Faith Ekakitie’s slow-starting career in Winnipeg came to an abrupt halt Saturday when the Blue Bombers released the once-promising Canadian defensive tackle.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 CFL draft lasted a little more than a year and struggled to earn playing time. He suited up for 14 regular-season games and made five tackles during his rookie season.
Ekakitie, 25, also dressed for Winnipeg’s first pre-season game this spring but was a healthy scratch Friday night in B.C. against the Lions. It was a widely held belief his spot on the roster was in jeopardy from the onset of training camp.
"You don’t ever really know until that final meeting," Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said Monday afternoon. "Because you don’t know how you’re going to come out of that game. You don’t know what the roster’s going to look like and who’s going to be put where. So, you have conversations all the way through but you never know until that last minute.
"That decision’s really tough. Faith’s a good football player and he’s such a good guy and a guy you’d like to have in the building longer. When we signed Jake Thomas and you’re out there watching all the reps and watching the film and all the one-on-ones, Jake Thomas is the better football player right now."
Thomas, a veteran Canadian defensive lineman who re-signed with the team midway through training camp, and the club’s intention to start four American defensive linemen played a role in his exit.
Ekakitie’s substantial price tag was a significant factor. CFL insider Justin Dunk reported Ekakitie already had been paid $23,000 this season but by releasing him, Winnipeg would save $62,000 in base salary and $12,000 in housing allowance.
"I wouldn’t say how you weigh all that, I’m not into weighing it all," said O’Shea, who has only two 2017 draft picks (offensive lineman Qadr Spooner and wide receiver Tylor Henry) remaining with the team. "There are other factors that come into play, salary being one of them, changes to the ratio, those kinds of fits. A lot of times it’s out a player’s control...
"I would assume he’s going to be successful somewhere else."
Ekakitie was unavailable for comment but his agent, Ray Haija, said his client’s services are in demand.
"Right now, obviously, we’re in contact with several teams," Haija said. "We still haven’t made any decision about where we’re gonna go. Until then, I really don’t have any comment. We want to make sure he gets placed in the right situation."
Thomas found it hard to accept his former teammate’s departure.
"It’s the hardest part of the business," Thomas said. "You lose a lot of close friends. It was very unfortunate to see him go. I think he has a chance to be a great player in this league, but sometimes, I guess you just need a change of scenery and I hope for nothing but the best for him wherever he goes. I’m sure me and him will keep texting and I told him the day it happened if he needs anything, ‘Just message me.’ He wished me the best of luck. I’m sure our friendship will stay close, but that’s the tough part of the business."
HEADING EAST: kicker Félix Ménard-Brière was released by the Blue Bombers Sunday after declining an offer to join the team’s practice roster. On Monday, he accepted a similar offer to join the Ottawa Redblacks.
Ménard-Brière had a strong pre-season but was unable to unseat incumbent Justin Medlock.
"It takes so long for kickers to break in," O’Shea said. "They just have to have the right opportunity. Hopefully Felix gets an opportunity to get out on the field and it’ll be unfortunate it’s not with us. But we’ve got Justin Medlock — he is, I would say, the best kicker in the league and the best ever."
NO ROOM FOR WALKER: a surprise move was the release of defensive back Brian Walker, who compiled 41 tackles and one interception in 15 games last season.
"I thought he improved but I thought the talent at camp improved," O’Shea said. "Brian Walker was another tough one because he put in a lot games with us last year and we won a lot of games with him playing... He’s only 22 and he’s a guy you’d like to keep around and see develop."
ON THE MEND: veteran linebacker Maurice Leggett is getting closer to a return to active duty, but his recovery from a torn Achilles tendon has made him a spectator for all of training camp.
"We said we’d be cautious with him from the start," O’Shea said. "I think he’s probably very close to physically ready, but we don’t want to push it either, right? We’d like to see what he can do for a full practice or a full practice week before we make any decisions on that."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Tuesday, June 12, 2018 at 8:35 AM CDT: Replaces tile photo