Roster turnover in the CFL off-season is unavoidable. Young, breakout players will take their shot at the NFL, while the yearly crop of 300-plus free agents are each looking to get paid, and rightfully so.
In 2018, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers reached the West Final but came up short, losing 22-14 to the home Calgary Stampeders. Winnipeg held Calgary to under 300 yards, but a godawful offensive showing combined with missed opportunities forbid the Bombers reaching their first Grey Cup in seven years.
With just over three minutes to go in the West Final, quarterback Matt Nichols had 85 passing yards. And the brutally low amount wasn’t entirely Nichols’ fault. Nichols play combined with offensive line breakdowns and a lack of talent at receiver cost Winnipeg in the biggest game of their 2018 season.
Now, the Bombers have lost several key players and gained just one — Willie Jefferson. Winnipeg’s lost Matthias Goossen to retirement, while Sukh Chungh, Taylor Loffler, and Jovan Santos-Knox signed elsewhere. Defensive backs Chris Randle, Maurice Leggett, and Kevin Fogg are also no longer with the team.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers weren’t good enough in 2018, and it’s hard to say their roster as a whole is improved from November.
Matt Nichols has to have a bounce-back season for the blue and gold. Nichols missed Winnipeg’s first three games in 2018 and failed to find his grove once returning. He started out 4-5 in his first nine starts, which lead to a legitimate quarterback controversy after a chaotic Banjo Bowl loss.
In 16 starts last season, Nichols threw for 300-plus yards once and more than two touchdowns once. In a division with Mike Reilly, Trevor Harris, and Bo Levi Mitchell, Nichols has to live up and then some to his $455,000 salary, especially with sophomore Chris Streveler eager, and ready, to step in.
The Bombers had a below-average receiving core in 2018 and have made zero noteworthy additions to the position as of March. Former Bomber Chris Matthews is still a free agent along with Chris Williams, Bakari Grant, Weston Dressler, and Vidal Hazelton, although it’s no secret the majority of these names have their best days behind them.
Darvin Adams is the team’s number one again, but after Adams, there are question marks.
Nic Demski tallied 548 receiving yards, and 802 total yards, last season but had consecutive flat outings down the stretch. Winnipeg brought back Demski in free agency at a lesser price than his contract in 2018. Regardless, Winnipeg needs a little more out of the versatile, hometown receiver.
Drew Wolitarsky was a pleasant surprise in 2018, recording 650 yards at the field wide receiver position. A potential move to slotback should boost his production and propel him into the Bombers’ number two receiver.
With Adams, Demski, and Wolitarsky occupying three starting receiver spots, two remain.
If Winnipeg decides to deploy a third National starter at receiver, Rashaun Simonise and Daniel Petermann should have a contested battle for the spot, presumably field wide receiver.
As for the last starting receiver spot, returnees Charles Nelson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Corey Washington could be options, but an upgrade before Week 1 would be ideal. If the NFL doesn’t pan out for Chris Matthews, Winnipeg should heavily pursue the 6’5, 228-pound receiver.
To some surprise, last month Winnipeg lost two of their National starting offensive linemen. Centre Matthias Goossen decided to pursue a policing career, while guard Sukh Chungh returned home to B.C. on a three-year deal.
Winnipeg general manager Kyle Walters was able to re-sign all-star International tackles Stanley Bryant Jr. and Jermarcus Hardrick, but Goossen and Chungh leave massive holes.
2016 10th overall pick Michael Couture is likely the new starting centre for Winnipeg. Couture’s seen limited reps as a sixth offensive lineman and hasn’t looked too strong. That said, reports say the Bombers really like what they see in the Simon Fraser product. Couture’s going to need to have a strong 2019 in his increased role.
As for the right guard position, 6’5, 325-pound International Manase Foketi is Chungh’s probable replacement. Foketi’s spent three years with the club, acting as a reserve lineman for the majority of games, and starting in two. Foketi looked solid during game action, which is why Winnipeg may switch to starting three International offensive linemen in 2019. Former University of Manitoba Bison Geoff Gray is also an option for Winnipeg.
Bombers fans rejoiced when Kyle Walters was able to re-sign Adam Bighill to a three-year deal worth reportedly over $750,000. A month later, Winnipeg lost Bighill’s right-hand man, Jovan Santos-Knox, to Edmonton in free agency.
Losing Santos-Knox, an emerging 24-year-old linebacker, is substantial. Currently, Santos-Knox’s replacement is International Kyrie Wilson. Wilson’s spent the last two seasons with Winnipeg, playing mostly special teams. Unless Winnipeg can discover a stud linebacker in training camp, Wilson’s going to see a ton more game action in 2019.
Winnipeg is going with youth in their defensive backfield in 2019. The Bombers parted ways with veterans Chris Randle, 30, and Maurice Leggett, 32, before free agency, and lost Kevin Fogg to Toronto and all-star National safety Taylor Loffler to Montreal.
Returnees Anthony Gaitor, Marcus Sayles, Brandon Alexander, and Chandler Fenner should occupy four of the six secondary positions. Winnipeg signed Winston Rose in free agency, who should be the Bombers field-side cornerback after a strong 2018 season in B.C.
That leaves the safety position.
For starters, Loffler’s irreplaceable. The Bombers have two in-house options, both of whom are Nationals and are sizable downgrades from Loffler. First is Derek Jones, whose spent five years with the club as a valuable special teamer.
Jones is coming off a serious lower-body injury in 2018, but if healthy, he’s Winnipeg’s best option at safety right now. Nine-year veteran Jeff Hecht could push Jones for the starting spot in training camp too.
Walters can look elsewhere for a starting safety too.
National safety and current free agent Anthony Thompson should be someone the Bombers look at bringing in for competition purposes.
The ideal scenario would be Chris Ackie. Ackie’s one of the best defenders in the CFL but is attempting to find a home in the NFL. Granted Ackie returns for work in Canada, the Bombers should offer Ackie whatever it takes to bring him to the blue and gold. Especially after missing out on the top-tier receivers in free agency.
The Last Word
Veteran starters like Matt Nichols, Nic Demski, and Chandler Fenner have to produce more for Winnipeg in 2019, while players like Rashaun Simonise, Daniel Petermann, Michael Couture, Manase Foketi, Kyrie Wilson, and Derek Jones have to seize their potential increased roles with the team.
In a highly-competitive West Division, Winnipeg needs to be better if they want to take the next step and end their 28-year Grey Cup drought.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images