January 11, 2019

Signing free agents top off-season priority for Walters, Bombers

The view, Kyle Walters admits, is absolutely spectacular.

But the Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM is in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec this week for Canadian Football League meetings, not to slap on some Rossignols and carve his way down the slopes.

“We were in Banff last year for these meetings,” began the Bombers boss, “but it was more touristy. This is for straight, hard-core skiers. You’re coming here to ski. There’s a little town with some nice restaurants, but everyone is walking around here with their skis on. I’m not a skier, but I have found a spot that will serve me a beer, so it’s perfect.”

That little snapshot aside, let’s get right at it with some of the highlights of a 20-minute conversation with bluebombers.com that provides an update on some of the topics involving the Bombers and the CFL.

bluebombers.com: Let’s begin with a simple one: what’s this week look like for you?

WALTERS: We’re doing media sessions with the coaches and GMs, then meeting to go over some things. And then we have meetings all day (Wednesday) with the presidents and league officials in there. It’s about getting everybody on the same page with regards to the CBA (collective bargaining agreement).

bluebombers.com: And then you’re off to Mexico this weekend to scout some of the talent from the Liga de Futbol Americano…

WALTERS: Correct. Mike (head coach O’Shea) and I leave Friday for that combine.

bluebombers.com: There’s so much on your plate right now… what’s atop your to-do list?

WALTERS: The CFL Draft is a big one for me. That and getting free agents signed. That’s the big one right now. Ted (Goveia), Danny (McManus) and Ryan (Rigmaiden) are at this new league (Alliance of American Football) watching camps, the all-star games and things like that to take a lot of the work from that end of things.

bluebombers.com: Every day I have somebody asking about the status of contract negotiations with Adam Bighill. I’m sure you get that times a zillion. What is the latest?

WALTERS: Everybody has been asking that. Let me say we’ve had discussions with his agent and that’s a positive. Certain agents don’t want to talk until free agency, certain agents are waiting until the CBA is ratified or there is some clarity. Adam’s agent, Dan Vertlieb, we’ve had a few guys on our team that he represents and we’ve had some good discussions. He and I are willing to at least discuss numbers. But he’s got a lot of clients and he’s a very busy guy.

So, things are going slow, but the positive from my end is we’re talking.

bluebombers.com: You mentioned this in your media availability at the end of the season that Adam really enjoyed his year in Winnipeg. Are you getting the sense that is helping in negotiations?

WALTERS: I try to temper those type of comments. Yes, we have a great organization. We’ve got a great locker room and it is a good place to play. That’s all very accurate. But agents aren’t in the locker room. An agent’s job is to get the most amount of money for his player.

Unquestionably the way our team is, the way or organization is, and the way Mike treats players is very beneficial to us. But, at the end of the day, money talks.

bluebombers.com: In that case, clearly part of your job is to have a Plan B. Do you have other options rolling around in your head in case Adam does not re-sign?

WALTERS: Yes. You look at your 2019 roster and the salaries and it’s ‘We want to do this, but if we can’t sign him, what’s Plan B? What do we do here, what do we do there?’ Those are the types of conversations we have all the time. We’re always picking each other’s brains. Every day our brains are working through those scenarios.

bluebombers.com: There are a number of other pending free agents. What is the overall status on those negotiations?

WALTERS: We’re chipping away. Some of the young American guys are going to wait to exhaust any NFL opportunities, which is normal every year. That won’t be sorted out until February 1st. You’re seeing that right now with guys signing NFL deals, but if that hasn’t come around for a player by the first of February then they’re probably not going to get an opportunity. So, we’ll take a deep breath on some of those guys until the first of February.

bluebombers.com: Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat had a workout with the Cincinnati Bengals. Are there any other Bombers who have had looks from NFL teams?

WALTERS: There were some requests for Jovan (Santos-Knox), but with his foot injury, which is going to take some time to heal up, it’s just a matter of how much time NFL teams will give him before they get him to work out. There was interest in Jovan, so we’ll just patiently wait.

bluebombers.com: You mentioned the CBA and getting up to speed from the league this week with where things stand. How is all that uncertainty impacting what you’re trying to do in the right here and right now in your work to sign guys?

WALTERS: It’s good for the coaches and GMs to hear (CFL commissioner) Randy (Ambrosie) and the club presidents talk. It will mostly just be listening for us to get educated on everything at this point. From my standpoint, it hasn’t been a big deal as of right now. We’ve been operating as normal and if something changes you adjust on the fly. But there’s no use sitting around worrying what the cap is going to be or what the ratio is going to be or what’s this or what’s that.

You deal with the cards you’re given and that’s what we’re doing right now.

bluebombers.com: When you sign a guy like Justin Medlock this week to an extension, how does it work with a potential signing bonus, given the CBA status?

