Wilcox – 79-1,340-10
– Gerald Alphin – 55-1,052-4

Top 3 totals: 218 receptions for 3,536 yards and 29 TDs

Notes: Williams was named a CFL and East Division All-Star; Wilcox was an East All-Star and the East Division’s Most Outstanding Canadian… Rookie Nathaniel Bolton finished fourth in receiving yards with 730 on 42 catches, but missed six games with a heart issue… The Blue Bombers were dominant that season, but then lost Matt Dunigan in the 16thgame of the season and turned to Sam Garza for the stretch run and playoffs, including the Grey Cup loss. Dunigan had thrown for close to 4,700 yards passing and a then-team record of 36 TDs before his injury.

2000 (18-game regular season)

Blue Bombers in ’00: 7-10-1, third in East Division; lost to Montreal in East Final.

Top 3 receivers:
– Robert Gordon
– 89 receptions for 1,395 yards and 7 TDs
Milt Stegall – 78-1,499-15
– Albert Johnson III – 50-778-3

Top 3 totals: 217 receptions for 3,672 yards and 25 TDs

Notes: Fourth on the team in yardage was a chap by the name of Geroy Simon, who had 51 receptions for 725 yards and seven TDs and is the CFL’s all-time receiving yardage leader after a career that started in Winnipeg, moved to B.C. and finished in Saskatchewan… Stegall was named a CFL All-Star, as was Johnson III, but as a kick returner. Johnson III was also named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie and Most Outstanding Special Teams Player… Stegall, Gordon and Johnson III were also named to the East Division All-Star squad.

2002 (18-game regular season)

Blue Bombers in ’02: 12-6, second in West Division; lost to Edmonton in West Final

Top 3 receivers:
– Milt Stegall
– 105 receptions for 1,862 yards and 23 TDs
– Arland Bruce III – 67-1,062-12
– Markus Howell – 38-415-1

Top 3 totals: 210 receptions for 3,339 yards and 36 TDs.

Notes: Howell was the third-leading receiver that year, but actually finished behind fullback Mike Sellers (63-643-2) and running back Charles Roberts (55-613-6) in receptions and receiving yardage… Stegall was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in ’02 as well as a CFL and West Division All-Star… Stegall’s 23 TDs remains a CFL record and 1,862 yards a Blue Bombers record.

2007 (18-game regular season)

Blue Bombers in ’07: 10-7-1, second in East Division; lost to Saskatchewan in Grey Cup

Top 3 receivers
– Derick Armstrong – 83 receptions for 1,142 yards and six touchdowns
– Terrence Edwards – 80-1,280-9
– Milt Stegall – 69-1,108-8

Top 3 totals: 232 receptions for 3,530 yards and 23 TDs

Notes: Two other Bomber receivers that season had over 30 receptions – O’Neil Wilson (38-366-0) and Arjei Franklin (36-452-0)… The ’07 campaign was the last of Stegall’s 10 1,000-yard seasons. During a span from 1999-2007 he posted nine consecutive 1K seasons — another Blue Bombers record and second only in CFL history to Terry Vaughn’s 11 straight.

2008 (18-game regular season)

Blue Bombers in ’08: 8-10, second in East Division; lost to Edmonton (crossover team) in East Semi-Final

Top 3 receivers
– Derick Armstrong
– 81 receptions for 1,010 yards and 5 TDs
– Terrence Edwards – 76-1,010-7
– Romby Bryant – 65-1,206-9

Top 3 totals: 222 receptions for 3,226 yards and 21 TDs

Notes: Arjei Franklin was fourth in receiving that year with 49 receptions for 566 yards and one TD… This was Stegall’s last season and he had 29 catches for 458 yards and three TDs in 12 games… It was also Doug Berry’s final season as the head coach. He was replaced by Mike Kelly, who coached one year before being relieved of his duties.

More receiver stuff, notes and quotes in the latest edition of First & Ten…


1. All those numbers and factoids now out of the way, here’s why this current crew has a shot at being the elite of the elite:

  • They’ve got the two-time CFL Most Outstanding Player in quarterback Zach Collaros behind centre.
  • Former QB in Buck Pierce returns as one of the best offensive coordinators in the CFL
  • More threats may lead to the ‘not enough offensive touches to keep everyone happy’ discussion, but also makes it that much more difficult to double one target and gives Pierce and Collaros potentially juicy matchup situations
  • And, one more: roster continuity matters, especially early in the season as other teams settle in with their lineups, and the Blue Bombers have had more of that over the past three seasons than any other CFL team.

