February 13, 2014

FA14: Bombers making waves during free agency


WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers don’t have a proven starting quarterback and haven’t upgraded their offensive line, but Kyle Walters likes the progress the team is making.

Winnipeg’s general manager met with the media Wednesday to talk about the first two days of free agency and how the Blue Bombers’ roster is shaping up ahead of the 2014 season.

“We’re not the only team that didn’t get everything we wanted,” said Walters of the opening of free agency. “We got better (on Tuesday) and that’s what I’m trying to stay positive on and focus on.”

There’s plenty of room for improvement for a Bombers team that missed the post-season for the second-straight season in 2013.

The club had some hits and misses on Tuesday, with the biggest signing being former B.C. Lions import receiver Nick Moore, who was third in league receiving last season.

Winnipeg also signed non-import receiver Rory Kohlert, who was picked by the Ottawa REDBLACKS in the expansion draft.

One place Winnipeg didn’t get better was on its offensive line.

Free agent starting centre Justin Sorenson signed with the Edmonton Eskimos after highly touted veteran free agent tackle Josh Bourke re-signed with the Montreal Alouettes.

“The Canadian offensive linemen are always at a premium,” said Walters. “There was few in free agency this year and the guys want to go to free agency and see what they can get and you can’t blame them.”

He added that the Bombers will “continue to grow the guys we have” and try to gain more through the Canadian draft because “there’s no short-term fix at the Canadian offensive lineman position.”

Winnipeg will probably need some stellar play along that line this season after it decided to go with an unproven quarterback at the helm.

Last week, the Blue Bombers traded wide receiver Jade Etienne to Saskatchewan for the rights to negotiate with pivot Drew Willy, who signed to a two-year deal. The 27-year-old is going into his third CFL season but has started just four games.

Blue Bombers rookie head coach Mike O’Shea said at Willy’s introductory press conference that he’s the club’s starting quarterback, but Walters added the team will look to upgrade at every position.

There’s a belief among fans and media alike in Winnipeg that the team’s shortcomings at quarterback and along the offensive line will be noticeable, especially with the switch back to the West Division this season.

“Our on-field product the last two years, there’s all sorts of doubts about it,” Walters acknowledged. “We’ve worked extremely hard since December trying to upgrade it. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

What he’s aiming to do to reach long-term success is to draft better and have the team’s scouts bring up young, American talent to challenge for jobs.

The Blue Bombers have the second overall pick in this year’s Canadian college draft, and Walters was asked if he’s willing to deal that spot away.

“My initial answer is ‘No’, but if (Toronto Argonauts general manager) Jim Barker wants to trade us (starting quarterback) Ricky Ray for the second overall pick, then we might discuss that situation,” Walters quipped.

“But the reality of our situation that we find ourselves in, is that second overall pick is very valuable and I view it as very unlikely that we’re going to trade that pick.”

The Bombers did acquire some players through trades this off-season that Walters believes are key additions.

Winnipeg sent non-import receiver Kito Poblah to B.C. for veteran linebacker/defensive back Korey Banks, whom Walters said has shown his leadership by offering to call free agents to try to sway them to come to the Manitoba capital.

The Blue Bombers also acquired import defensive back Chris Randle and the 26th pick in this year’s draft from Calgary in exchange for the 24th overall selection.
Winnipeg didn’t want to bring back veteran defensive back Jovon Johnson, while free agent cornerback Brandon Stewart signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Tuesday.

On the offensive side of the ball, Winnipeg still hasn’t fully addressed the running back situation.

Walters said he’s made an offer to Will Ford, but Chad Simpson is coming off a second foot surgery and any contract would have to be carefully structured.

He added he’s not concerned about finding a running back because they’re in good supply south of the border and historically two or three come up each year and have an impact across the league.

“We added some nice pieces to the puzzle,” Walters said of the team’s free agent signings. “Mike (O’Shea) and I were talking (Tuesday) and I think the message is ‘We got better.’

“That’s the most important thing, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”