WALTERS: Justin’s signing bonus will be paid with the ratification of the CBA. We spent a lot of time in December reaching out to agents and the (CFLPA) player reps do a good job… the players and agents are well informed with what’s going on. We’re not rope-a-doping guys. They know full well that anybody with a signing bonus will get paid once the CBA is ratified.

bluebombers.com: What impact are you feeling from the AAF and also knowing that the XFL and Freedom Football League are on the horizon, too?

WALTERS: It will eventually impact our ability to sign young guys. For our free agents right now, that league will have minimal impact because of the timing. It will be when we begin reaching out to our neg list guys. And hearing from the (AAF) camps there are already two or three guys from our neg list that are looking really good, which will probably limit our ability to bring them up here.

bluebombers.com: I know I’m stating the obvious here, but with two picks in the first round of this year’s CFL Draft, you must already be well into prospect evaluations?

WALTERS: No question. We’re well into it. Ted and I spend a lot of time during the university season going out to games, talking to coaches. After the season we talk to coaches and get reports. We’ve probably got 120 kids in our system right now being evaluated. I handle most of the film work and share it with Mike and Ted and then the three of us will meet in early March to discuss the guys before we get out to the combines to see them in person. It’s a lot of work.

bluebombers.com: We saw a scenario last season with Bighill becoming available just before training camp and then other players, like Chris Matthews, appearing later in the year. With all the CFL players heading to the NFL now, would you consider giving yourself some cap room to sign those types of players should they become available closer to, or during the season?

WALTERS: I know exactly what you’re saying and it makes perfect sense. But it’s hard to start the year saying, ‘We’re not going to have the best roster available Week 1 just in case guys might come back.’ That could certainly be a philosophy but…

bluebombers.com: Does the thinking change if it was one of your players who signed down south, like a Jackson Jeffcoat?

WALTERS: If a guy like Jeffcoat leaves I think you want to go into free agency trying to replace him with a really good football player, not saying ‘All right, we’re not going to spend that money. We’re going to wait and see if he comes back.’ When players started coming back (from the NFL) later last year I think, honestly, they were signed for the most part by the teams that had catastrophic injury situations and with all their players on the six-game injured list it freed up cap space. That’s something you really can’t control.

bluebombers.com: Does your approach to free agency this year change because the talent pool available is so large? By that, I mean would you try to fill more of your roster with some of the proven commodities available?

WALTERS: It’s tempting, I suppose. But proven veteran talent simply costs more than young talent and it’s all got to fit into your salary cap. It’s still about making the best choices for your roster and spending where you think you need it.

bluebombers.com: That’s no different than any other year, then.

WALTERS: No different. But it might be that one of the free agents you want to go after in free agency tells you he’s not signing until the CBA situation becomes clearer. So then the decision is do you wait until he is ready to sign or move on to plan 1A or 1B. Those are the decisions you are going to have to make once we can talk to free agents.

bluebombers.com: There’s this theory that the uncertainty with the CBA means the opening of the free agent market in February will now be a non-event. Countering that, if you can lock some guys up now as you are doing, that will give you a lot more clarity for when the market opens. What’s your take on that notion?

WALTERS: You’re seeing some of that now. The thought that nobody is going to sign because of the uncertainty is proving to be false. Players like to have secured contracts. If they like a certain place and know (the CBA) is going to get sorted out… I think come free agency you are going to see some guys sign rather than wait. I just think that in most years where free agency is often over within 48 hours this year it could linger on and on with some players into May.

bluebombers.com: More on the CFL’s new association with the Mexican league… when you and Mike head down there this weekend, are you looking at particular position groups, or is it the classic ‘best-player-available’ approach?

WALTERS: It’s a combination of both. None of this has really been sorted out yet, so I think we’re just going to go down there and evaluate some football players, simple as that. Once we get down there it will involve trying to figure out where we see these players fitting in with the team. So, Mike and I will go down there, take our notes, and determine where each player might fit in and if they are going to be on our roster what is the best chance for them to help us win football games. Then I thing you draft accordingly based on those discussions.

bluebombers.com: Do you know yet if there is going to be a separate designation for these players? Will they be considered nationals or internationals or will there be a third designation in the ratio?

WALTERS: That’s all to be sorted out. So as of right now, we’re going down there thinking of this no different as a free agent combine in the States or even an evaluation camp here in Canada. You’re going to look at a pool of football players, see who you like and rank them and then go from there. Whatever happens next, we’ll work with that.

bluebombers.com: This is all part of the commissioner’s CFL 2.0 blueprint. It’s possible you could be doing this in Europe, maybe in a place like Germany, in the future isn’t it?

WALTERS: It’s exciting. It’s good for football. It’s good for global football. It’s good for our game. Randy has this vision and this is the first step in it and it’s exciting for our league.