December 13, 2018

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Bombers GM cautiously optimistic for off season

Winnipeg Blue Bombers General Manager Kyle Walters in the Press Room at Investors Group Field.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers General Manager Kyle Walters in the Press Room at Investors Group Field.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters was cautiously optimistic when laying out his team’s off-season plans on Friday, also noting the difficulties the club, along with the rest of Canadian Football League, will have in trying to assemble a team for next season.

Speaking with reporters for nearly 30 minutes for the first time since the Bombers’ season-ending loss to the Calgary Stampeders in the West Division final, Walters addressed a number of issues, including a long list of pending free agents. Walters displayed shock at the average number of expiring contracts for the nine-team CFL being 37 — a number that exceeds the Bombers’ current to-do signing list but only by a few players.

“It’s very hard to predict at this point in the year who’s going to come back and who’s not. There’s a lot of uncertainty heading into the off-season for both sides,” Walters, standing behind a podium at Investors Group Field, said.

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Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters was cautiously optimistic when laying out his team’s off-season plans on Friday, also noting the difficulties the club, along with the rest of Canadian Football League, will have in trying to assemble a team for next season.

List of Bombers free agents

* indicates Canadian status

Running back: Kienan LaFrance*, Timothy Flanders, Johnny Augustine*

* indicates Canadian status

Running back: Kienan LaFrance*, Timothy Flanders, Johnny Augustine*

Receiver: Weston Dressler, Nic Demski*, Ryan Lankford, Kenny Lawler

Offensive line: Stanley Bryant, Matthias Goossen*, Sukh Chungh*, Michael Couture*, Qadr Spooner*

Defensive line: Jackson Jeffcoat, Tristan Okpalaugo, Drake Nevis, Jake Thomas*, Trent Corney*, Gerald Rivers, Patrick Choudja

Linebacker: Adam Bighill, Jovan Santos-Knox, Ian Wild, Kyrie Wilson

Defensive back: Taylor Loffler, Kevin Fogg, Brandon Alexander, Tyneil Cooper

Special teams: Justin Medlock, Chad Rempel*, Mike Miller*, John Rush*, Shayne Gauthier*, Frederic Plessius*, Thomas Miles*, Jeff Hecht*, Brendan Morgan*, Frank Renaud*, Jacob Firlotte*, Jesse Briggs*.

Speaking with reporters for nearly 30 minutes for the first time since the Bombers’ season-ending loss to the Calgary Stampeders in the West Division final, Walters addressed a number of issues, including a long list of pending free agents. Walters displayed shock at the average number of expiring contracts for the nine-team CFL being 37 — a number that exceeds the Bombers’ current to-do signing list but only by a few players.

"It’s very hard to predict at this point in the year who’s going to come back and who’s not. There’s a lot of uncertainty heading into the off-season for both sides," Walters, standing behind a podium at Investors Group Field, said.

"All of the free agents we’re trying to wrap our head around and whether they want to go to free agency? Are they going to sign? All these sorts of things, we’re trying to gather information on all of the guys and their agents and see where their heads are at."

<p>The Blue Bombers biggest free agency priority this off-season will be re-signing linebacker Adam Bighill, left, an inspirational leader for the team's defence.</p>

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

The Blue Bombers biggest free agency priority this off-season will be re-signing linebacker Adam Bighill, left, an inspirational leader for the team's defence.

The Bombers have 33 contracts set to expire on Feb. 12, none bigger than Adam Bighill, the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player this year. The middle linebacker played a pivotal role in reshaping the defence, turning them from a bottom-feeder into one of the best groups in the league — an element Walters noted Friday was the team's greatest improvement this season.

Bighill was added to the roster just as training camp opened in May, shortly after he was released from the New Orleans Saints, where he spent the most of the 2017 NFL season on the team's practice roster. The timing worked well for the Bombers, as it fullfilled a major need at middle linebacker and, unlike other teams around the league, they had money to spend on a high-profile player.

The 30-year-old product of Montesano, Wash., was inked to a one-year contract, worth a team-friendly $175,000. Bighill is expected to fetch a hefty raise from whatever team signs him, which Walters hopes will be Winnipeg.

