Free Agency Preview: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

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REGINA, SK - NOVEMBER 11: Sukh Chungh #69 of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers celebrates after the win in the western semi final game between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium on November 11, 2018 in Regina, Canada. (Photo by Brent Just/Getty Images)

For general managers in the CFL, the off-season is essentially non-existent. Especially when your Kyle Walters and nearly half of your roster is not under contract for 2019. Walters has extended over half (15) of his team’s pending free agents but still has some key players without contracts, notably Sukh Chungh, Jovan Santos-Knox, and Taylor Loffler. With free agency around the corner, here’s what the Bombers have, and what they need going into free agency.

2019 CFL free agency begins at 12 p.m. on February 12, 2019. 

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Current Free Agents

Running Back:
Kienan LaFrance.

Wide Receiver:
Nic Demski, Weston Dressler, Ryan Lankford.

Offensive Line:
Sukh Chungh.

Defensive Line:
Trent Corney, Drake Nevis, Tristan Okpalaugo.

Linebacker:
Frederic Plesius, Frank Renaud, Jovan Santos-Knox.

Defensive Back:
Brandon Alexander, Kevin Fogg, Taylor Loffler, Brendan Morgan.

Must-sign Free Agents

Sukh Chungh, Jovan Santos-Knox, Brandon Alexander, Taylor Loffler.

Simply put, Chungh and Loffler are valuable Canadians. If either isn’t in blue and gold next season, the Bombers will have likely field a downgrade at their respective positions. This could be a possibility given recent reports from 3DownNation’s John Hodge on both Chungh and Loffler. Santos-Knox has turned into a top-tier CFL linebacker. He would come at a cheaper price than teammate Adam Bighill, although Santos-Knox is almost as important as Bighill. Alexander had an excellent sophomore season in 2018, Winnipeg needs to retain the versatile defender, especially since they have numerous question marks in the secondary.

What the Bombers have

  • Elite Canadian Running Back
  • Good One-two Punch at Quarterback
  • Two All-star Offensive Tackles
  • Interior Defensive Backs
  • Reliable Kicker/Punter

Elite Canadian Running Back

Fresh off a career-high 1,390 rushing yards, Andrew Harris is still the best running back in the CFL. Harris has recorded over 1,600 yards and five touchdowns in each of his three seasons as a Blue Bomber. Even if he didn’t own a Canadian passport, Harris would remain an extremely valuable asset.

Good One-two Punch at Quarterback

Matt Nichols overcame his midseason struggles in 2018 to lead the Bombers to a playoff spot and win before laying an egg in the West Final in Calgary. While Nichols didn’t have a good outing, he doesn’t deserve all the credit for that loss. Nichols is an above average starter and will go into training camp as Winnipeg’s starter, with a ready Chris Streveler behind him. Streveler totaled 1,575 yards in his rookie season and accumulated 21 touchdowns, proving he’s legit.

Two All-star Offensive Tackles

Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick will be once again occupying the left and right tackle positions for the Bombers. Bryant, now a 10-year veteran, has won the Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman award in back-to-back years. Hardrick, entering his sixth CFL season, was a 2017 CFL all-star. Both are crucial to Winnipeg’s league-best run game and keeping Nichols healthy.

Inside Defensive Backs

This heading was veteran defensive backs, that was until the Bombers cut cornerback Chris Randle. Now, it’s titled interior defensive backs, which refer to Anthony Gaitor, Chandler Fenner, and standout rookie Marcus Sayles, who are under contract heading into 2019. Winnipeg needs to retain a few of their defensive backs, namely Taylor Loffler and Brandon Alexander, but have an okay foundation in the backfield to build off. The secondary was much improved in 2018 and looks to be still trending upwards with three possible starters already locked up. Even with salary cup issues, releasing Randle could prove costly considering Winnipeg’s talent and depth at defensive back.

Reliable Kicker/Punter

Justin Medlock signed a two-year extension on January 7, meaning Winnipeg has a kicker and punter they can trust. The 35-year-old Medlock arguably had his best CFL season last year, recording a career-high in punt average (44.5), tying his career-high field goal percentage (89.4), and making all 52 point after converts.

What the Bombers need

  • International Receivers
  • Centre
  • Size at Receiver
  • Cornerbacks
  • Safety?

