Big Blue are all in
Adding Lawler to already formidable roster shows Bombers intent on building dynasty
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By convincing Kenny Lawler to come to Winnipeg despite offers for more money elsewhere, the Blue Bombers added arguably the CFL’s best receiver to an already star-studded roster.
Acquiring Lawler did more than just bolster the Blue and Gold’s lineup. It also sent a message to the rest of the league the Bombers are all in on the 2023 season, that last year’s defeat to the Toronto Argonauts in the Grey Cup was a minor setback and their pursuit of cementing themselves as a dynasty is full steam ahead.
Lawler, who will make around $265,000 his first season, with that number jumping to $300,000 for the second, lasted just one year with the Edmonton Elks. The contract won’t be confirmed until free agency officially opens on Feb. 14, but the deal is as close to done as it gets.
He’s already arranged to come to Winnipeg to sign the papers and speak to media. Lawler also posted a heartfelt goodbye to his Edmonton fans on Instagram for good measure.
It’s a homecoming of sorts. Lawler got his start in Winnipeg, with a standout campaign in 2021, his second with the Bombers, ending with the 28-year-old leading the CFL in receiving. That led to a massive pay bump, as Lawler moved on from his rookie salary with Winnipeg to become the league’s highest paid receiver as a member of the Elks, who shelled out $305,000 for his services.
With Lawler now in the mix, alongside a receivers group that includes 2022 CFL leader Dalton Schoen and Nic Demski, the Bombers have easily one of the league’s best air attacks. Any quarterback could do well with that group, let alone Zach Collaros, the CFL’s reigning back-to-back most outstanding player.
For those wondering about receivers Rasheed Bailey and Greg Ellingson, both of whom are pending free agents, the Lawler contract pretty much confirms they’ll both be available on the open market Tuesday. Barring a last-minute deal, there’s a good chance they’re wearing different colours in June.
Through all the predictable excitement following the Lawler signing, there were still a few detractors, the main argument being the price tag is too much to take on. There is some merit to that, which is only strengthened by the fact the Bombers — under the current leadership of president and CEO Wade Miller, general manager Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea — have shown a reluctance to shell out big dollars for a receiver.
There’s a reason, however, they went all-in with Lawler that goes beyond hoping he’s the piece that puts them over the top for another successful championship run. It’s the same reason the Bombers might not find themselves in such a salary cap crunch trying to pay off an expensive second year when Lawler returns for 2024.
The Bombers are wisely coming to grips with the fact that while they’ve become the class of the CFL, that rise has come on the backs of an aging leadership core. Continuity has been among the key ingredients in their recipe for prolonged success, but they seem destined to hit a crossroads in the near future with several of their key contributors.
This column isn’t meant to retire anyone or slap a guarantee that a player’s performance will suffer a steep regression in the near future. Father Time remains undefeated in pro sports and therefore there’s some real weight behind suggesting this could be the final season where the Bombers dominate the league the way we’ve seen the last few years.
How much longer can Winnipeg rely on offensive tackles Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick, who will be 37 and 33, respectively, once the season begins, to continue to play at an all-star level? The same can be said about guard Patrick Neufeld, who has played some of his best football in recent years, but at 34 years old, can he continue to play through the several bumps and bruises accumulated over an 11-year career?
There are examples on defence, too.
I wouldn’t bet against linebacker Adam Bighill playing until he’s 50 — I’m joking, kind of — but also being 34, how much more punishment is he going to be willing to endure? Not to mention he has established himself as a reliable investment banker the last few years as a clear retirement plan.
Defensive lineman Jake Thomas is the longest-tenured Bomber and has been a key part of the Canadian ratio, but Winnipeg almost gave up on him a few years back. Jackson Jeffcoat has battled through injuries, and while he didn’t say it outright, the feeling was last year could have been his last.
It will be difficult for management to eventually replace all the aforementioned names, from a talent and leadership standpoint. It will, however, undoubtedly free up money to spend. How that ends up for the Bombers will be heavily dependent on the success of their scouting staff.
As for the upcoming season, all pieces appear to be in place. Well, almost.
The Bombers still need to address the kicking situation after Marc Liegghio’s up-and-down season, including some critical misses during the playoffs. Liegghio is still on the roster and could be a part of training camp in May.
But he won’t be alone. The Bombers will have competition in place, let’s just hope they have enough money left over to find a good leg to battle for a spot.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Wednesday, February 8, 2023 8:03 PM CST: Fixes typo in deck
Updated on Thursday, February 9, 2023 9:21 AM CST: Adds web headline