Blue Bomber Report Record: 7–11–0

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A look at the Bombers -- first edition -- for 2014

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The Winnipeg Blue Bombers made 11 cuts on Friday in preparation for Thursday's CFL regular-season opener at Investors Group Field against the Toronto Argonauts.

While there are still more moves to come this weekend as the club finalizes its 46-man roster and compiles its injury lists and practice roster, we've now got a pretty good idea of what this year's club is going to look like.

Football writers Ed Tait and Paul Wiecek break it down by position:


QUARTERBACKS

STARTER: Drew Willy*

RESERVES: Brian Brohm*, Robert Marve*, Kolton Browning*

KEY STAT: 4 -- Combined number of previous career CFL starts by Willy, Brohm, Marve and Browning

ANALYSIS: With Friday's release of veteran backup Max Hall, the Bombers are going all-in this season on Drew Willy staying healthy. Willy has just four previous starts in the CFL, but that makes him the grizzled veteran on a depth chart where the three men behind him -- Brohm, Marve and newcomer Kolton Browning -- have never played a single down during the CFL regular season. That's a big gamble in a league where only one starting quarterback last season got through all 18 regular-season games without getting injured. The good news is the Bombers coaching staff love what Willy showed in the pre-season and they believe their off-season gamble that he is ready to make the transition from a backup to a starter has already paid off.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

PROJECTED STARTERS: LT Glenn January*, LG Chris Greaves, C Steve Morley, RG Patrick Neufeld, RT Dan Knapp*

RESERVES: Jarvis Jones*, Paul Swiston, Matthias Goossen, Quinn Everett, Dale Stevenson, Cordaro Howard*

KEY STAT: 3 -- The minimum number of non-imports Winnipeg will need to use on the O-line to make their ratio work.

ANALYSIS: Bombers GM Kyle Walters said over the winter that whoever the club drafted second overall would be expected to be a starter from Day 1 of the regular season. That was probably wishful thinking and the man who the Bombers took with the second overall pick, Matthias Goossen, will start the regular season on the bench behind Morley at centre. With an inexperienced starting QB under centre this season, this bunch will have to improve on the 51 sacks they yielded in 2013, fifth most in the league, and do a better job of making holes for the running game, which was second-last in 2013.

 

RECEIVERS

PROJECTED STARTERS: SB Clarence Denmark*, SB Cory Watson, SB Nick Moore*, WR Rory Kohlert, WR Aaron Kelly*

RESERVES: Aaron Woods*, Donavon Kemp*, Brett Carter, Julian Feolo-Gudino

KEY STAT: $185,000 -- The annual salary the Bombers offered free agent Nick Moore to bolt from the B.C. Lions in the off-season.

ANALYSIS: Moore was Winnipeg's biggest off-season free-agent signing, a move that raised a few eyebrows around a league where import wide receivers are often regarded as a dime a dozen. After recording just 37 catches for 449 yards in his first two seasons combined, Moore had a breakout season in 2013 with 73 catches for 1,105 yards and six TDs. The Bombers' brain trust is betting a lot of money that Moore can build on that, but it's a big question mark heading into 2014. And it's not the only question mark among this receiving corps. The others: Can Watson stay healthy? Can Kohlert build on a 45-catch, 493-yard season in 2013 to become an elite Canadian receiver? Is the pre-season chemistry Denmark showed with Willy a sign of more to come?

 

RUNNING BACK

PROJECTED STARTER: Nic Grigsby

RESERVES: Will Ford, Paris Cotton, Carl Volny, Kyle Bolton, Michel-Pierre Pontbriand, Carl Fitzgerald

KEY STAT: 1 -- Of the three men expected to battle all training camp for the starting tailback job -- Ford, Cotton and Grigsby, only Grigsby is actually healthy heading into the regular season. And head coach Mike O'Shea says even Grigsby is hurting a bit.

