Lost in all the public discussion that's been going on lately about what will be a frantic search this off-season for a new starting quarterback for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers has been the identity of the five men the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will assign to protect that new pivot in 2014?
But while it's been a subject mostly lost to fans and the media, it has been top of mind for the Bombers front office, who -- judging by the 15 offensive lineman on the practice field at Investors Group Field on Thursday -- have clearly decided to use the final month of this lame-duck 2013 season to audition a new Winnipeg offensive line.
A steady airlift of new offensive linemen over the past month was topped up with two more at Bombers practice on Thursday as non-import Patrick Neufeld and import Cordaro Howard both made their Bombers debuts.
With the addition of Neufeld, who was aquired last Sunday from the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Alex Hall trade, and Howard, a former NFLer who the Bombers added to their practice roster Thursday, Winnipeg now has exactly three times the number of offensive linemen they can ever play at one time.
And that is by design for a team that struggled mightily this season to establish a running game or protect the quarterback. While some of those troubles in 2013 track back to the lack of an effective starting quarterback for Winnipeg this season, the concensus is that it won't matter who they sign as a new QB this off-season if they can't do a better job of protecting him and giving the club an effective running option.
Enter Neufeld, who started 13 games for the Riders in 2012 and has the added big bonus of a Canadian passport to go with the ability to block and tear open holes from the tackle position.
While Neufeld has been dogged by injuries this season -- a broken leg in training camp, a bruised calf the last couple weeks -- the Bombers are willing to gamble that when he does finally suit up for them (it won't be this weekend), he will be more of the mainstay player he was last year and less of the infirmary case he's been this year.
The payoff, if they're right, is a 24-year-old Canadian playing a right tackle position normally played by Americans -- and potentially playing as a ratio-changer for years to come.
"It'd be huge," Bombers head coach Tim Burke said Thursday of the prospect. "That's the hardest thing to find right now, I think. If you look around the league, there's not a lot of non-import tackles playing.
"It means you can play Canadian-heavy, which means you start eight or nine (non-imports) and you can just plug Americans in wherever, without even declaring a DI (designated import)...The other thing it does, if you can get four Canadian linemen, that means another spot can be an American, whether it be receiver or free safety or go with an all-American D-line."
Neufeld says he wants to be that player for Winnipeg and he believes this week's trade is a good move for his career, even if it meant leaving behind the Green and White he's known all his life as a born-and-bred Saskatchewan lifer.
"It is a change but I think it's going to be a change that's really good for my career," said Neufeld, who was a spectator Thursday as the Bombers returned to the practice field for the first time since the big trade.
"It's a chance to compete for a Canadian right tackle spot and I think if I can play that spot, it can benefit other spots on this team ratio-wise. Right now, I'm just focused on going in there, competing and making this team as good as possible."
Burke said it's not clear when Neufeld will get the medical green light to play, but he will be in the lineup as soon as he does. And the head coach said Howard -- who had four starts in 2010 for the Buffalo Bills -- will also likely see some game action before the season is out.
Asked what it's like to have such an abundance of hogs right now from which to choose, Burke laughed. "It's a good deal."
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