WINNIPEG — Averaging 11 wins per season since 2016, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have become a model of consistency in the Canadian Football League.
Bombers fans have all off-season to celebrate the team’s Grey Cup victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats back in November. However, a month after ending a championship drought spanning nearly three decades, the coach and general manager are right back to work.
Mike O’Shea and Kyle Walters both received new contract extensions, while offensive tackle Jermarcus Hardrick signed a new deal for 2020. Yet a long to-do list remains, from three pending free agent quarterbacks to the void left by Ottawa-bound coach Paul LaPolice.
It always feels good being on top. But in a league defined by parity — eight different teams have won the Grey Cup in the last 10 years — staying there often proves easier said than done.
Front Office/Coaching Staff
Kyle Walters and Mike O’Shea are two of the best in the CFL, and now the Bombers’ battery will remain in Winnipeg at least for the next three seasons after Walters signed an extension through 2023 and O’Shea through 2022.
You’ll often hear the word ‘culture’ in the same sentence as O’Shea, who was promoted from Argos special teams coach in 2014. After four straight seasons of seven wins or fewer, the former linebacker preached hard work and accountability, and the players bought in. After a five-win season in 2015, O’Shea’s teams have made the playoffs every year, never winning fewer than 10 games.
While O’Shea’s contract extension went down to the wire, the departure of offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice came as no surprise. The brain behind Winnipeg’s Grey Cup winning offence, which leaned on three different quarterbacks throughout 2019, has taken the head coaching job with the Ottawa REDBLACKS. Quarterback coach Buck Pierce, who pivoted Winnipeg’s offence to a Grey Cup appearance in 2011, could fill the void, but LaPolice won’t be replaced easily.
Richie Hall is expected to return for a sixth season as defensive coordinator. The Bombers’ defence has had its ups and downs over the years, but was dominant in the post-season, including a six-sack, eight-turnover performance in the Grey Cup.
In the end, success starts at the top. Walters has gone from rising star to simply one of the best general managers in the league, signing key free agents, making critical trades and enjoying a strong track record in the draft. Walters has signed Andrew Harris, Willie Jefferson and Adam Bighill and traded for Zach Collaros at the deadline, all contributing to an incredible Grey Cup run.
Pending Free Agents
Three quarterbacks and a defensive end top the Bombers’ list of free agents, as Kyle Walters has a busy couple of months before contracts expire in February. Matt Nichols, Chris Streveler and Zach Collaros were all instrumental to success at one time or another, but the biggest name on anyone’s list should be Willie Jefferson. The 28-year-old proved in 2019 that he has franchise-altering potential.
On offence, signing Jermarcus Hardrick and Patrick Neufeld before free agency was a big step towards bringing back the starting offensive line. Canadian Michael Couture and left tackle Stanley Bryant remain pending free agents, but the Bombers are deep thanks to the emergence of Cody Speller at centre in the playoffs.
While national receiver Drew Wolitarsky has re-signed, Darvin Adams is a pending free agent and could test his options in February. There’s always the risk that Adams or Bryant, along with any of the three Bombers’ quarterbacks up for free agency, could join Paul LaPolice in the nation’s capital.
The Bombers also have work to do defensively. Marcus Sayles and Drake Nevis are pending free agents along with Canadian defensive tackle Jake Thomas. Winston Rose has been released to test NFL waters. Whether they re-sign Jefferson, however, could be the biggest difference between a good defence and an elite one in 2020.
Despite the random nature of the CFL Draft, Kyle Walters has a successful track record on draft day. Plenty of homegrown talent made significant contributions in 2019, from special teams ace Kerfalla Exumé to backup-turned-starter Cody Speller, who was signed after going undrafted.
Success with the ratio starts up front, where the Bombers were able to overcome the departures of Matthias Goossen (retirement) and Sukh Chungh (free agency) last off-season. Geoff Gray and Drew Desjarlais are future pillars of the O-line, while Speller and Patrick Neufeld are projected starters in 2020. Canadian Michael Couture is a pending free agent.
Most of the Bombers’ Canadian starters were on offence last season, thanks in part to one of the league’s biggest ratio-busters in running back Andrew Harris. The 32-year-old showed no sign of slowing down, combining for nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage, including 1,300-plus rushing yards for a second straight season.
With Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky also primed to return, along with Daniel Petermann, the Bombers are poised to continue starting at least six Canadians on the offensive side of the ball, the same setup that allowed them to start 11 Americans on defence in the Grey Cup. Safeties Jeff Hecht and Derek Jones along with defensive tackle Jake Thomas are also pending free agents, but when push comes to shove, Walters shouldn’t lose sleep over his team’s ratio flexibility for 2020.
Zach Collaros, Matt Nichols and Chris Streveler started multiple games for the Bombers last season, and all three are due to become free agents on Feb. 11. It’s a unique situation, especially on the heels of a Grey Cup Championship. Collaros has stated his openness to returning, while Nichols has been with the team since being traded from Edmonton in 2015.
As Kyle Walters weighs his options, none of these quarterbacks come without risk. Nichols is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury, Collaros has an injury-checkered past and Streveler, despite his tantalizing potential and rising popularity, is unproven as a starter.
Any two of these quarterbacks combined would put Winnipeg in a good situation in 2020, but there are some complications. While Streveler reportedly tests NFL waters, Collaros and Nichols surely view themselves as starters. Collaros has been linked to Toronto since being traded at the deadline, while Nichols might have interest from Ottawa’s new head coach Paul LaPolice.
Sean McGuire, just 23 years old, is the only Bombers quarterback under contract. The product of Western Illinois threw three passes in his rookie season and projects as a long-term developmental quarterback.