International Receivers

For years now an Achilles Heel for the Bombers has been an inability to recruit legitimate International receivers. Kyle Walters has only successfully brought in Darvin Adams and Weston Dressler, who were already established in the CFL. Walters has mostly missed on free agent receiver signings, namely Kenny Stafford and Adarius Bowman. Furthermore, Walters has also had major struggles at discovering new talent. Chris Givens, Thomas Mayo, T.J. Thorpe, L’Damian Washington, Gerrard Sheppard, Jace Davis, Jhomo Gordon, and more round out an odious list of failed signings. Nichols needs better targets in 2019, especially targets who can catch balls over the middle.

Possible candidates: NCAA receivers, B.J. Cunningham, Dominique Rhymes, Duron Carter,  Terrence Toliver, Caleb Holley, Kevin Elliott, Greg Ellingson, Naaman Roosevelt, Bryan Burnham, Vidal Hazelton, Emmanuel Arceneaux, Ricky Collins, DeVier Posey.

Centre

Matthias Goossen’s sudden retirement has created a massive hole in the middle of the Bombers offensive line. While it’s expected that either Michael Couture or Cody Speller will slot in at centre Week 1, losing Goossen is a massive downgrade. Both Couture and Speller have very limited CFL game experience and haven’t looked too promising during game action. The Bombers likely won’t go to free agency to address this need and instead fill it in-house, a move that could haunt them.

Possible candidates: Michael Couture, Geoff Gray, Cody Speller, Luc Brodeur-Jourdain, Jon Gott, Justin Sorensen, Cody Husband.

Size at Receiver

Second to Internationals, the Bombers need size at receiver. For the majority of 2018, Winnipeg did not have a receiver taller than 6’2 in their starting lineup. Winnipeg rolled with two starting receivers under 6’0 in 2018 too (Demski and Dressler). The Bombers have added some bigger receivers before last season — Rashaun Simonise and Corey Washington are 6’4 — but are still without a threat over the middle of the field. Darvin Adams is the closest to being that guy, but with his injury history, going over the middle may not be in Adams’ best interest.

Possible candidates: NCAA receivers, CFL draft, B.J. Cunningham, Dominique Rhymes, Duron Carter, Terrence Toliver, Caleb Holley, Juwan Brescacin, Kevin Elliott, Vidal Hazelton, Emmanuel Arceneaux, Greg Ellingson, Naaman Roosevelt, Bryan Burnham.

Cornerbacks

The release of Chris Randle and pending free agent Kevin Fogg’s inconsistencies in 2018 have led to another hole on Winnipeg’s roster —  cornerback. Winnipeg has three starting-worthy defensive backs under contract. The first two are Anthony Gaitor and Chandler Fenner. Thing is, Gaitor and Fenner have almost zero CFL game experience at cornerback and are better suited at halfback or strong-side linebacker. The third signed defensive back is Marcus Sayles, who could move to corner, but after a great rookie season at a difficult boundary halfback spot, switching Sayles’ position may be a bad decision. Bringing back Fogg should also be an option, whether as a starter or a depth piece.

Possible candidates: Kevin Fogg, Dominique Ellis, Ronnie Yell, Josh Johnson, Jovon Johnson, Emanuel Davis, Anthony Orange, Winston Rose.

Safety?

With news of Taylor Loffler and the Bombers being on different pages in terms of money, the Bombers may depart with one of their most important players. Loffler, a three-year veteran and three-year all-star, is a ratio-changing safety. Loffler’s rumoured benchmark of upwards of $200,000 per year is a big ask for Winnipeg, or any CFL team. If Loffler leaves are any of Brendan Morgan, Derek Jones, or Jeff Hecht adequate starting safeties? Or could Chandler Fenner transition to safety?

Possible candidates: Brendan Morgan, Jeff Hecht, Derek Jones, Chandler Fenner, Jermaine Gabriel, Tunde Adeleke, Adam Thibault, Anthony Thompson, Chris Ackie.

The Last Word

Winnipeg had one of the CFL’s best offences last season — little work needs to be done to improve that group. On defence, Kyle Walters should be busy. There are big holes at weak-side linebacker, defensive tackle, cornerback and safety. Some of these holes can be addressed in-house, but places like cornerback should be positions the Bombers look to fill in free agency. Winnipeg won’t be throwing away money at the open market, but expect Walters to make a couple of intermediate signings.

Pure speculation, but I’ll guess that the Bombers sign Emmanuel Arceneaux or B.J. Cunningham, Caleb Holley, D.J. Lalama, and Chris Ackie once free agency begins.

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