Blue Bombers safety Taylor Loffler, who will likely earn his third consecutive CFL all-star selection, is on an expiring contract.

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Blue Bombers safety Taylor Loffler, who will likely earn his third consecutive CFL all-star selection, is on an expiring contract.

"I know he enjoyed his time here and we had success on the field but then there’s the business end of things and his agent’s job is to take a deep breath and figure out what Adam wants — financially, personally, all that sort of stuff," Walters said. "When I look at the list in front of me, Adam Bighill’s name is right at the top of the list of guys we would certainly like to have back in the organization."

Bighill isn’t the only defensive player Walters would like back. Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and linebacker Javon Santos-Knox are also pending free agents, though Walters hinted both players would pursue NFL options this winter. Jeffcoat, who had 12 sacks in 28 games over the last two seasons, seems more likely to land in the NFL.

Safety Taylor Loffler, who will likely earn his third consecutive CFL all-star nod in the coming months; defensive tackle Drake Nevis, who had a standout season in the middle of the defensive line; and DE Tristan Okpalaugo are also in need of new contracts.

On offence, three of the five starters on the offensive line — right tackle Stanley Bryant, the CFL’s top offensive lineman the past two seasons; centre Matthias Goossen and right guard Sukh Chungh, both of whom were named West all-stars — are all on expiring contracts, though Bryant has agreed to terms in principle and a new contract should be announced in the coming months. Veteran receiver Weston Dressler and kicker/punter Justin Medlock also need new deals.

<p>Bombers offensive lineman Stanley Bryant has agreed to terms in principle.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Bombers offensive lineman Stanley Bryant has agreed to terms in principle.

Walters said though the Bombers don’t have any additional money remaining from this year’s cap, the rest of which was presumably spent on inking right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick to a one-year contract extension earlier this week, he does expect to get some contracts done within the next couple of months.

"If they're happy with the contract offer and they're happy here, then they'll probably sign," Walters said. "If they're intrigued about free agency and wondering what's going to happen, then they'll probably wait."

What has complicated negotiations is an expiring collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players, which terminates May 19, just before the start of training camp. With the potential of a new CBA meaning a higher salary cap for 2019 — something Walters couldn’t provide any insight on — higher-end players such as Bighill will likely wait for more clarity before signing a deal.

But just as the Bombers have to contend with signing their own players, other teams do, too. Under this new landscape comes the rare opportunity to poach other team's key players, including a number of upper-echelon quarterbacks that are set to hit the open market.

While Matt Nichols remains under contract through the 2020 season, the chance to land a player such as Edmonton’s Mike Reilly, Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell or Ottawa’s Trevor Harris — all players who had better statistical seasons this year than Nichols — is surely something Walters must be at least considering. After all, he owes it to the fans to at least enquire about upgrading at every position, including quarterback, the most important position on the field.

Walters on the Bombers quarterback situation: "We’re awful close to being a Grey Cup team with Matt Nichols as our quarterback."

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Walters on the Bombers quarterback situation: "We’re awful close to being a Grey Cup team with Matt Nichols as our quarterback."

"A hundred per cent. But within the financial restraints we're in, the contract structures we're committed to," Walters said. "Are we willing to potentially throw your hat into the ring of a free agent and potentially not get him? That's risky business. We had the top-scoring offence in the league this year. Matt's won twice as many games when he started at quarterback for us. All this is overshadowed by a tough loss in tough conditions to a very good football team. And that's understandable."

Walters added: "We talk about everything. You look at the free-agent list that’s just come out and you look at your roster and see financially how it fits, where it fits, how, positionally, across the board who comes in and who doesn’t. We’re confident that Matt Nichols can get us to a Grey Cup and we believe that. Albeit for a couple of games where he uncharacteristically turned the ball over, we’re awful close to being a Grey Cup team with Matt Nichols as our quarterback."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

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.

Read full biography

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History

Updated on Friday, November 30, 2018 at 9:40 PM CST: updates headline

9:45 PM: FIxes tag

10:55 PM: Adds q&a sidebar

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