When the brass of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers sat down over the weekend to determine their roster for the 2017 CFL season, they did so knowing they would have to make some tough decisions. After all, it had been set up that way.
The Bombers were able to retain many of the men that made them successful in 2016 — they finished 11-7 and earned a playoff berth for the first time since 2011 — and parted ways with contracts that either underperformed or seemed overvalued.
General manager Kyle Walters once again was busy in free agency, using the reputation of head coach Mike O’Shea as his greatest asset — next to money — to attract a number of players at key positions.
He also used May’s draft to bolster competition among the existing Canadian talent. Meanwhile, the scouting department, through hosting a number of camps in the U.S. over the off-season, was in charge of finding hidden gems it believed could strive in the Bombers’ systems.
By the time the list of training camp bodies was finished, the total had reached 90. By early Saturday, nearly three weeks after training camp opened, that number had shrunk by close to 20, with most of those moves being made immediately after the team’s two pre-season games. Still, the Bombers needed to trim down considerably to reach the league-mandated 46-player roster by the 9 p.m. deadline. Alas, the toughest decisions were still to come.
Of the dozen players that were released in the final cuts Saturday, the most surprising exit was that of receiver Kenny Stafford. Stafford had been signed in January, brought in to contribute at a position where the Bombers are perceived to be weak. The signing became that much more prominent after the sudden retirement of Ryan Smith, who, at 25, decided to pursue a different career path. If the Bombers didn’t need Stafford then, the overwhelming belief was they definitely needed him now.
At 6-3 and 204 pounds, Stafford appeared to be the perfect fit for what the Bombers needed: a playmaker with size. There was also the added benefit of having played with quarterback Matt Nichols in Edmonton, where Stafford set career highs in receptions (47), yards (732) and touchdowns (9) as part of the 2015 Grey Cup champion Eskimos (Nichols was traded to the Winnipeg midway through that year).
But Stafford possessed something the Bombers organization doesn’t especially seem to enjoy: a flamboyant personality.
After signing with the Montreal Alouettes in 2016, Stafford played just nine games before being released. His dismissal from the Als came after a series of incidents that suggested behavioural issues. When first introduced to local reporters in Winnipeg, Stafford was determined to shed whatever perceived notion people had of him. He shook each person’s hand, maintaining direct eye contact. He shot down claims against him from his time in Montreal either by denying the incidents happened or submitting they were a result of the environment, and not of his character. Stafford viewed Winnipeg as his new home, calling, somewhat foolishly, his two-year deal with the Bombers a "long-term commitment."
Then there was the concern whether he could adapt to the Bombers’ playbook under offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice. In an interview prior to training camp, Stafford claimed he rarely studied plays on paper; he preferred to learn by seeing things first-hand on the field. Whether he was able to fully grasp the offence is unknown. But in two pre-season games he had no catches and was targeted just twice.
Among other notable players released were receiver Gerrard Sheppard and defensive end Shayon Green. Both had played in games with the Bombers last season and looked to be in a prime position to see an increased role this year.
Sheppard, who caught 13 balls for 118 yards while battling injuries for stretches in 2016, once again pulled up lame in camp and his health was likely the main contributor to his release. The Bombers have also seen a lot from a few new faces at receiver, including Ryan Lankford, who will also push for kick-off return duties, and L’Damian Washington, who wowed O’Shea with a 60-yard reception in Thursday’s 38-38 tie against the Eskimos. Both Lankford and Washington will be fighting for that final import receiver spot behind Darvin Adams, Weston Dressler and Clarence Denmark.
Green’s release appears to be due to numbers. With the Bombers signing Tristan Okpalaugo to start opposite Jamaal Westerman, and liking the progress they’ve seen from Jackson Jeffcoat, he became expendable. Green played in 13 games with the Bombers in 2016, recording 22 tackles, three sacks and one interception.
The interior of the Bombers D-line has been solidified with Drake Nevis one of the mainstays at defensive tackle, with Jake Thomas, Faith Ekakitie and Cory Johnson fighting for the other starting spot.
With the Bombers drafting Ekakitie with the first overall selection and then signing the 24-year-old to a three-year deal, it became an uphill battle for a pair of sixth-round picks in Rupert Butcher and Ian Marouf. Both were cut, as well as two other late draft picks in offensive lineman Zachary Intzandt and receiver Brendon Thera-Plamondon.
Three other players from this year’s draft — OL Qadr Spooner, DB Abu Conteh, and kicker Félix Ménard-Brière — were cut but then signed to the 10-man practice roster.
Receiver Derek Yachinson, who played with the University of Manitoba Bisons last year, was also assigned to the practice roster.
Linebacker Kyrie Wilson, defensive backs Sam Brown and Chris Greenwood, receiver Daniel Williams and running back Kendall Roberson — all imports — rounded out the cuts.
The Bombers’ 46-man roster doesn’t include any players who may land on the one-game or six-game injured lists, which don’t need to be revealed until June 30, the day before the Bombers open the regular season on Canada Day in Regina against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.