Seldom does a day pass without Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters getting bombarded with a series of questions, or posing a ton of them himself.
These are uncertain times for the 2019 Grey Cup champions and for the Canadian Football League, what with the 2020 season cancelled, with budgets being cut and with general managers treading water right now until they get some sort of guidelines from league headquarters.
And that’s hardly an ideal scenario when a team is trying to build a roster for 2021. There’s also the meaty matter of trying to do all that while being faced with a significant cut to the football operations budget.
“That’s the real big one for us right now: trying to figure out what the staff looks like next year with the new parameters in the pay structure,” began Walters. “(Head coach) Mike (O’Shea) and I have had some good discussions about how the coaching staff looks, how the scouting department looks, the equipment staff, the video staff… everybody that falls under the operations cap needs to be looked at and how we fit it in under the cap number and how we put the best group in place.
“These are hard discussions we’re having, and we take it very seriously because these are people’s livelihoods here. It’s not just as simple as looking at a spreadsheet and figuring out how the numbers add up. When you are talking about people’s livelihoods with pay cuts or position eliminations it’s not a very pleasant conversation. There’s no good outcome.
“It’s just the way it is. We’re not the only ones going through this, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”
Bluebombers.com recently visited with Walters for a long chat about planning during a pandemic, focusing not only on the cuts to the budget, but also on preparing for free agency, scouting talent and then preparing for the 2021 Canadian Draft.
THE CANADIAN DRAFT
The Bombers were thrilled with their 2020 draft class, which included the selection of seven players (in order): DB Noah Hallett, WR Brendan O’Leary-Orange, K Marc Liegghio, DL Nicholas Dheilly, LB Kyle Rodger, LB Tanner Cadwallader and DB Bleska Kambamba.
But with U SPORTS having shut down football for 2020, scouting Canadian talent in this country has been made that much more difficult. It also means Canadians currently playing in the NCAA might see their draft stock rise even further in a 2021 CFL Draft.
Walters said some U SPORTS prospects may defer their eligibility for the draft for a year, but many will rely on strong performances at next spring’s CFL Draft evaluation camps – if they proceed – to open eyes.
In any case, the inexact science of the draft just became even more inexact.
“We went through it with the Canadian Draft last year with a lot more discussions on Zoom and on the phone (after the cancellation of the evaluation camp),” said Walters. “There was a lot more film study… I talked about it at the draft – it’s way more time consuming because you’ve got your list of names and generally when you see players in person you can eliminate the bottom third and half that you don’t have to follow up with a ton of evaluation. Well, there’s no elimination now. That’s the issue now. Everybody in the system needs film evaluation and time to get a good report. The time commitment to allocation is huge because you don’t see them in person.
“We’ll do the film study based on the (U SPORTS) players’ third seasons and, fingers crossed, things are up and running more by 2021 and we can have an evaluation camp. In that case that would be better than this past year where we could see them playing in the fall, but there was no eval camp in the spring.”
THE CANADIAN DRAFT, PART II
There’s more to this than just scouting and drafting players. With budgets being tightened the number of players being invited to training camp could shrink. Canadian draft picks are traditionally referred to as ‘non-counters’ during training camp – meaning that teams can keep them throughout to properly evaluate them rather than cutting them after just a few practices. But in 2021 there would potentially be two draft classes all being looked at for the first time in person by the Bombers’ coaching staff.
“There’s going to have to be some sort of limit to the number of training camp bodies,” said Walters. “Yes they are non-counters, but if you’re combining two draft classes you’re looking at upwards of 16-18 non-counters – but they’re still bodies and they need to be flown in, they need to be fed, they need to be housed. That will be an interesting discussion down the road. I don’t envision, realistically, that training camp numbers are just going to balloon up because of what happened in 2020. I just don’t think that’s realistic.
“None of this has been decided, but the reality of CFL football in 2021 will be that with much stricter budgetary restraints I can’t a see 120 guys in training camp, for example, or 75 guys in a week-long rookie camp because everything has a dollar cap associated with it.