2. Nobody asked me, but I’m absolutely loving the tweaks made in major league baseball this season, including the introduction of a pitch clock that gives pitchers just 15 seconds to deliver with the bases empty and 20 seconds with men on the bases. Batters, meanwhile, must be ready to go by the time the clock hits eight seconds.

That dramatic shift has already cut game times down dramatically – by 26 minutes entering this week – with the average nine-inning game now 26 minutes shorter than last year (two hours and 37 minutes) and the lowest since 1984 (2:35). What the heck does this have to do with football and the CFL, you ask?

Well, all professional sports leagues are looking at lengths of games in an age of shorter attention spans and more options for customers.
I checked in with Daniel on this – as mentioned above he’s the CFL’s Senior Director, Team & Football Analytics – and he offered up some insight on the league’s improving ‘game flow’ numbers. Woking with the CFL rules committee the CFL has studied and implemented ways to speed up games though the transitions between possessions, penalties, communication with the command centre and more. The end result? The average length of a CFL game is now around two hours and 45 minutes, compared to 2:55 in the mid 2010’s.

3. Kudos to the Blue Bombers players who continue to make visits all over the province this offseason, with Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky travelling to Bunibonibee Cree Nation (Oxford House) last weekend. Highlights of that trip courtesy Marney Blunt of Global TV:

‘Spread the love of football’: Blue Bombers connecting with youth in remote, northern Manitoba communities

4. Just FYI, since mid-March players have also made the following stops:
– March 14-15: Shamattawa First Nation: Nick Hallett and Noah Hallett
– March 20: Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (Nelson House): Willie Jefferson and Nic Demski
– March 22-23: O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation (South Indian Lake): Tanner Cadwallader and Thiadric Hansen

 

5. Interesting thread – and answers – asked by the @cfl_reddit Twitter account: ‘If you were CFL Commissioner, what is the first thing you would do?’

My answer, for what it’s worth: all hands on deck on securing a 10th franchise. And while it would be ideal if that team was in Halifax to finally fulfill an Atlantic Schooners dream that has been talked about since a conditional expansion franchise was awarded in May of 1982, if that goes nowhere within the next few months then it’s time to chase another potential locale, like Quebec City.
In fact, a Montreal-Quebec City rivalry could be massive for the CFL, just as it was for the NFL from 1979-80 to 1994-95 with the Canadiens and Nordiques.

6. This week’s good read, courtesy old friend Chris O’Leary at CFL.ca and his recent chat with Willie Jefferson on a topic we broached earlier this year: how to use the Grey Cup loss as fuel while not having it become all-consuming.

O’Leary: Jefferson ready to get Bombers back on top

7. Good luck to Mekhi Tyrell, a 19-year-old receiver from who will attend Blue Bombers training camp as a territorial exemption junior. Tyrell, who played his Grade 10 ball at Murdoch MacKay Collegiate before transferring to Clarkson Football North in Mississauga had interest from schools like Ole Miss, Oklahoma, Penn State and Alabama but is not heading south due to academic issues.
Tyrell will attend rookie camp, which opens on May 10th and not count against the roster until final cuts. He could also be added to the practice roster when the season starts. More on Tyrell courtesy Mike Sawatzky of the Winnipeg Free Press.

8. FYI: Expect more signings from the Blue Bombers in the days leading up to camp, plus the CFL and Global Drafts on May 2nd, to round out the roster. And the club never stops looking, either, with the possibility some prospects from this free-agent session might be en route to Winnipeg not long after.

Good to see Nick Taylor land on his feet with the Calgary Stampeders. The veteran DB spent the last three years in Winnipeg, suiting up for 29 regular-season games and being a key part of the two Grey Cup championships. He tore his Achilles last season, but has been working out fully since March. And for you CFL draft-niks out there: the final CFL Scouting Bureau rankings:

Matthew Bergeron takes top spot in Spring Scouting Bureau Rankings

 

9. Not sure where the Brown twins will go in the CFL Draft – or whether they might be selected at all – as Chase and Sydney are shooting up NFL Draft boards. Chase is a running back who tested through the roof at the NFL Combine, while his brother Sydney, a safety, also tested extremely well.

The London, Ont. products are so talented any CFL team that might draft them could be essentially taking a flier on a pair of players who might not ever come north. Here’s an example of how American media is catching up on their story:

10. And, finally… juicy numbers from last year’s Grey Cup in Regina that are especially pertinent with the 2025 game coming to Winnipeg.

109th Grey Cup & Festival generated nearly $70 M in economic activity in Canada