February 14, 2024

“It was challenging. It’s never easy to lose guys.”

The splashy free agent announcements came elsewhere across the Canadian Football League map with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers playing the spectators on the first day of talent shopping.

And, just to be clear here, that was exactly as planned and expected.

The Blue Bombers didn’t even foray into the free agent market on Day 1 after being extremely busy in the days, weeks and months leading up to it. In fact, last week’s in-house transactions which secured Brady Oliveira, Dalton Schoen, Brandon Alexander capped an offseason that had seen 17 of 33 possible pending free agents – including 12 starters – all signed to new deals. On top of that, quarterback Chris Streveler has returned after leaving for the NFL.

As GM Kyle Walters said Wednesday in his media session about the Blue Bombers Day 1 of official CFL free agency, “All the heavy lifting was done.”

“… This is the way we’ve operated, and this year was no different than the past few years, where we put the majority if our December, January, early February time in trying to figure out how to get our core group back and we were able to do that again this year.”

The Blue Bombers have won more games than any other team over the last four seasons with a 51-17 mark and have appeared in four straight Grey Cups, winning in 2019 and 2021. Keeping that core intact has long been the goal, but this season will see change with some star power and recognizable names exiting. That list includes right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick (Saskatchewan) and cornerback Demerio Houston (Calgary) – both CFL all-stars last year — with Jackson Jeffcoat opting to retire and Dru Brown being traded to Ottawa.

A handful of depth players have also moved on in linebacker Jesse Briggs (retired), defensive back Kerfalla Exumé and defensive end Thiadric Hansen (both to Toronto), receiver Brendan O’Leary-Orange (Hamilton) and quarterback Dakota Prukop (B.C.).

On Wednesday Walters also confirmed that receiver Rasheed Bailey, guard Geoff Gray and cornerback Winston Rose would all not be back, while contract discussions are plodding along with kicker Sergio Castillo and ace return man Janarion Grant.

Quizzed as to which losses might hurt the most, Walters was up front. “I think just losing anybody,” he said. “We’ve had such a good championship group and those guys have been part of it, particularly Jermarcus and Jackson have been here for an extended period.

“I’ve been saying this almost every year here, that we’ve been up here a few years, that at some point there has to be some turnover and this was the year. It was challenging. It’s never easy to lose guys.”

On contract talks with Jeffcoat, who announced his retirement to Paul Friesen of The Sun while admitting his frustration in a lack of communication, Walters said:

“Anytime during this process, where the dollar value or the timing doesn’t go the way that we want or the agent wants, there can be frustration. And unfortunately, that’s just part of things. It’s a challenge, but it is unfortunately part of the way these things go at this time of year that there can be delays, there can be disagreements over dollar values.

“I’ll say Jackson’s been an unbelievable player here, helped us win championships. Yeah, unfortunately in situations like this where there can be a lack of communication and there can be a disagreement on dollar values until there’s certainty in the organization, I understand the frustration.”

The inactivity of the last couple of days is hardly to suggest the Blue Bombers won’t be chasing glory again this year. Walters confirmed Wednesday that Canadian defensive back Tyrell Ford will be back after signing with the Green Bay Packers last year and attending training camp there before his release. He’ll instantly be a candidate to start at cornerback.

As well, 18 of the 24 starters from last year’s Grey Cup squad return. To re-use a phrase we trotted out earlier in the week, that has become the Blue Bombers square-peg-in-round-hole challenge over the last few years – keeping this still-dominant group intact. And in that respect, having three-quarters of the starters return — and adding Streveler – is considered a win in Bomberland.

“We’re trying to be positive. That we’ve brought back 18 of the 24 starters from the Grey Cup, is a positive,” said Walters. “Most of those spots we feel we’ve had…and that goes into the decision-making process, as well, where we talk about if you or don’t have to move on from a player, what’s the contingency plan? And we felt that there are some young guys in the building that have showed well at the practice roster and that we’re optimistic that they can compete with other first-year players to come in.

“Canadian depth is something I’ll talk about. We picked up a couple extra draft picks this year. We sent four players back to school (last year), so between the 14 young Canadians, (we have guys) coming in to try and replenish some of our young Canadian depth. And Chris Streveler is a big one, too. When it was clear Dru (Brown) was moving on, we kind of focused our attention on Chris and bringing him back was one that is critically important to our organization and what he can bring.

“… I believe we’ll put a roster out there that will be able to compete again for the Grey Cup. I’m confident of that. You know, the challenge with the success that we’ve had is how do you keep a core group together and augment it with young guys coming through? I think this will be the year that I think we’ll be able to accomplish that – with being able to keep a good core group together, but there’s going to have to be some young guys that are going to have to come in and step up and help us keep winning.”