February 22, 2020

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November reign?

Winning a few free-agent battles now is key if Bombers hope to repeat as Grey Cup champs

As a general manager in the Canadian Football League, it’s almost foolish to think in the long term.

In the CFL, there is no such thing as a slow re-build, where you’re afforded years to develop a competitive roster. And with one-year contracts now the norm rather than the exception, all nine clubs currently find themselves scrambling to fill holes in their lineup.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers may have gotten a 29-year monkey off their backs by winning the Grey Cup in November. But they also face their fair share of obstacles that must be cleared if they want any shot of repeating in 2020.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers General Manager Kyle Walters has trimmed the list of free agents. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Winnipeg Blue Bombers General Manager Kyle Walters has trimmed the list of free agents. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Winnipeg already had the fewest number of pending free agents in the league entering the off-season, and general manager Kyle Walters has since trimmed that list considerably, inking 10 players from last season to new deals.

The biggest, of course, was the two-year extension given to quarterback Zach Collaros last month. For weeks, Collaros and his potential price tag was holding up other important business. Now that the Bombers have a number to work with — Collaros will make nearly $500,000 each season — other dominos can fall into place.

How Walters will build the remainder of his team remains to be seen. Efforts are still being made to retain assets currently under an expiring contract, while others areas will be addressed when free agency opens on Feb. 11.

To get you caught up on what is going on with the Bombers, here is a free-agent primer examining areas the Blue and Gold might address through the open market.

Wille or won't he?

Along with Collaros, the Bombers have brought back their most experienced offensive linemen in Stanley Bryant, Jermarcus Hardrick and Patrick Neufeld, while also locking up other key contributors such as receiver Drew Wolitarsky, defensive tackle Jake Thomas and defensive backs Nick Taylor and Mercy Maston.

Willie Jefferson (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press files)

Willie Jefferson (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press files)

Still, there are some important names that remain without a contract, and it could be a race to the finish line for a few of them.

Atop the list of pending free agents for the Bombers is defensive end Willie Jefferson. Jefferson, the CFL’s reigning most outstanding defensive player, has been taking full advantage of the league’s new free-agent window.

Beginning this year, players on expiring contracts now have the chance to speak with other teams before the market officially opens. In fact, they have a full week, from Feb. 2-9, to talk to other clubs, which can then register a binding contract with the CFL. The team with the player’s rights then have the final 48 hours before free agency opens to work out a deal, knowing what other clubs have offered. The player must then sign with their team or accept another team’s offer before 11 a.m. Wednesday; if the player doesn’t accept an offer, all deals are voided and the courting process begins from scratch.

Needless to say, Jefferson has garnered a lot of attention. He’s spoken to nearly every CFL club this past week and it’s safe to suggest he’ll earn a sizeable raise from the $210,000 the Bombers were paying him in 2019.

Five free agents the bombers should look at

DaVaris Daniels as a member of the Stampeders in 2018. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press files)

DaVaris Daniels as a member of the Stampeders in 2018. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press files)

DaVaris Daniels, WR

Five free agents the bombers should look at

DaVaris Daniels as a member of the Stampeders in 2018. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press files)

DaVaris Daniels as a member of the Stampeders in 2018. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press files)

DaVaris Daniels, WR

Age: 27

Height/Weight: 6-1/203 pounds

Years in CFL: 4

Market Value: $150,000+

2019 stats: Played in 13 games for Edmonton, reeling in 54 catches on 92 targets for 738 yards and two touchdowns.

The Bombers were interested in Daniels last season but he ultimately decided to sign with the Eskimos. He can be a dynamic player when healthy, but in his four seasons the most he’s played is 13 games. His durability is a concern, but it’s also why he’ll likely come in at a fair price.

Luke Tasker, WR

Age: 29

Height/Weight: 5-11/189 pounds

Years in CFL: 7

Market Value: $140,000+

2019 stats: Limited to just nine games due to injury, Tasker had 36 catches and 406 yards, with zero touchdowns.

Tasker is coming off a down year, but he still can be a reliable threat. Known as “Mr. Second Down” for his ability to move the chains on second-and-long, Tasker might just be the fit the Bombers need to round out their current group. He also has a good relationship with Zach Collaros, meaning Winnipeg could have the inside track.

Ciante Evans, DB

Age: 27

Height/Weight: 5-11/195

Years in CFL: 5

Market Value: $100,000+

2019 stats: Played in 13 games for the Montreal Alouettes, registering 29 defensive tackles and three interceptions.

At just 27 years old, Evans has already played five seasons in the CFL. He played mostly field-side halfback with the Alouettes but could move around the secondary.

Anthony Orange, DB

Age: 31

Height/Weight: 6-0/190

Years in CFL: 5

Market Value: $100,000+

2019 stats: Played in eight games for Edmonton, recording 26 defensive tackles and one interception.

The 2019 campaign was shortened due to injury, with Orange hitting the 6-game injured list early in the season. The Eskimos released him earlier this month, just before he was due a $30,000 bonus. He plays boundary corner and if he can return to the player he was in 2018, when he was named a CFL all-star, this could be a steal for Winnipeg.

Josh Johnson, DB

Age: 29

Height/Weight: 5-10/200 pounds

Years in CFL: 4

Market Value: $100,000+

2019 stats: Played in 17 games for Edmonton last year, recording 43 defensive tackles, one special-teams tackle, two interceptions and one sack.

Experienced and durable, Johnson is the kind of player the Bombers should be interested in. At his age, he still has some good years ahead of him and wouldn’t require any teaching when it comes to the Canadian game.