“So, it might also mean potentially drafting kids who want to go back to school or we encourage to go back to get another year under their belts, almost like a futures pick. You might see a bit more of that just to see a player get more of a shake at training camp. That might be a popular strategy.”
BUILDING THE VETERAN ROSTER
The months of January-February are traditionally fairly busy for CFL teams during the build-up to free agency. That’s become even more prominent over the last few years with the proliferation of one-year contracts.
But now what? The CFL and the CFLPA likely have to amend the collective bargaining agreement, as the cancellation of the 2020 season has crippled teams financially. Yet without those answers now, it’s impossible for GMs and coaches to piece together a depth chart, let alone build a squad with the uncertainty about possible changes to the salary cap.
“I’m operating as if the players are going to become free agents in February,” Walters explained. “I don’t see us being able to sign anyone before the end of the year and certainly not giving out signing bonuses.
“A lot of the higher-end player have a third or half of their salaries given out in signing bonuses… is that going to be allowed this year? Is that going to be a CFL decision or a team by team decision? These are all the things at the CFL and presidents’ level are going to have to be decided in order to begin putting your team together for 2021.”
Asked if a player with an expiring contract came to him now and indicated he wanted to re-sign, or another wanted to extend beyond 2021, Walters provided an answer that perfectly explains the current predicament.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable having any more conversations with those players until I get more information as to what’s allowed and what’s not,” he said. “It would be bad business to talk to one of those players and come to a verbal agreement on how things are going to be done and then be told, ‘Here’s the new world order.’ I would rather wait and operate under some concrete guidelines than jump the gun and potentially end up making a mistake or having to go back on what was said.”
ABOUT THAT ‘NEW WORLD ORDER’…
The last game any member of the Blue Bombers played – aside from Chris Streveler, now of the Arizona Cardinals and Thiadric Hansen, now with the Wroclaw Panthers in Poland – was the 2019 Grey Cup.
That’s a long stretch until the start of the 2021 season, and presents further uncertainty when it comes to team building.
“You look at the depth chart and we’ve got all the free agents and, like every CFL team, it’s a big, daunting number,” Walters said. “It’s no different than any other January where you sit down before free agency and try to figure it out. The difficult part here is when you’re talking contracts it will be 14 months since we’ve seen them play football.
“I’ve said it that (Director of Health and Performance – Head Athletic Therapist) Al (Couture) and Brayden (Miller, Assistant Athletic Therapist/Strength and Conditioning Specialist) are going to be very, very valuable resources – more than ever – in terms of getting the fitness and health statuses of the players. We talked about the scouting of players or using the eval camp to study college players, now we’re talking about our own free agents that we have not seen for over a year. That’s a different challenge and you’d better be damn sure before you start signing these guys to big contracts that they’re in the shape you believe they’re in and they’re fit and ready to go. That’s where Al and Brayden are going to be leaned on much more this offseason than any other.”
REGROUP, REFOCUS, SOLDIER ON
The CFL has maneuvered through turbulent waters before, although nothing like dark seas the current global pandemic has delivered. In the meantime, Walters & Co. are hoping to ride this out until 2021 – and some answers to the questions – start to materialize.
“It’s about being patient, “ he said. “We have a real good team here. We’ve got a great head coach and a great coaching staff. We’ve got a great organization. I am confident that once the parameters are set when we put our team together we will again put a good product on the field and win some games. It’s just a matter of being patient until we get those parameters.
“There’s been some tough times in our league. I remember in Hamilton in the late 90s… you’d get your paycheque and the players would rush to the bank because you weren’t sure with the last 10 guys if there would be money in the bank.
“We’ll battle through this. What will next year look like? We’re not sure, but everyone will do their part financially to keep the CFL running and hopefully it gets back down the road and this will be another story about how the league went through some trying times and came out on the other side thriving.”