November 14, 2019

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Free-agent fireworks on the way

Dozens of high-end players expected to hit the open market when CFL free agency officially opens Tuesday

According to sources, Jovan Santos-Knox is looking for upwards of $175,000 when he hits CFL free agency on Tuesday — close to triple what he made in 2018 with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

According to sources, Jovan Santos-Knox is looking for upwards of $175,000 when he hits CFL free agency on Tuesday — close to triple what he made in 2018 with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/2/2019 (278 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/2/2019 (278 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s been a long off-season for front offices across the Canadian Football League. But the action is about to pick up, with the chance for some major fireworks in the coming days.

CFL free agency officially opens Tuesday, with dozens of high-end players expected to hit the open market come the 11 a.m. deadline. Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters has been working the phones in recent months, and those talks will only ramp up over the next while with the goal of executing a blueprint he hopes will snap the city’s long Grey Cup drought.

2018-19 BOMBERS OFF-SEASON TRACKER

Feb. 5: Bombers sign international receiver Rasheed Bailey, re-sign pending free agent linebacker Kyrie Wilson.

Feb. 4: Bombers sign international defensive lineman Noble Nwachukwu.

Feb. 3: Bombers re-sign Canadian safety Jeff Hecht to a one-year contract.

Feb. 1: Bombers sign a pair of international running back Jalen Simmons and international defensive back Mykkele Thompson.

Feb. 5: Bombers sign international receiver Rasheed Bailey, re-sign pending free agent linebacker Kyrie Wilson.

Feb. 4: Bombers sign international defensive lineman Noble Nwachukwu.

Feb. 3: Bombers re-sign Canadian safety Jeff Hecht to a one-year contract.

Feb. 1: Bombers sign a pair of international running back Jalen Simmons and international defensive back Mykkele Thompson.

Jan. 30: Bombers sign international quarterback Bryan Schor and international receiver Garrett Johnson.

Jan. 29: Bombers re-sign Canadian linebacker Thomas Miles to a one-year extension.

Jan. 29: Bombers centre Matthias Goossen announces his retirement from professional football after five seasons in Winnipeg, to purse a job with the police in his home province of British Columbia.

Jan. 25: Bombers re-sign Canadian linebacker Shayne Gauthier to a two-year extension.

Jan. 23: Dayna Spiring is appointed chair of the Winnipeg Football Club board of directors, making her the first woman to hold such a designation in the team’s 89-year history.

Jan. 23: Bombers sign international defensive back Anthony Gaitor, who was already under contract through the 2019 season, to a one-year extension.

Jan. 22: Bombers re-sign Canadian offensive lineman Michael Couture to a one-year extension, through the 2019 season.

Jan. 21: Bombers re-sign international defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat to a two-year extension, through the 2020 season.

Jan. 17: Bombers re-sign back-to- back most outstanding offensive lineman Stanley Bryant to a one-year contract extension.

Jan. 17: Bombers sign international linebacker Jarnor Jones and international defensive linemen Chauncey Briggs.

Jan. 17: Bombers release international linebacker Ian Wild, who played six seasons in Winnipeg.

Jan. 16: Bombers sign international defensive backs Amari Coleman and Tyneil Copper, who spent time with Winnipeg in 2018.

Jan. 15: Bombers re-sign international linebacker Adam Bighill, last season’s most outstanding defensive player, to a three-year contract extension, good through the 2021 season.

Jan. 9: Bombers release international defensive back Chris Randle, who still had one year remaining on his contract after spending five seasons in Winnipeg.

Jan. 9: Bombers sign Canadian long snapper Chad Rempel to a two-year extension, good through the 2020 season.

Jan. 8: Bombers extend Canadian defensive lineman Jake Thomas to a one-year extension.

Jan. 7: Bombers sign international kicker Justin Medlock to a two-year extension, good through the 2020 season.

Jan. 4: Bombers sign Canadian fullback John Rush to a two-year extension, good through the 2020 season.

Dec. 26: Bombers sign Canadian defensive back Jacob Firlotte and international linebacker Otha Peters Jr.

Dec. 18: Bombers sign a pair of 2018 CFL draft picks, inking offensive linemen Matthew Ouellet De Carlo and Ben Koczwara.

Dec. 17: Bombers re-sign Canadian linebacker Jesse Briggs to a two-year extension, good through the 2020 season.

Dec. 12: Bombers sign international defensive lineman Evan Perrizo and international defensive back Jimmy Pruitt.

Dec. 11: Bombers re-sign Canadian fullback Mike Miller to a two-year extension, good through the 2020 season.

Dec. 4: Bombers sign international receiver Evan Clarke, Canadian running back Johnny Augustine, international defensive end Patrick Choudja and international receiver Kenny Lawler.

Dec. 28: Bombers re-sign offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick to a one-year extension, good through the 2019 season.

Nov. 21: Bombers release international defensive back Maurice Leggett, who had spent his entire five-year CFL career in Winnipeg.