Returning – Sean McGuire
In a sport where running backs quickly become ‘over the hill’ after age 30, Andrew Harris continues to defy odds. The Winnipeg native turns 33 in April, but will enter 2020 as the league’s most dynamic, multi-faceted running back. Whether it’s running between the tackles, catching the football or pass protection, Harris gives the Bombers a significant edge as a true ratio breaker at his position.
While Harris was healthy and productive last season, national running back Johnny Augustine proved to be a capable backup, averaging 6.2 yards per carry in two starts while Harris served his suspension. Second-round pick Brady Oliveira might be groomed to replace Harris long-term (he suffered a season-ending injury last year), but Augustine is clearly in the Bombers’ immediate plans after signing a two-year extension.
Free Agents – N/A
Winnipeg was the only team without a 1,000-yard receiver in 2019, though Darvin Adams played at a 1,200-yard pace in the post-season, amassing 209 yards in three games. Despite a less than stellar season, the 29-year-old quietly tops the Bombers’ offensive free agent list and is easily the team’s best all-around receiver.
Failing an extension with Adams, the Bombers should go receiver shopping in free agency. Kenny Lawler, Rasheed Bailey and Lucky Whitehead have all flashed potential, but lack the experience of a true No. 1. Derel Walker, who was linked to Winnipeg last off-season, is a pending free agent once again, while Shaq Evans and Reggie Begelton are two of the bigger-name pending free agents at the position.
Lawler, coming off a 600-yard, four-touchdown season, could eventually be groomed as a top option — he’s just 25 years old — while Whitehead couldn’t live up to his 155-yard, two-touchdown performance in Week 3 that captured everyone’s attention across the league. They were an underwhelming group last year, but the Bombers still have plenty of depth at receiver entering the off-season.
Replacing Matthias Goossen and Sukh Chungh seemed like a tall order for the Bombers, but others stepped up in their absence. The biggest surprise was undrafted Cody Speller, who became the team’s regular starting centre at the end of the regular season and throughout the Grey Cup Playoffs. Speller may have locked down a starting role in 2020, leaving pending free agent Michael Couture’s future up in the air.
Even if Couture doesn’t return next season, the Bombers have plenty of depth on their interior. Patrick Neufeld is signed up for next season at right guard, while recent first round picks Drew Desjarlais and Geoff Gray are still projected to be long-term starters for the Blue and Gold.
The biggest question comes on the outside, where Jermarcus Hadrick and Stanley Bryant have formed arguably the best duo of tackles in the CFL. While Hardrick signed an extension, Bryant is a pending free agent. Given his reputation as one of the league’s top left tackles, the 33-year-old Bryant could demand a hefty price tag in free agency — age and cost will have to be carefully considered.
All in all, the Bombers have invested plenty of draft capital in their O-line over the years, and it’s paid off. Last year they allowed the third fewest sacks in the league (35) and dominated the rest of the CFL with 147.9 rushing yards per game.
Free Agents – Stanley Bryant, Michael Couture
Elite defensive ends are like gold in the three-down game — as valuable as they are rare. Charleston Hughes, Ja’Gared Davis and Willie Jefferson are three of the best at their position, and the latter two are pending free agents. Jefferson was the driving force behind Winnipeg’s success in 2019, leading the league with 16 pass knockdowns to go with 12 sacks and six forced fumbles. Kyle Walters will do whatever’s possible to keep Jefferson in blue and gold.
Interior linemen Drake Nevis and Jake Thomas are also pending free agents. Nevis started all 18 games at defensive tackle, while Thomas stepped into a starting role when the team shifted American Brandon Alexander to safety — a move that paid dividends throughout the Grey Cup Playoffs. Craig Roh had six sacks in a rotational role off the edge and is also pending free agency.
Adam Bighill dropped off statistically in 2019, failing to record a fourth straight season of 100-plus tackles. Still, the eight-year veteran had plenty of influence during Winnipeg’s run to the Grey Cup, anchoring a defence that allowed just 13 points per game against three of the league’s better offences in Calgary, Saskatchewan and Hamilton in the playoffs.
In his first year as a starter at WILL linebacker, Kyrie Wilson had 63 tackles, three sacks and an interception. Both Wilson and Bighill are under contract for 2020, a linebacker tandem that brings plenty of experience to Richie Hall’s defence.
A strong core of Canadians on offence continues to pay off for the Bombers on defence, where 11 Americans started in the Grey Cup. Defensive Coordinator Richie Hall tinkered with his unit all season, especially at the defensive back position which was a revolving door. By the time the post-season rolled around, Mike Jones and Mercy Maston had become full-time starters, while Brandon Alexander was the full-time starting safety.
Alexander, Jones and Maston are all under contract, offering a trio of projected starters for next season. Elsewhere, however, there are question marks. Anthony Gaitor was sent home before the playoffs after refusing to accept a new role, according to Mike O’Shea. Cornerback Winston Rose, the CFL’s interceptions leader in 2019 with nine, has been granted his release, and Chandler Fenner, Nick Taylor and Marcus Sayles are pending free agents.
The Bombers’ defensive backs performed well in the post-season, but allowed the fourth-most passing yards in the league all season at 303.4 yards per game, along with a league-worst 32 completions of 30-plus yards. If Willie Jefferson does leave for free agency, the Bombers could target one of several highly-touted defensive backs scheduled to become free agents.
Justin Medlock handled all kicking duties for the Bombers and was his usual consistent self, converting on 86 per cent of attempts. That does not include a near-perfect 14-of-15 in the playoffs, including six against Hamilton, tying a Grey Cup record. He also had a career year punting the ball, averaging 44.5 yards per attempt.
The Bombers’ special teams were among the CFL’s best in every aspect last season, a trend that should continue into 2020.
Free Agents – None