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Walters likes where Blue rebuild is going

GM preaching patience after mixed results in free agency

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Rome wasn't built in a day -- and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers aren't going to be rebuilt in one either.

That seemed to be the message on Wednesday from Kyle Walters as he reflected on his first week of free agency since taking over as the general manager of the Bombers.

"With our on-field product the last two years, there's all sorts of doubts about it," Walters told reporters during a news conference at Investors Group Field. "We've worked extremely hard since December to try to upgrade it, but like I've said before, it doesn't happen overnight."

While Walters was pleased with the three free agent signings he did make on Wednesday -- receivers Nick Moore and Rory Kohlert and defensive back Graig Newman -- he also didn't hide his disappointment that his club was not able to make the big non-import free agent signing they coveted in someone like linebackers Shea Emry (who went to Toronto) or Craig Butler (who landed in Hamilton).

"It is what it is. We're not the only team that didn't get everything we wanted. But we got better (on Wednesday). And that's what I'm trying to focus on and stay positive on -- that we made our football team better. Did everything go our way? Certainly not. But it's very seldom that it does in free agency," Walters said.

'We're very excited. We added some nice pieces to the puzzle. We're still scouring everything and seeing what we can do... But I like to think we're improving and upgrading over last year and you like to think that translates into more wins on the football field'

-- Winnipeg GM Kyle Walters

"You cannot rely on free agency to fix the problem because it's so unreliable... You don't know. It's cloak-and-dagger. You don't know what guys are thinking, you don't know why they make their decisions. And so you do what you can and you certainly can't predict it."

When you add to this week's free agent haul the earlier acquisitions via trade of quarterback Drew Willy and defensive backs Korey Banks and Chris Randle, Walters said he feels like the 2014 team he is trying to build is beginning to point in the right direction.

"We're very excited. We added some nice pieces to the puzzle," said Walters. "We're still scouring everything and seeing what we can do...But I like to think we're improving and upgrading over last year and you like to think that translates into more wins on the football field."

Walters still has some big holes left to fill on his roster, many of them created by the 11 players from last year's team he allowed to go to free agency.

Of those 11, four have signed with other teams this week -- DB Brandon Stewart (Hamilton); DB Jovon Johnson (Ottawa); centre Justin Sorenson (Edmonton); and wide receiver Akeem Foster (Edmonton).

Of the remaining seven Bombers free agents, Walters said the team made offers to two of them -- wide receiver Chris Matthews and running back Will Ford.

Walters said Ford wanted a big raise this year and rejected the Bombers' offer.

"Will's a great young man and I hope he gets that much money from somebody and I'll wish him the best," said Walters.

Walters said Matthews is still hoping to land an NFL opportunity and his agent has told the Bombers Matthews will take his time in making a decision.

Walters said none of the remaining Bombers free agents -- defensive lineman Kenny Mainor, defensive tackle J.T. Gilmore, offensive lineman Andre Douglas, linebacker Dan West and running back Chad Simpson -- were presented a contract offer from the Bombers.

Walters said Simpson had foot surgery in the off-season for the second time and the Bombers weren't comfortable making him an offer given the uncertainty.

That leaves Winnipeg without a feature tailback at the moment, but Walters said he was optimistic one will turn up.

"We're not concerned," he said. "I think the general rule of thumb in the CFL is you're going to see two or three unknown running backs come up every year and be very productive. It's strictly a supply-and-demand kind of thing."

The Bombers are also light on offensive linemen right now with the departure of Sorenson. Walters said both Steve Morley and Chris Kowalczuk have taken reps at centre in the past and both will get more in training camp. He said the club is also hoping that Patrick Neufeld -- acquired late last season in the deal that sent Alex Hall to the Roughriders -- and Tyson Pencer -- Winnipeg's first-round pick in 2012 -- will also step up to help fill the void.

Walters also noted that four of the top five prospects in the upcoming 2014 CFL draft are also offensive linemen and Winnipeg has the second-overall pick.

"The reality of the situation, truthfully, is we need to do a better job of drafting young guys and grooming them," said Walters. "Montreal has the best model for that -- Montreal continually drafts offensive linemen, one or two every year. They send them back to school, bring them back and then continue to develop them. I think that's what you need to do...

"There's no short-term fix at the Canadian offensive line position. Those guys are at a premium."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2014 D7

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