February 24, 2018

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Busy free agency awaits Bombers

Team 'looking to upgrade across the board' to help end 27-year Grey Cup drought

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>Jamaal Westerman could find himself on a new team after CFL free agency opens on Tuesday.</p>

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Jamaal Westerman could find himself on a new team after CFL free agency opens on Tuesday.

Months into the off-season and a day away from free agency, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have started to take shape for the 2018 Canadian Football League season.

Coming off a 2017 campaign where they finished with the second-best regular-season record at 12-6, the Bombers have made significant changes in almost every area. They have shuffled their defensive coaching staff, re-signed key contributors from last year and have added a number of new and potentially significant pieces in recent weeks.

But if the Bombers are to finally get over the hump-turned-mountain that is a 27-year Grey Cup drought, more moves must be made in the coming days. The only question remaining is whether Winnipeg will be able to succeed in finding those few final pieces.

When speaking with reporters on Friday, Bombers general manager Kyle Walters called this off-season his most challenging. The more he spoke, the more he insinuated it may be tough to get exactly what he wants — for the price he wants to pay — when Tuesday’s free agency officially opens at 11 a.m.

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Months into the off-season and a day away from free agency, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have started to take shape for the 2018 Canadian Football League season.

Coming off a 2017 campaign where they finished with the second-best regular-season record at 12-6, the Bombers have made significant changes in almost every area. They have shuffled their defensive coaching staff, re-signed key contributors from last year and have added a number of new and potentially significant pieces in recent weeks.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters has been making a lot of calls lately.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters has been making a lot of calls lately.

But if the Bombers are to finally get over the hump-turned-mountain that is a 27-year Grey Cup drought, more moves must be made in the coming days. The only question remaining is whether Winnipeg will be able to succeed in finding those few final pieces.

When speaking with reporters on Friday, Bombers general manager Kyle Walters called this off-season his most challenging. The more he spoke, the more he insinuated it may be tough to get exactly what he wants — for the price he wants to pay — when Tuesday’s free agency officially opens at 11 a.m.

"Unquestionably the most challenging off-season to date, for me, just in regards to the amount of communication. We’re on these calls, it seems like, every other day," Walters said. "You just don’t know which of these routes we’re going to go with until it unfolds."

However the dominoes fall, what is clear is the Bombers can’t do the same thing from a year ago. After a successful 11-7 regular season in 2016 — the result of being the most active team in free agency, signing the likes of running back Andrew Harris, receivers Ryan Smith and Weston Dressler and kicker Justin Medlock — the Bombers did little prior to the 2017 season, thinking they already had a pretty full cupboard of talent.

While they added defensive end Tristan Okpalaugo prior to free agency, before adding defensive tackle Drake Nevis and receiver Matt Coates on the day free agency opened, these pieces merely replaced what they had lost in not re-signing defensive tackles Euclid Cummings and Keith Shologan. The result was a second straight year where they were unable to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

The Bombers finished with one of the best offences in the CFL last season, much of which will be back for 2018.

Only Travis Bond won’t be returning from what was considered to be the best offensive line in the league in 2017. Starting quarterback Matt Nichols is primed for another good year, and Harris, after winning the CFL’s most outstanding Canadian award last November, has vowed to put up even better numbers this season (he finished with 1,035 yards rushing and 857 receiving yards last year).

With Bowman on board, the Bombers finally have another downfield threat to complement Darvin Adams. Other key pieces, including veteran receiver Weston Dressler and running back/receiver Timothy Flanders, are also back.

According to multiple sources, Canadian receiver Nic Demski is a good possibility for the Bombers. The Winnipegger and former Manitoba Bison is set to become a free agent after spending the last three seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. If Winnipeg were to land Demski, it would likely be the final piece of the puzzle on offence.

"The rules are for offensive football and you better be able to score some points. You better be able to move the ball up and down the field," Walters said. "And your defence, unfortunately, when you look at it from a cap standpoint... I think there’s a shift in (favour of) the money spent on offence around the league versus the defence."

Walters added that because more money is being spent on offence, teams are often forced to play more of their younger — and cheaper — players on defence. This doesn’t exactly bode well for the Bombers, who had one of the worst defences in the CFL last season.

JUSTIN TANG / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>The Saskatchewan Roughriders' Nic Demski is tackled by the Ottawa Redblacks' Jerrell Gavins. Demski is a top free agent target for Winnipeg.</p>

JUSTIN TANG / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

The Saskatchewan Roughriders' Nic Demski is tackled by the Ottawa Redblacks' Jerrell Gavins. Demski is a top free agent target for Winnipeg.

But that doesn’t mean the Bombers don’t have money to spend on the defensive side of the ball. Just how much they will have in the bank will likely be determined by what happens with defensive end Jamaal Westerman.

While all-star halfback T.J. Heath is likely destined to play somewhere else because he’s due a substantial raise, Westerman, who was paid upwards of $170,000 last year, is once again worth breaking the bank for, not only for his skill set, but also the fact he owns a Canadian passport.

What exactly is happening with Westerman remains a secret — one the Bombers seem eager to keep. The fact he hasn’t put pen to paper yet, though, is troubling. By now, teams have usually come up with a final price. That’s especially true with high-priced players like Westerman, who could potentially fetch a pretty penny on the open market. With that high of a price tag, if Westerman doesn’t land back in Winnipeg, Walters must have a plan to reallocate those funds.

"I’m not going to get into specifics of are they going good or bad," said Walters, referring to negotiations with Heath and Westerman.

Assuming Westerman doesn’t sign, the Bombers still have Okpalaugo and Jackson Jeffcoat at defensive end — a duo that more than made up lost ground when Westerman suffered a season-ending arm injury late in the year. Also, with the potential to start Demski and Matt Coates — two Canadians — at receiver, that fixes any ratio issues that might arise with the departure of Westerman.

Head coach Mike O’Shea has promised to take a more involved role with the defence this year, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to fix everything that went wrong last season. With the money freed up by Westerman, the Bombers would be best served improving their secondary — a unit that cost them weekly by giving up explosive plays downfield.

Who the Bombers could go looking for in free agency to fix the issues in the secondary are a pair of players from the B.C. Lions: Loucheiz Purifoy and Chandler Fenner. The Lions have already indicated that Purifoy will be made available. They’re still trying to work out a deal with Fenner.

Then there is a need to find a middle linebacker. Though Sam Hurl has occupied that position in recent years, it’s hard to believe he will be back there in 2018. The best option to fill this void — but also the most expensive — would be to sign Larry Dean. Dean was arguably the best defensive player on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and, according to sources, has shown a desire to play for Winnipeg. A much cheaper option would be Ottawa’s Taylor Reed.

"I guess we’re looking at everything. It’s a vague answer, but we’re looking to upgrade across the board," Walters said. "There are a lot of moving parts heading into free agency. There’s a give and take offensively and defensively as to what you can add and what you can spend."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.catwitter: @jeffkhamilton

Read more by Jeff Hamilton.

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