They are a star-studded bunch steeped with experience and backed by a solid prospect pool. And in the world of the Canadian Football League – where one of the carved-in-stone commandments is ‘Thou shall covet offensive linemen’ – the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are a good place.
A very, very good place.
It could be said the Blue Bombers deepest and most-talented position group is the offensive line, although you’d get arguments from just about every other crew on the roster from a team that went 15-3 last season and appeared in a third straight Grey Cup. Still, let’s take a deeper look at what the club has up front in the next chapter of our Positional Preview series.
The left flank is manned by Stanley Bryant, the reigning back-to-back CFL Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman and a man who has captured the award four of the last five years and is a future hall-of-famer. Lining up at left guard is Geoff Gray, who started all 18 games at that spot last season, with both Liam Dobson and Tui Eli – who returns after sitting out the 2022 season – expected to challenge him for the starting chores.
The club lost popular centre Michael Couture to the B.C. Lions in free agency, but he was capably replaced last year when he was injured by the gritty Chris Kolankowski, who started 15 games. Kolankowski could also be looking over his shoulder at Eli, who can play both guard and centre.
On the right side, Pat Neufeld – a CFL All Star the last two seasons – is at right guard with Jermarcus Hardick, arguably the best right tackle in the league, manning the flank opposite Bryant. Worth noting here is the average age of the five starters – 32.4 years – with only Gray, at 28, under 30 years.
That’s what makes the return of Eli, 27, and the development of Dobson, 25, so critical, along with the ongoing search for future tackles. The Blue Bombers have shown a lot of faith in Drew Richmond, who blew out his knee near the end of 2021 and spent all of last year working to recover and brought back Payton Muljo, who was part of the practice roster expansion last year, while signing Kelvin Ateman, Jr. and Chris Ivy, both Americans. Finding American tackles has become that much more of an exhaustive search, especially with the NFL practice roster expansion and the arrival of both the XFL and USFL. The club does also have a Global player option there, too, with Tomoya Machino, now with three games to his name, back for a third year.
The Blue Bombers added two free agent Canadians in the offseason in Brandon Sanford, who has been in camp before, and Tyler Grisolia, a University of Toronto product who caught eyes at the CFL’s Invitational Combine in March.
One more storyline to track with this position group during camp is the switch of Cole Adamson, a defensive tackle drafted in the fourth round last year out of the University of Manitoba, to the offensive line. He’s got good size at 6-5, 292 pounds and could transition into another option for the team if they see enough from him in camp. He’ll certainly be challenged regularly in going up against the beasts on the Blue Bombers defensive front.
No question that, as per usual, this bunch will again be critical in the team’s all-in quest for another Grey Cup title. But there will also need to be an eye on the future as a transition from the established vets to new faces is on the horizon. Some of that talent appears to already be in house, but there are no greater tests than live action.
A LOOK AT THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Starters: LT Stanley Bryant, LG Geoff Gray*, C Chris Kolankowski*, RG Pat Neufeld*, RT Jermarcus Hardrick
Returning vets: Liam Dobson*, Tui Eli*, Tomoya Machino (G), Drew Richmond
Departed: C Michael Couture* (B.C.)
2023 CFL Draft picks: None
CFL newcomers: Cole Adamson* (attended camp last year as a DL before returning to the U of M), Kelvin Ateman, Jr.; Chris Ivy, Tyler Grisolia*, Payton Muljo, Brandon Sanford*
Keep an eye on: Tui Eli
The big University of Hawaii product was drafted in the fourth round in 2019 and in 2021 suited up for 14 games, including four starts. He sat out last season was brought back in January with a new three-year contract.
His skillset is there to start at any of the three inside positions along the line, but there will be eyeballs on him as soon as camp opens regarding his strength and conditioning levels.
Did you know?
The Blue Bombers did not select an offensive lineman in the two most-recent CFL Drafts – a first for the club since 2001-02. That decision was made partly because the position wasn’t as a high priority with the current collection of Canadian talent and also because of a relatively thin draft class at that position. The move of Adamson from D-line to O-line was also a factor.
Dating back to 1963 the Blue Bombers have not selected an O-lineman with any of their picks in 18 different draft classes.
Notable Number: 80
The Blue Bombers have surrendered 80 sacks over the last three seasons, including 29 last year. That total is second fewest only to Calgary, which has given up 71 over that same span.
Just by comparison, the 2015 Blue Bombers surrendered 71 sacks and the Saskatchewan Roughriders gave up 77 sacks alone last season.
The Blue Bombers open rookie camp on May 10th with main training camp following on May 14th. This is the fifth instalment of our annual positional-preview series leading up to the first day.