Blue Bomber Report Record: 6–10–0

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Daft drafts plague Blue

Winnipeg hasn't had much success with its choices in recent memory and the current brain trust knows that needs to change

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Star linebacker Henoc Muamba was a draft day home run for the Blue Bombers, which is to say he lived up to high expectations. Muamba signed with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts in the off-season.

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Star linebacker Henoc Muamba was a draft day home run for the Blue Bombers, which is to say he lived up to high expectations. Muamba signed with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts in the off-season. Photo Store

The game they play is football, but the Winnipeg Blue Bombers desperately need to hit a home run at next month's CFL Draft.

And they know it. "What we absolutely need with our second overall pick is a Canadian who can start immediately," Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea said in an interview on Tuesday.

"What we believe today is that our No. 2 pick overall should be able to come in and start for us on Day 1. And so whoever is left for us after Ottawa picks first, we're going to have sit down and figure out which is the player who's going to be able to come in and start for us."

O'Shea's comments came on the same day the CFL Scouting Bureau released its final rankings of the 2014 draft class. The rankings suggest this year's draft is deep in exactly the same area where the Bombers are shallow, with the three top spots all occupied by offensive lineman and the fourth spot taken up by a defensive lineman who has also played on the O-line.

O'Shea agreed it's no secret the Bombers would love to draft an offensive lineman who can start for them in 2014, but he cautioned it might not be that simple given they're drafting behind the expansion Ottawa Redblacks, who also need help on the O-line. Plus, O'Shea points out that the top prospect -- OL Laurent Duvernay-Tardif -- is almost certainly NFL bound.

"(Offensive line) would seem to be where we have our need, that's for sure," said O'Shea. "But things happen in the draft and you just don't know. We don't have the first overall pick, we've got the second. So what happens in front of us is yet to be determined and that obviously has a bearing on our pick."

Now, having high hopes for your first-rounder and actually drafting someone who can meet them are two very different things, as the long- suffering fans of this city's pro-football team know only too well.

The Bombers have an appalling history with first-round selections that goes back decades. And it only got worse in recent years as the team under former GM Joe Mack either selected players too bad to play in the CFL -- hello 2011 first-rounder Jade Etienne and 2012 first-rounder Tyson Pencer -- or too good to play in the CFL -- hello 2011 first-rounder Henoc Muamba and 2013 first-rounder Andy Mulumba.

Now, at least the Bombers got three seasons out of Muamba before he bolted for the NFL last winter. That's a lot more than can be said for Mulumba, who's yet to set foot in Winnipeg -- and is unlikely to do so anytime soon -- after a very successful rookie season with the Green Bay Packers in 2013.

And it's more than can be said too for Etienne, who's now in Saskatchewan after collecting just 20 catches in three seasons for the Bombers. And Pencer? He has dressed for the grand total of one game in two seasons.

The Bombers cannot afford to make another first-round mistake in 2014, as O'Shea made clear Tuesday. With gaping holes all over their depth chart and a desperate need for quality Canadians who can start, the Bombers need to perfectly execute that increasingly delicate balance that CFL GMs have to walk between drafting someone good enough to start in the CFL but not so good that they'll catch on in the NFL.

That's a tricky and very small sweet spot and it's gotten increasingly smaller in recent years as more and more NFL teams realize there are quality four-down football players to be found in the land of three-down.

"It really is a fine line," TSN analyst and draft guru Duane Forde said Tuesday. "It's become a huge issue. What CFL teams have to do now is really be connected to the NFL and NFL personnel people, so that they can have a sense of what these guys' stock is and where they're projected down there."

The good news for Bombers fans heading into this year's draft, Forde said, is that the new Winnipeg regime that has taken over for Mack under GM Kyle Walters is much better plugged in than Mack ever was, particularly in the CFL and CIS.

Forde said the problem with Mack's draft history wasn't so much the players he selected -- it was more where he selected them.

"If nobody else was going to take Jade Etienne before the third round, then why are you using a first-round pick on him?," Forde wonders. "It's the same thing with all his picks last year. I don't take issue with the kids he chose -- the issue is where he chose them...

"In a draft, you have to know what a player's market value is and Kyle will know that. He calls around, he asks questions. He understands that part of the job better than Joe did. And he's surrounded himself with some pretty good people...

"I think in terms of the draft in particular, Kyle will do a far better job than Joe ever did."

What were they thinking?

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have a whole pile of bad history to overcome if they're going to find the impact player they so desperately need in the first round of next month's CFL Draft.

The club's history in the first round of the draft has been inglorious, to put it mildly.

For one thing, the Bombers have a long history of not even having first-round picks after a long-standing practice of trading them away. The Bombers had just one first-rounder in the 11 drafts from 1997 through 2007. Even in the rare years when the Bombers have picked in the first round, the results have been less than impressive.

Judge for yourself. Here's what the Bombers have done with their last 15 first-round picks dating back to 1986:

  • 2013 (second overall): Andy Mulumba, DL -- Never reported. Played for Green Bay Packers in 2013.
  • 2012 (third overall): Tyson Pencer, OL -- The Bombers traded up to get the third-overall pick and then raised eyebrows around the league when they used it to select Pencer. Pencer spent all of 2012 on the injured list and dressed for just one game in 2013. 
  • 2011 (fourth overall): Jade Etienne, WR -- Recorded just 20 catches for 276 yards in three seasons; traded to Saskatchewan last winter in exchange for the right to sign QB Drew Willy to a contract extension prior to Willy becoming a free agent.
  • 2011 (first overall): Henoc Muamba, LB -- A standout selection. Winnipeg's top defender, top Canadian and MVP in 2013 and the CFL's East Division nominee for top Canadian; signed with the Indianapolis Colts in off-season.
  • 2008 (sixth overall): Brendon LaBatte, OL -- A starter and standout almost from Day 1, LaBatte bolted to Saskatchewan as a free agent following the 2011 season and the Bombers' offensive line has still not recovered.
  • 2000 (second overall): Daaron McField, DL -- Lasted one season, never started and traded away in his second season.
  • 1996 (fourth): Andrew Henry, DB: role player for two seasons.
  • 1995 (sixth): Sean Graham, SB: Lasted three injury-plagued seasons.
  • 1994 (fourth): Ryan Carey, DB: Special teams specialist.
  • 1993 (fifth): Alan Wetmore, LB: Another special-teams guy
  • 1989 (eighth): John O'Brien, LB: Never played a single game in Blue and Gold. 
  • 1988 (third): Dan Wicklum, LB: Lasted one season before getting picked up by Calgary. 
  • 1987 (sixth): Andrew McConnell, DL: Never played for Bombers.
  • 1986 (seventh): Brian Bellway, DL: Never played for Bombers.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2014 D1

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