ANALYSIS: A stronger running game in 2014 would go a long way to taking some pressure off an inexperienced starting QB in Drew Willy. The Bombers averaged just 86.3 yards on the ground per game in 2013, ahead of only Toronto last season and miles behind almost everyone else. Ford showed some promise toward the end of last season as a potential feature tailback and the Bombers re-signed him over the winter, but only after Ford went shopping elsewhere for more money that never came. He then missed almost all of training camp with an injury. In the absence of Ford, Cotton looked the best at the position in training camp, but he tweaked a knee last weekend in Calgary and will miss at least the first regular-season game. Put it all together and Grigsby wins the opening day job by default. Whether he keeps it beyond that remains to be seen.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

STARTERS: DE: Greg Peach*; DT: Bryant Turner, Jr.*; DT: Jake Thomas; DE: Jason Vega*

RESERVES: Zach Anderson*, Louie Richardson, Kashawn Fraser*.

INJURED: Ryan Lucas (done for season).

KEY STAT: 68.1 per cent -- completion percentage of opposition QBs against the Bombers defence, worst in the CFL, and the worst by a Winnipeg defence dating back over 25 years.

ANALYSIS: The starters look solid, led by East Division all-star Turner while Peach and Vega should provide some pressure from the edge. Thomas is an all-effort guy, but the depth behind the projected Canadian starter is thin -- only Richardson -- meaning the Bombers will likely be scouring the waiver wire this weekend looking for help.


LINEBACKERS

STARTERS: OLB: Korey Banks*; MLB: Ejiro Kuale*, OLB: Desia Dunn*.

RESERVES: Ian Wild*, Maurice Leggett*, Mike Cornell, Jesse Briggs, Aram Eisho, Rene Stephan.

INJURED: Graig Newman (gone for season).

KEY STAT: 222 -- Career CFL games played by Banks (163) and Kuale (59). A year ago the Bombers opened the season with Henoc Muamba as their most experienced linebacker and as athletic as the new guys were, that inexperience was exposed regularly. Banks and Kuale may not be lickety-split quick, but they are savvy.

ANALYSIS: Gary Etcheverry's scheme means the defence will forever feature a number of moving pieces, linebackers included. The additions of Banks and Kuale, coupled with players like Dunn, Wild and Leggett -- the former Kansas City Chiefs rookie of the year who could start at linebacker, halfback or safety -- means this is arguably the deepest position on the Bombers depth chart.

 

SECONDARY

PROJECTED STARTERS: CB: Chris Randle*; DB Demond Washington*; S: Johnny Sears, Jr.; DB: Alex Suber*: CB: Donovan Alexander.

RESERVES: Marty Markett*, Don Unamba*, Matt Bucknor, Teague Sherman, Derek Jones, Bruce Johnson*, Daivon Dumas* Dan West.

KEY STAT: 12 -- Interceptions by the Bombers in 2013, the lowest total in the CFL for the second straight season. Worth noting: in 1990 -- the last time the Bombers won the Grey Cup -- Rod Hill had 14 interceptions and Less Browne 12 as the club set a CFL record that still stands with 48.

ANALYSIS: A real makeover here with Jovon Johnson, Cauchy Muamba and Brandon Stewart all gone. Right now this is a very unsettled unit as the coaches still determine where to play Leggett -- possibly at linebacker or safety, too. Randle will be solid on the one side and the Bombers are committed to starting a Canadian at the other corner.

 

SPECIALISTS

KICKERS: Lirim Hajrullahu (place kicker); Mike Renaud (punter)

LONG-SNAPPER: Ian Wild.

RETURNERS: Will Ford*, Demond Washington*

KEY STAT: 82 per cent and zero -- The career field-goal percentage for Justin Palardy, who was cut last year because his kickoffs weren't deep enough and the career field-goal percentage of Hajrullahu, the rookie from Western Ontario who will now handle the chores.

ANALYSIS: Hajrullahu is a great story as a rookie earning the job. He didn't miss an attempt in the pre-season, but can he hit the clutch kick when the result is a win or loss in the standings? Ford is dinged right now, but with O'Shea's attention to detail on special teams, the return game has a chance to be dynamic.

*Denotes import

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 C3

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