"A lot of uncertainty. Just the number of free agents. We knocked a few off our list but there’s still a bunch of guys on our list," Walters said Friday during a press conference at Investors Group Field.

"You look around the league and there are some big, big names that need to fall in. So it’s a real interesting time and I think from a fan (perspective)… it’s very interesting to see where these… big-name guys are going to end up. Tuesday will be an interesting day."

Walters has been among the most active GMs in recent months, signing more players than any other CFL club. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have more work to do, with a number of areas still in need of addressing either before or after free agency officially opens.

Here is a look at some of those major needs — and issues — facing the Bombers as they prepare for a big season ahead, one that could be heavily shaped over the next week.

<p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers Canadian running back Andrew Harris is an integral part of the offence. He is under contract through 2020.</p></p>

MARK TAYLOR / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Canadian running back Andrew Harris is an integral part of the offence. He is under contract through 2020.

CANADIAN CONTENT

The Bombers’ biggest focus over the off-season and greatest challenge as free agency inches closer is determining their seven Canadian starters. Solidifying these pieces is a difficult task for every team in the CFL, mainly because they’re highly coveted and therefore most often the highest paid.

"You start your roster with your seven Canadians and where you’re going to play them," Walters said. "What’s your plan? Where do you plug them in? If this happens, here’s the plan B; if this happens here’s plan C. We talk non-stop about where our Canadians fit in."

<p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers Canadian hog Patrick Neufeld is signed and sealed for 2019.</p></p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Canadian hog Patrick Neufeld is signed and sealed for 2019.

As it stands, the Bombers have just three of their Canadian starters from last season — running back Andrew Harris, left guard Patrick Neufeld and receiver Drew Wolitarsky — under contract for 2019. Three others — receiver Nic Demski, right guard Sukh Chungh and safety Taylor Loffler — are all in need of a new contract, while Matthias Goossen, the Bombers’ all-star centre, announced his retirement last month.

It will be crucial for Walters and the Bombers to make a decision on who will remain and who will go. Signing just one of these pieces will have a significant impact on the direction of the team; once one domino falls, others will eventually have to fall into place, making for some interesting decisions over the next few days.

O-LINE SHUFFLE

There is real potential for the Bombers offensive line to look a lot different from a year ago. The O-line has been a model of stability and a major strength for the team over the past few seasons, with the same five starters evolving into one of the best lines of protection in the CFL. They’ve provided a safety net for quarterback Matt Nichols and created holes for running back Andrew Harris, the CFL’s leading rusher the past two years.

<p>Sukh Chungh wants some serious coin.</p></p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Sukh Chungh wants some serious coin.

Winnipeg was dealt a major blow with the loss of Goossen, despite him giving the Bombers ample time to adjust to news of his retirement. Nonetheless, it has created a significant ripple effect throughout the organization.

That includes negotiations to re-sign Chungh. Chungh, a west division all-star in 2018, is, according to sources, asking for a salary as high as $250,000 per season. The Bombers are unlikely to reach that number, offering him something closer to the $200,000 range.

If a deal can’t be reached with Chungh, it’s likely the Bombers will move to play three Americans on the O-line, with the most likely candidate to replace Chungh at right guard being Manase Foketi. There is also former University of Manitoba Bison Geoff Gray, who the Bombers drafted in the first round in 2017 and signed late last season after he spent time in the NFL. Winnipeg would likely start Gray in a pinch but prefer to give him more time to develop.

With Michael Couture and Cody Speller battling to be the next centre, making up the rest of the O-line are three familiar faces in returning starters left tackle Stanley Bryant, the league’s back-to-back most outstanding O-lineman, Neufeld and right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick.

HELP WANTED: A RECEIVER

It is no secret that the Bombers are in desperate need of a receiver, an area Winnipeg is likely to target heavily through free agency.

Of the five receivers that started in last year’s West final against Calgary, only Wolitarsky, who had a breakout season in 2018, Darvin Adams, who led the Bombers in receiving yards with 1,028, and Kenbrell Thompkins are under contract for 2019. That’s really only two legitimate starters for this season when you consider Thompkins will be hard-pressed to return to the starting rotation.

<p>Receiver Nic Demski needs a new contract.</p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Receiver Nic Demski needs a new contract.

Weston Dressler, at 33 years old and with a long history of injuries over the past three years, isn’t expected to return and has yet to been offered a contract by the Bombers. Negotiations with Demski are also still very much in a state of flux. Demski is a versatile threat, capable of producing at receiver and running back, but he saw his production drop off late in the season. He finished the year with just four touchdowns and none in his last 11 games.

There is still potential for Demski to reach a deal with Winnipeg, however, according to sources, it will potentially cost much more than the $148,000 he received in 2018. Demski’s camp is asking for money above the $150,000 range, with that price tag reaching as high as $180,000. The loss of Demski would also come at a cost to the Bombers, creating a need to replace his speed — he’s leaned on heavily in the run game, including a number of speed-sweep plays — which is only made more important with the loss of Dressler.

