With the carnage of Saturday's CFL cut-down day in the rear-view mirror, the Blue Bombers are anxiously prepping for their regular-season opener against the Lions in Vancouver on Saturday night (9 p.m., TSN).
But Winnipeg general manager Kyle Walters took some time Monday to discuss the choices that were required to whittle his roster down to the 45-man league limit, with 11 practice roster players also named and an injured list still to be determined before Week 1.
Walters and his staff jettisoned three prominent members of the crew that made it all the way to last year's West Division final — veteran quarterback Bryan Bennett, sophomore Canadian wide receiver Rashaun Simonise and second-year defensive tackle Brandin Bryant.
Simonise, a 24-year-old who was Winnipeg's 12th overall choice in the 2018 draft, was probably the most controversial. Walters offered him a practice roster spot but Simonise declined, opting to sign with his hometown B.C. Lions a day later.
"We drafted him, we liked him; huge athletic upside," said Walters. "(We) knew there was going to be some limitations or concerns about how he was going to fit in in regards to the offence and his role in it. I thought he made some improvements and had a solid camp, worked hard. But at the end of the day, he was fourth of the four Canadians. Behind Drew (Wolitarsky) and Nic (Demski) and Daniel Petermann had a strong camp."
That said, Walters admitted the Bombers are looking at the possibility of signing former University of Manitoba star running back/receiver Anthony Coombs, released late last week by the Toronto Argonauts.
Coombs, the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft, played only two games in 2018 due to injury.
"Coaches are busy focusing on B.C. but you go through that status report yesterday and start figuring out who can fit in and where do they fit in," said Walters. "That’s a name on the list, with a lot of other guys."
Bennett, a 27-year-old in his second stint with the club, lost a head-to-head competition for the No. 3 job to rookie Sean McGuire. Youth was served in this case; McGuire is only 23.
"He’s a big strong guy, made all the throws," said Walters of McGuire. "Competitive (with) leadership ability. And as I said, Bryan had a great camp but we just decided to go with the younger guy with maybe the bigger upside, the unknown upside that might grow a little bit."
Bryant, meanwhile, was beaten out by University of Minnesota grad Steven Richardson and not offered a practice roster position. The Bombers, Walters said, are content with their depth on the D-line, with Canadian rookie Connor Griffiths on the practice roster.
"I think you’re going to see Jake Thomas, Drake (Nevis) and Steve (Richardson) rotate like you saw last year," said Walters. "Jake is pretty much starter quality in rep distribution and I think there would be no qualms with putting Connor on the dressed roster and rotating him in there if there needed to be a ratio switch."
– Walters could not be tempted to reveal the playing status of veteran left guard Patrick Neufeld, who was a spectator for the entirety of training camp with an unspecified injury.
"No. 1, (head coach) Mike (O'Shea) would probably punch me in the face if I gave any sort of indication of Pat Neufeld’s availability, so I’ll decline to answer that one," he said. "No. 2, (the high number of injuries in training camp), was a benefit... The young guys got a ton of reps inside for evaluation, just because of the number of bodies in training camp. You saw Jermarcus (Hardrick) miss time. You saw (Neufeld) miss time, so our young guys got a ton of reps, which is great for evaluation and they took advantage of it."
– The GM was asked for his take on the contributions of some prominent rookies, particularly amongst the class of receivers, defensive backs and O-linemen.
"I think Kenny Lawler had a great camp," he said. "Lucky Whitehead had a great camp. Charles Nelson showed some explosion and had a little ankle injury but came back quick. Steve Richardson. A lot of our draft picks, the back-end guys, (defensive backs Kerfalla) Exume and (Nick) Hallett had good training camps and showed the special teams coach that they can be trusted to get out there and play. (Offensive linemen Ryan) Desarlais and (Geoff) Gray got the benefit of injuries throughout training camp, and Cody Speller, (too). They got a ton of reps and a ton of playing time."
– The O-line starters will not be revealed until Friday but Walters highlighted the vigorous competition to replace retired all-star Matthias Goossen at centre.
"The coaches did a good job of giving Mike (Couture) and Cody (Speller) equal reps throughout training camp," he said. "After the first pre-season game, it was decided that Mike was a little bit ahead. But Cody had a hell of a camp and then they started working him in at guard as well, to give him the best opportunity to play.
"So then it added another battle (across the offensive line) there. Tua Ela had a nice camp too as a centre for a draft pick, so that allowed Cody to take some guard reps. It was a good battle and the general rule is that whoever the next best football player is at any position, if they’re not going to win the job at that assigned position, lets move them around to see if maybe they have an opportunity to win a job somewhere else."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.