They have patiently waited all winter, laying perfectly still like the most dedicated of hunters.
And now that not one, but two potential No. 1 quarterback candidates have suddenly appeared in their crosshairs, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are ready to pull the trigger on what will be THE single most-important off-season roster addition.
Not long after the Toronto Argonauts released Zach Collaros on Wednesday -- he had balked at what GM Jim Barker called a lucrative contract extension offer and the club opted to move on -- sources told Free Press columnist Gary Lawless both the Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats immediately pounced and began negotiations with the 25-year-old pivot, who was scheduled to become a free agent on Feb. 15.
At the same time, future Hall of Famer Henry Burris -- the man who led the CFL in passing yardage the last two seasons and helped guide the Ticats to the Grey Cup game and is also headed to free agency -- has yet to hear from Hamilton GM/head coach Kent Austin about a new deal.
All of this means the stars are aligning perfectly for the Bombers as they have both the cash and a clear-cut path to the coveted starting QB gig to wave in front of both candidates as the meat of their sales pitch.
The club issued a carefully worded statement of non-committal Wednesday morning after the Argos announced Collaros had been released -- "We are continuing to evaluate all options at all positions, including the quarterback position, and are always looking to improve our roster in every area" -- but essentially had the doors to CFL free agency swung open for them 18 days before the official signing period.
As was reported last week, the Bombers are taken with the upside of Collaros, who went 5-2 as a starter last year while replacing an injured Ricky Ray in Toronto. But there have apparently also been discussions within the organization about the quick fix Burris could provide -- knowing full well he turns 39 this June -- while new assistant GM Danny McManus would work his connections to find a bona fide prospect to line up behind the vet and Max Hall, who finished 2013 as the club's No. 1 QB.
Saskatchewan Roughriders backup Drew Willy, also a free agent next month, would be Option No. 3 for the Bombers if Burris or Collaros aren't available. The Ottawa Redblacks are said to also be interested in Collaros, but after scooping up Kevin Glenn and Thomas DeMarco in the expansion draft, word around the CFL is they were possibly in this QB bidding game simply to drive up the asking price.
"There have been no negotiations. I hope there is still interest there (from the Ticats) -- I don't know why there wouldn't be," Burris told the Hamilton Spectator's Drew Edwards on Wednesday. "It's disappointing.
"It's hard to say 'Yeah, I'm wanted there.' I know they want to look at the future but I always think it's better to take a sure bet than to roll the dice. Is it a strong want? I can't say I feel that.
"I would definitely go to Winnipeg," added Burris. "I just want to somewhere I'm wanted and right now it's hard to tell where that is. I sacrificed a lot this year in Hamilton in terms of playing time and maybe that was a foreshadow of what was to come."
Feeling unwanted in Hamilton -- and with Glenn and DeMarco in the capital -- Burris' best chance to extend his career with what would likely be his last contract would be with the Bombers.
And while Collaros could benefit from working with a QB guru like Burris in Hamilton and would be joining the East Division champions, the Ticats depth chart also features some juicy prospects, including Dan LeFevour -- who split reps with Burris last year -- along with Jeremiah Masoli, Brian Brohm and Stephen McGee.
In Winnipeg the depth chart features Hall, along with Justin Goltz, Levi Brown and Jason Boltus -- the last three of which the club, right now at least, seems remotely interested in keeping. As well, new head coach Mike O'Shea was part of the Argonaut staff Collaros worked with last year in Toronto.
The QB sweepstakes wasn't the only news that kept the Bombers busy on Wednesday. Sources say the team will soon announce veteran coach Gary Etcheverry as its new defensive co-ordinator with Nelson Martin -- a longtime CFL assistant -- as the new defensive backs coach.
Etcheverry, who has coached with Toronto, Saskatchewan and Ottawa and was most recently the head coach of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees before being fired after an 0-5 start, is known for his 'unorthodox' defensive schemes.
And, oh, there's more, as the Bombers also swung a trade with the Ticats, dealing the rights to Canadian receiver Giovanni Aprile for Canadian defensive back Matt Bucknor.
Aprile was the Bombers' second-round draft pick in 2012 (16th overall) but never played a regular-season game for the club -- which tried to convert him to safety in 2012 -- before returning to school at Queen's where he was an OUA all-star in 2012 and second-team all-star in 2011 and 2013
Bucknor (5-11, 180, Windsor) is an undrafted Hamilton product who emerged to start games at both safety and corner for the Ticats. He started 14 games in 2012, but played in only nine games last year after losing his starting job.
-- with files from Gary Lawless, Paul Wiecek
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