This is an area the Bombers scouting staff should — and will — be looking to replenish, but given the need to pair a quality threat with Adams, expect the Bombers to heavily pursue one of the many high-end receivers set to hit the open market. Consider Ottawa's Greg Ellingson at the top of the list.

FRONT SEVEN

Another part of the Bombers with a fair amount of question marks is at linebacker and on the defensive line. The front-seven and the pressure they were able to produce on opposing quarterbacks was a big reason for a mass improvement by the defence, a group that transitioned last year from one of the weaker groups in the CFL to one of the most dominant.

The Blue Bombers were, at times, extremely impressed with defensive tackle Drake Nevis and his ability to stop the run last season.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Blue Bombers were, at times, extremely impressed with defensive tackle Drake Nevis and his ability to stop the run last season.

The signing of middle linebacker Adam Bighill to a three-year contract — worth a hefty $230,000 per season — was atop the Bombers to-do list this off-season and is a massive piece of the team’s defensive puzzle. But there are a few other big names patrolling at or near the line of scrimmage that are currently in limbo.

That includes weak-side linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox, who is coming off a standout season in just his second year in the CFL. Santos-Knox is at the end of his rookie deal and will be looking to cash in. Walters said Friday he had no hard feelings towards Santos-Knox’s camp, noting that he supports his decision to seek out the best possible contract. The Bombers GM did say, though, that the two sides were far apart in the player’s perceived market value, so much so they "are a long way apart from getting anything done."

According to sources, Santos-Knox is looking for upwards of $175,000 — close to triple what he made in 2018. The Bombers would most likely be offering closer to $125,000, but even that seems steep for a position many officials around the league say is the easiest for scouting departments to find — much like they did with Santos-Knox.

Canadian defensive tackle Jake Thomas signed a one-year extension with the Bombers in January.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Canadian defensive tackle Jake Thomas signed a one-year extension with the Bombers in January.

The uncertainty around which Canadians will start has extended to the D-line, specifically with defensive tackle Drake Nevis. The Bombers were, at times, extremely impressed with Nevis, who made around $110,000 in 2018, and his ability to plug the middle against the run. But with the chance the Bombers will start three Americans on the O-line, Winnipeg will have to look for other areas to start a Canadian. Nevis could end up being the odd-man out, especially when a much cheaper option, Brandin Bryant, could fill one of the starting defensive tackle spots.

The leading candidate for a Canadian defensive tackle is Jake Thomas, who signed a one-year extension in January. The Bombers would then look to this year’s CFL draft — they select fourth, which they got from B.C., and fifth overall — to find depth behind Thomas. Walters noted it’s a deep group of players this year and specifically mentioned the quality on the defensive line.

With the Bombers already secure with defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Craig Roh, expect Tristan Okpalaugo to hit free agency. But don’t rule out the Bombers going for another big fish in Willie Jefferson, who will be on everyone’s radar if Saskatchewan is unable to retain him. Winnipeg, who is definitely in the running, is just one of a few teams interested in Jefferson's services, including B.C., Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton.

A SECONDARY CONCERN

Some eyebrows were raised when the Bombers released veteran Chris Randle from his contract last month. Randle was a big voice in the locker room and played a key position at boundary corner, covering the league’s best receivers.

Safety Taylor Loffler will be heading free agency looking for a big pay raise.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Safety Taylor Loffler will be heading free agency looking for a big pay raise.

From the outside, the move looked to be simply a cost-effective circumstance, as Randle was making more that $120,000 and the Bombers felt they could fill the spot with a cheaper option. Looking at it now, the secondary might just be the most jumbled of all the Bombers position groups, including the exit of all-star safety Taylor Loffler.

Walters confirmed Friday that Loffler would be headed to free agency, and that it was something both sides were aware of "almost immediately after the season ended." Loffler had a solid tenure with the Bombers, bringing a high level of physicality not seen much around the CFL at his position. Like Demski, though, the price tag is seemingly too high, with Loffler’s camp asking for $175,000.

Loffler is a proven playmaker but his durability is questionable at best. Despite missing just four games over three seasons, Loffler requires constant maintenance with his body, rarely practising. He’s a highly skilled player but few believe he’ll get the money he’s asking for. Expected to replace Loffler is Canadian Derek Jones, with Jeff Hecht providing depth at the position.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are trying to re-sign Brandon Alexander, right, to stabilize their secondary.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/MARK BLINCH

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are trying to re-sign Brandon Alexander, right, to stabilize their secondary.

Brandon Alexander is another piece the Bombers were working to sign and on Mondayreached a two-year deal. Alexander could take over Randle’s spot at the boundary corner, playing beside halfback Marcus Sayles, the Bombers’ rookie of the year last season. That would leave Tyneil Cooper and the team’s scouting staff to fill out the field-side of the secondary, where it is commonplace to have first and second-year players.

As for strong-side linebacker, the Bombers will likely lean on Anthony Gaitor, who recently signed an extension with the Bombers that will see him under contract through the 2020 season. Chandler Fenner should back him up.

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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