This is the biggest piece in the Bombers’ puzzle. Walters certainly wants him back and will do everything possible to re-sign the dominant defensive end. There are few players like Jefferson and they know it.

Speaking with executives and agents across the league, the floor for Jefferson appears to be around $250,000. There’s always a team willing to overpay on a superior talent, and the buzz is the Toronto Argonauts are willing to shell out as much as $290,000 for Jefferson.

It’s important to note that Jefferson has an NFL agent but when it comes to negotiating a CFL contract, he represents himself. He’s also not one to chase money. He took less to join Winnipeg last year, acknowledging it’s just as important finding the right team, as it is the right dollar value.

That said, don’t be surprised if Jefferson is without a contract when the doors of free agency fly open Tuesday. Jefferson is still committed to getting an NFL deal and, unlike most of his colleagues, he’s good enough to hold out a while and still get top dollar.

The Willie Effect

Defensive lineman Craig Roh is a pending free agent. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Defensive lineman Craig Roh is a pending free agent. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The Bombers are likely to pay near or above Jefferson’s perceived floor but it would be impossible to come close to the number Toronto is rumoured to be offering.

If Jefferson does continue to wait for the NFL, or if he signs with another team, it could have a massive effect on what Winnipeg chooses to do.

An in-house backup plan to Jefferson would be to sign pending free agent Craig Roh. Roh, 29, played well when in the lineup, registering 16 tackles, six sacks and three forced fumbles in 12 games. But when the Bombers moved to an American safety late in the year, replacing Jeff Hecht with Brandon Alexander, Roh got caught up in a numbers game and was benched for the final stretch, including the entire playoffs.

If the Bombers are willing to wait out Jefferson — they don’t seem inclined to spend big money on any other free-agent defensive ends — he would likely represent the team’s biggest splash in free agency. In other words, the Bombers aren’t expected to make big moves in their pursuit of defending last year’s championship.

But never say never. It’s not as if the Bombers don’t have some noticeable holes in their lineup, even if they have managed to retain a sizeable share of their team from 2019.

Secondary a primary concern

Though the Bombers would like nothing more than to have Jefferson back, they appear comfortable with the defensive line with or without him.

Jackson Jeffcoat is back for another year and will be expected to build on a season where he was limited to five sacks and 12 games. Down the middle, it looks like the Bombers will once again go with a Canadian and American starter at defensive tackle.

No longer able to lean on Jonathan Kongbo, who was released in December and shortly after signed with the San Francisco 49ers, the Bombers seem primed to rotate between Jake Thomas and Connor Griffiths. Griffiths was selected in the third round of last May’s CFL draft and the Bombers are high on him.

Drake Nevis had a good season and is deserving of a raise, so the Bombers might not be able to keep him. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Drake Nevis had a good season and is deserving of a raise, so the Bombers might not be able to keep him. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The fallout of this decision, however, might not sit well with fans of Drake Nevis. Nevis is coming off another stellar season and was a big part of the Bombers’ stingy run game. But with Nevis deserving of a major raise — he played a team-friendly $85,000 in 2019 — and Steven Richardson just as capable on a cheaper deal, Nevis will likely be with someone else this season.

The linebackers group also remains mostly intact, with Adam Bighill, Kyrie Wilson and Maston all under contract. It’s doubtful the Bombers look here in free agency.

Where things get less certain is with the defensive backs.

The Bombers might have got their greatest bang-for-buck in the two men responsible for patrolling the boundary side. Halfback Marcus Sayles and cornerback Winston Rose both put in strong seasons in 2019. Rose led the CFL again in interceptions, with nine, and Sayles was also a turnover machine, both on defence and special teams. Each was rewarded with NFL contracts — Rose with Cincinnati; Sayles with Minnesota — and will not don blue and gold in 2020.

Their exits leave a significant hole in the secondary, one that won’t easily be plugged. If the Bombers want to spend money here, there are certainly options, though this year’s class of defensive backs aren’t as appealing compared to previous years.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bombers, as was the case with Rose, wait for the market to thin out before inking a deal.

Catch them if you can

The Bombers went all-in last year trying to acquire a receiver through free agency, offering big contracts to Derel Walker, Greg Ellingson and DaVier Posey. In the end, it was a big swing-and-miss, with all three inking huge-money deals with other teams.

Walker and Posey, who was released by Montreal in January just before receiving an off-season bonus, are expected to be available but will again be asking for big cash. The Bombers likely won’t be as eager to throw money at either player, especially after a Grey Cup-winning season without an over-priced American receiver.

Darvin Adams needs a new contract. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Darvin Adams needs a new contract. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Speaking of that, Darvin Adams is another player who needs a new contract and it’s unclear where exactly the two sides are (Side note: centre Michael Couture is the last notable Bombers pending free agent and contract talks continue between the two sides. But with Cody Speller also an option, there is a feeling that if he doesn’t land in Winnipeg he’s likely headed to B.C.)

Adams has been making around $120,000 the last three seasons, which seemed like a steal for a guy with back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns in 2017 and 2018.

But Adams numbers dipped last season. He scored five touchdowns but his receiving totals dipped considerably to 549 yards in 2019. The buzz is Adams is looking for a raise, and there’s a chance he gets it in Ottawa, with former Bombers offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice now the Redblacks head coach.

The Bombers have some quality young American talent at receiver in Kenny Lawler and Rasheed Bailey, and are happy with Canadians Nic Demski and Wolitarsky. But if they can’t get Adams back — and even if they do — they’re still in need of a bonafide No. 1 threat down field. It’s just a matter of whom and for how much?

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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