Unfinished business Elite receiver Lawler returns to Bombers in pursuit of third Grey Cup in four seasons
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
Kenny Lawler said he received plenty of interest in the days leading up to CFL free agency, but his heart was always with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“There’s a lot of unfinished business to take care of. Winnipeg fell short last year, and I believe I can come in and help get us back to where we were two years ago,” Lawler told reporters at IG Field Tuesday, less than two hours after CFL free agency opened.
“Man, I know the community wants it. I know I wanted it. My family wanted it and it was just a no-brainer decision to come back and continue building something here that I already built over the last two years. It was just a no brainer.”
News broke last week, during the league’s “legal tampering” period, that Lawler had agreed to terms on a two-year deal with Winnipeg. The two sides weren’t able to make their renewed commitment to one another official until Tuesday — on Valentine’s Day, no less — which now has Lawler under team control through the 2024 CFL season.
Lawler spent his first two years in the CFL in Winnipeg, helping the Bombers earn Grey Cup titles in 2019 and 2021. He led the club in receiving yards in both seasons but had a breakout campaign in his second year, in which he finished as the league’s leading receiver and was named a CFL all-star.
That kind of success made Lawler a wanted man across the league, with the Edmonton Elks willing to pay him $305,000 for his services in 2022. The Bombers didn’t get that high this time around, but they did come close, with Lawler earning around $260,000 this year and $300,000 in 2024.
There were other teams in the mix, including Montreal and Edmonton, but Lawler made it known to his agent that unless a deal with the Bombers wasn’t possible, he wanted to come back to the city where it all started.
“I knew that if I was coming back to Winnipeg I was coming back for the love of the game — I wasn’t really coming back for the money,” Lawler said. “The money is nice, but I believe there is something special here. There’s an incredible feeling as soon as you walk back into the building that there’s something very, very incredible off in the distance for us to obtain. That’s really the biggest reason I came back — the unfinished business part.”
Lawler played well on an Elks team that struggled throughout the 2022 season, including going 0-9 at home.
While he never outright said it, Lawler clearly had a hard time in Edmonton with the lack of stability on and off the field, as the Elks worked through a rebuild under general manager and head coach Chris Jones, finishing the year 4-14.
The Bombers tried to acquire Lawler at the CFL trade deadline last season and almost did. The deal ultimately fell apart after Lawler suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
The 28-year-old finished the year with 58 catches for 894 yards and five touchdowns in just 12 games.
“I knew that if I was coming back to Winnipeg I was coming back for the love of the game — I wasn’t really coming back for the money.”–Kenny Lawler
“In our opinion, he’s the best receiver in the CFL,” Bombers general manager Kyle Walters said. “What we saw here, working with him every day for a couple years and seeing his growth on and off the field is why I say that.”
He added: “Familiarity is key. He’ll come right in and pick up (offensive co-ordinator) Buck (Pierce’s) offence and won’t miss a beat. It will be seamless, like he never left.”
Walters said in conversations with team brass, they viewed Lawler as the player atop their wish list. Few around the league can make the kind of players Lawler can, and his eagerness to return to Winnipeg helped in coming up with a workable number.
The signing of Lawler follows a recent trend in the CFL of teams shelling out big money to American receivers. There were others who received a big pay day on Tuesday, including Geno Lewis, who was signed by Edmonton for $320,000 as a replacement for Lawler.
“That’s the market and you have to take a deep breath and go if this is the guy you want, this is the range it’s going to have to be and figure out a way to get it done,” Walters said. “We do have a majority of the same guys back, but when we sat down and said what’s the one key piece (missing) here, it was Kenny Lawler across the board, that type of playmaker that can just single-handedly make the play to win the game for you.”
Lawler joins a Bombers receiver group that includes Dalton Schoen, who, as a rookie in 2022, led receivers in yards (1,441) and touchdowns (16), as well as Nic Demski, who inked a three-year extension earlier this month after recording a career-high 10 touchdowns in 2022. Drew Wolitarsky and Carlton Agudosi are expected to round out a starting five that is among the best in the CFL.
Then there’s the rapport Lawler has with Pierce and the chemistry between he and Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros. Lawler said he’s already spoken to Collaros, including making plans to work out together in Toronto, where the Bombers quarterback lives in the off-season, ahead of training camp in May.
Not one to lack confidence, Lawler believes he’s the best receiver in the CFL and with an offence as strong as Winnipeg’s, he said there’s no limit to where they could go in 2023. The main goal, though, is winning a Grey Cup, making it a third league championship in the last four seasons.
“To the moon. We’re going back to the Grey Cup. We’re going to go take it all,” Lawler said. “With me, yeah, the offence has gained a piece but with everybody around us I feel like there’s even more room to grow. I was telling Zach once we’re done with this run, whenever it is, there’s going to be a 30 for 30 for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.”
“In our opinion, he’s the best receiver in the CFL… What we saw here, working with him every day for a couple years and seeing his growth on and off the field is why I say that.”–Bombers general manager Kyle Walters
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.