As the Winnipeg Blue Bombers receive high praise for Kyle Walters’ off-season moves, much question remains regarding who will occupy multiple critical positions.
One year ago, going into camp Winnipeg had two starting positions to fill full-time. Both were strong-side skill players with mild outcomes on games.
This year, Winnipeg has six starting positions up for grabs. And going into the Blue Bombers training camp, as many as 10 positional battles exist, formidable for a team being touted as one of the CFL’s elite by many.
Will Michael Couture be good enough at centre?
Matthias Goossen’s unexpected retirement means there will be changes on the Bombers offensive line.
Going into this fourth year in the CFL, Michael Couture is a heavy favourite to replace Goossen at centre. Couture, a National himself, has seen limited action in his CFL career, often coming in as a tight end or a sixth offensive lineman.
It appears the Bombers feel confident with Couture snapping the ball to Matt Nichols in 2019. But the Simon Fraser product has to prove himself if he wants to maintain the job — he’s looked weak during game action, meaning centre could become an issue for Winnipeg this season.
Undrafted free agent Cody Speller and 2019 draft picks Drew Desjarlais (fourth overall) and Asotui Eli (34th overall) will push Couture for the starting centre role, with Eli being a darkhorse to keep an eye on.
How big will the drop off at safety be?
Aside from Goossen, Taylor Loffler was the biggest loss Winnipeg underwent in the off-season.
Loffler, a three-year veteran and three-time CFL all-star, is the best safety in the CFL.
His departure to Montreal means Winnipeg will have a drop off at safety. And the size of the downgrade will be measured from Derek Jones’ play.
Jones, a six-year CFL veteran, is an excellent special-teamer but has yet to receive heavy in-game minutes. This will likely change this season with Jones being the leading candidate to fill the massive hole at the top of Winnipeg’s defence.
No one in the CFL can equally replace Loffler, but Jones or veterans Jeff Hecht, Dexter Janke and Abu Conteh will just need to be adequate at safety for the loss to be manageable.
Who will be the new weak-side linebacker?
Another significant loss in the off-season was sophomore linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox. Santos-Knox is an emerging star, benefiting off of teammate Adam Bighill in 2018.
Bottom line, another starting position is vacant. Third-year veteran Kyrie Wilson is a slight favourite, but the competition for Bighill’s sidekick is loaded with inexperience at the CFL level.
All could turn out well though, as the weak-side linebacker position has been occupied by rookie Internationals in recent Bombers seasons, with Khalil Bass winning the job in 2015 and Santos-Knox in 2017.
Internationals Nick Temple and Dale Warren could also occupy this spot, and dare I say Globals Thiadric Hansen or Manuel Hernandez-Reyes as options?
National or International at right guard?
Another off-season blow to Winnipeg’s roster was the free agency departure of Sukh Chungh to his home province B.C Lions. Chungh’s three-year deal made the scenario of Goossen and Chungh leaving the Bombers a reality, hampering Winnipeg’s interior offensive line.
Now, Winnipeg has an important decision to make, one with ratio implications. Highly-touted National Geoff Gray could slide in at right guard providing flexibility for Winnipeg at receiver and defensive tackle with the ratio.
But if Winnipeg decides to start a third Canadian receiver, International veteran and possibly more well-rounded Manase Foketi could start to the left of right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick.
Then there’s the route where Winnipeg goes with Gray regardless of other positional battle winners, scrapping any ratio decisions altogether.
Who’s the final starting receiver?
Speaking of ratio decisions, Winnipeg has a key one at receiver. And after Kenbrell Thompkins recent suspension, the picture is getting clearer.
2018 draft pick Daniel Petermann was impressive in his limited action last season, and in my opinion, should be the leading candidate for the final receiver position alongside Darvin Adams, Chris Matthews, Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky.
But, there are over a dozen pass-catchers in camp who all have a chance to earn the spot.
Along with Petermann, second-year National Rashaun Simonise is a capable option.
After those two, Internationals Lucky Whitehead, Corey Washington, Charles Nelson, Kenny Lawler, Kenneth Walker, and more are in the conversation.
Who will emerge at boundary cornerback?
The Bombers cut ties with the leader of their secondary, Chris Randle, in the off-season.
With Randle out, the all-important boundary cornerback position is a giant question mark for Winnipeg, unlike other spots in the secondary.
Stud rookie Marcus Sayles is best left at the equally important boundary halfback spot, Brandon Alexander is a good fit at field halfback and free agent addition Winston Rose made his name at field cornerback.
Chris Humes, a second-year defensive back who was cut during Winnipeg’s 2018 training camp, is the early favourite to occupy the boundary corner role, which is slightly concerning.
After Humes, at least one of Tyneil Cooper and rookies Joe Este, Christian Boutte, Malik Boynton and others are hopefuls to take command of the vacated secondary spot.
Lucky Whitehead, Charles Nelson, or _________ at kick/punt returner?
Both Whitehead and Nelson have returning experience in professional football, notably Whitehead’s with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
The two are expected to become Winnipeg’s returners after Kevin Fogg and Ryan Lankford left the Bombers in free agency, but are by no means Sharpied in at Blue Bombers training camp.
Winnipeg could use both similarly to the departed Lankford, who served as a returner and a back up/practice roster receiver with speed.
Should expectations be high?
Fans and media believe the Bombers have what it takes to end their infamous Grey Cup drought, now nearing 30 years. Winnipeg has a highly-skilled roster with a solid foundation and strong coaching.
But, the Bombers have numerous question marks at prominent positions.
And looking externally, the West Division has no slouch — there’s a case that Winnipeg has the least-talented starting quarterback in the division.
To summarize, I’d hit the breaks on Winnipeg being a powerhouse in 2019.
The Last Word:
As Blue Bombers training camp is underway, here’s who I believe Winnipeg should have as their 24 starters come Week 1.
Offence: Chris Matthews, Darvin Adams, Nic Demski, Daniel Petermann, Drew Wolitarsky, Stanley Bryant Jr., Pat Neufeld, Michael Couture, Manase Foketi, Jermarcus Hardrick, Andrew Harris, Matt Nichols.
Defence: Chris Humes, Marcus Sayles, Derek Jones, Brandon Alexander, Winston Rose, Jackson Jeffcoat, Brandin Bryant, Drake Nevis, Willie Jefferson, Kyrie Wilson, Adam Bighill, Anthony Gaitor.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images