The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will likely begin the 2013 CFL season without one of their most valuable defensive players -- linebacker Marcellus Bowman.
But it won't be, as many Bombers fans feared, because Winnipeg lost Bowman to the CFL free-agency period that begins today.
The biggest news to come out of a teleconference call Thursday afternoon between Bombers GM Joe Mack and the local media was that Bowman had what was described as "major knee surgery" just last Thursday and now faces "months and months" of recovery and rehabilitation.
Bowman was due to become a free agent today, and it was widely thought he would attract significant interest across the CFL if the Bombers were unable to first lock him down.
But with Bowman's future now so uncertain, what sounds like a courtesy contract Mack has offered Bowman will likely be Bowman's only offer.
"I've had a conversation with his agent, and in deference to the fact that Marcellus has been such a good player and such a good person, I am willing to do something from a contract standpoint to keep him on the team... The tough thing for all of us is the procedure he had, it could be a fairly lengthy rehab process. And I'm talking months and months.
"So the fact I reached out to Marcellus, to be quite frank, is really in deference to what he's done for us in the past and just to make him feel part of the team. Because right now, it'd probably be problematic that he'd even be ready by training camp."
Mack said it's not entirely clear when Bowman suffered the knee injury and he declined to discuss the specifics of it, citing privacy concerns for Bowman.
Mack said he was hopeful linebacker Terrell Parker, who was on the Bombers roster last season and saw limited action, could step up and assume Bowman's role at weak-side linebacker.
"But aside from that, we'll likely be aggressive and try and find some free agents, probably in the States, to come up and compete," Mack said.
The good news for Bombers fans Thursday was that a couple of other potential Winnipeg free agents today -- import defensive lineman Bryant Turner and import slotback Clarence Denmark -- have decided to remain with the Bombers.
Mack said Turner agreed to a new deal earlier Thursday and a new deal with Denmark was imminent.
The GM said non-import defensive lineman Fernand Kashama and import cornerback Deon Beasley remain unsigned and will be exploring free-agent waters as of today.
The only other potential Bombers free agent is Jason Vega, who has signed a deal with the NFL's New England Patriots, as reported weeks ago.
With Vega gone and Kashama potentially gone, Mack was asked about the state of his defensive line.
"Obviously it hurts losing Jason, and we'll see what happens with Kashama, but we still have Alex Hall, Bryant Turner, Andre Carroll, JT Gilmore, Kenny Mainor, Youri Yenga, so I think we're still in pretty good (shape). But you're always looking to upgrade that."
Mack said he doesn't see a lot of defensive-line help becoming available in CFL free agency, and he will most likely be looking south for prospects.
Mack told reporters he had targeted five potential CFL free agents this winter, but all five have since signed contracts.
He refused to name names, but one of those potential free agents was obviously quarterback Mike Reilly, who signed with Edmonton last month after being traded by BC.
Winnipeg was also interested in Edmonton import defensive lineman Marcus Howard, who re-signed with the Eskimos last month, and Montreal's non-import offensive tackle Jeff Perett, who re-signed with the Als just this week.
Mack sounded lukewarm to the prospects that do remain in the CFL free agency that begins Friday, none of whom include proven quarterbacks -- the Bombers' most dire need.
"I don't see anyone who would be on the same plateau as those other five players (Winnipeg targeted)," he said.
"I think there were five players who we thought could contribute right away. I don't think, from what we see right now sitting here today, that there's anybody we feel definitively (who becomes available Friday) would upgrade us."
He was asked for an assessment of Winnipeg's uncertain quarterback situation and said the club is assessing some American talent.
"There are some quarterbacks that we're aware of that are on our neg list that we've had conversations with, and they could be a factor moving forward."
Blue's free-agent list short
It will be slim pickings in Winnipeg for other CFL teams today when the CFL free-agency period begins.
With Thursday's announcement by Blue Bombers GM Joe Mack that he has signed import defensive lineman Bryant Turner to a new deal and has another deal imminent with import slotback Clarence Denmark, the Bombers have just four players that will become free agents today.
One of those four, import defensive lineman Jason Vega, long ago agreed to a contract with the NFL's New England Patriots, and another, import linebacker Marcellus Bowman, had major knee surgery last week and his immediate playing future is very much in doubt.
That leaves just non-import defensive lineman Fernand Kashama and import defensive back Deon Beasley for other suitors to court. Kashama's most valuable asset is his Canadian passport, but Winnipeg was unwilling to pay a premium for it on a club that went with an all-American defensive line last year and intends to do so this year. He might attract interest elsewhere, however.
Beasley became expendable in a deep Bombers secondary last season and was frequent a healthy scratch.
Who's coming loose today
The consensus around the CFL is that this year's pool of free agents is a trifle shallow.
While a couple of monster names jump off the page in B.C., where linebacker Solomon Elimimian and offensive lineman Jovan Olafioye become free agents today, both men are much more interested in playing in the NFL and will likely end up right back in B.C. if those forays don't work out.
In Saskatchewan, rush end and former Bomber Odell Willis will become a free agent today. Willis has said he'd like to test the NFL, but if that doesn't work out, he could end up back in the CFL on just about any team except Winnipeg's, where head coach Tim Burke is not a big fan.
Here's a sampling of some other interesting names expected to become free agents today, by position:
Chad Kackert, Toronto
Brandon Whitaker, Montreal
Marcus Henry, Edmonton
Maurice Mann, Toronto
Jon Hameister-Ries, B.C. (non-import)
Dylan Steenbergen, Edmonton (non-import)
Dwight Anderson, Montreal
Cauchy Muamba, B.C. (non-import)
Tyron Brackenridge, Saskatchewan
Shomari Williams, Saskatchewan (non-import)
Ricky Foley, Toronto (non-import)
Julius Williams, Edmonton