Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters has just one more day -- today -- to lock down whatever pieces from last year's dreadful 3-15 season he thinks are worth saving.
With CFL free agency set to begin Tuesday at 11 a.m. CT, the Bombers still had a whopping 12 pending free agents listed on the CFL website as unsigned as of Sunday night.
Seven of those 12 potential free agents were key starters for the Bombers for all or part of last season: running backs Will Ford and Chad Simpson, defensive backs Jovon Johnson and Brandon Stewart, wide receiver Chris Matthews, defensive lineman Kenny Mainor and centre Justin Sorenson.
Winnipeg's other pending free agents as of Sunday night were LB Dan West, long snapper Chris Cvetkovic, OL Andre Douglas, WR Akeem Foster (acquired from BC in the Buck Pierce trade) and DE JT Gilmore.
Now, the fact Simpson is still unsigned doesn't come as a surprise -- his two seasons in Winnipeg were riddled with injury, and the club had all but given up on the former NFLer by the end of last season.
The other pending free agents among last year's Bombers starters weren't without redeeming merit:
- Ford showed flashes of becoming something very special toward the end of last season, and was being touted as the team's potential new starting tailback in 2014;
- Matthews had an injury-riddled campaign in 2013, but was the league's rookie of the year the season before;
- Johnson clearly regressed in 2013, but is still just two seasons removed from becoming the first defensive back in CFL history to be named defensive player of the year;
- Sorenson has been a steady and reliable plug in the middle of an offensive line that was a revolving door at the end of last year;
- Mainor is unpredictable at times, but posted respectable numbers in 2013, and was not the biggest problem on a porous Bombers defence;
- Ditto Stewart.
It would be surprising if Walters doesn't lock down at least one or two names from that list before free agency opens Tuesday, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and a 3-15 record in 2013 definitely fits that bill.
Plus, this is no ordinary free agency period. A still-to-be-negotiated new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the CFLPA has caused some uncertainty, because it is expected to include an increase to the salary cap thanks to a lucrative new TV deal with TSN. On top of that, NFL teams have lately been showing an increasing willingness to give CFLers a long hard look, which is in turn prompting more CFLers to give the NFL a look. Add to those conditions the presence of a new franchise in Ottawa this coming season, and pending free agents aren't seeing much downside to testing the waters and seeing what's out there before they sign on the dotted line.
The good news for the Bombers is there are also lots of tasty pending free agents on other teams, including, as of Sunday night, Montreal LB Shea Emry and OL Josh Bourke, who would both look fantastic in Winnipeg uniforms next season as, respectively, a non-import linebacker replacement for NFL-bound Henoc Muamba and stalwart protection for new Winnipeg QB Drew Willy.
Also working in Winnipeg's favour is the fact Walters should have some money to throw around once free agency opens. The Bombers are reportedly going to pay Willy less next season than they offered to pay Zach Collaros, who opted to sign with Hamilton instead, and a lot less than they offered to Henry Burris, who opted to sign with Ottawa instead.
Still, asked Friday about his plans for free agency, Walters seemed determined to temper fan expectations of either a Bombers shopping spree this week or free agency being the panacea for all that ails this team.
"Believe me, we've got our list of guys that we're going to target," said Walters. "But I can assure you, long-term success isn't built through free agency. Long-term success for this organization will be built through our scouting department finding young talent, and bringing them up and developing them within our system.
"Long-term success for us will be improving our Canadian draft -- the quality of players we bring in and making sure we improve our Canadian talent. The long-term vision of this organization is that's how we'll improve. We'll look to add through free agency, but long-term our goal is to develop through our scouting department and Canadian draft process."
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