The Canadian Press
I figure there are two reasons why the Winnipeg Blue Bombers re-signed so many of their veteran players this past off-season, players who could have become free agents.
One is that all those guys are quite obviously pretty good. The other is that they’re all certainly PO’d by their Grey Cup loss to the Toronto Argonauts and very willing – eager, even – to do whatever is necessary to rinse the taste of that one from their mouths in 2023.
Talented, experienced veterans who know each other well and are motivated to get back to the place where they figure they rightfully belong. That’s the Winnipeg story in a nutshell, one that plays out prominently in putting together a likely depth chart for their season-opener against Hamilton on June 9th.
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|Receiver||Running Back||Quarterback||Fullback||Offensive Line|
|Kenny Lawler||Brady Oliveira*||Zach Collaros||Mike Miller*||Stanley Bryant (LT)|
|Dalton Schoen||Geoff Gray* (LG)|
|Nic Demski*||Chris Kolankowski* (C)|
|Drew Wolitarsky*||Patrick Neufeld* (RG)|
|Jermarcus Hardrick (RT)|
* denotes National
** denotes Global
Zach Collaros goes gunning for a third straight MOP award and I guess that might fuel him him a bit, considering the last guy to accomplish that feat was Doug Flutie. But I’d bet the bigger motivator for Collaros is getting back to another Grey Cup game, this time without a bum ankle.
Seems pretty straightforward on that offensive line with the incomparable Stanley Bryant at left tackle and Jermarcus Hardrick once again on the right side. The guards would be Geoff Gray and Patrick Neufeld and at centre – where the Bombers need to account for the loss of Michael Couture in free agency – you can put Chris Kolankowski at the top of the list, at least for now. Kolankowski subbed in for an injured Couture during the 2022 season, starting in 15 games for Winnipeg.
The Bombers have some young offensive linemen starting to press, too, like Liam Dobson.
Loaded. Looooooaaaaaded. The Blue Bombers bring back last year’s Most Outstanding Rookie in Dalton Schoen, as they do Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky. The newcomer in the group? Hardly that at all. After he spent a season in Edmonton, the Bombers brought back Kenny Lawler to – you’d have to think – pick up exactly where he left off when he last played for Winnipeg in 2021, which was as a 1,000-yard man.
Now, please note that the format for these depth chart articles follow a certain form and that is to list four starting receivers and a fullback in the line-up. Fair enough, but you know the Bombers are going to use a five-receiver set a lot and so I’d be remiss in not saying that the splendid Rasheed Bailey – so talented in pass-catching and in blocking – would be listed as a starter had I been asked for a five-pack.
These are the five receivers at the top of the chart but Winnipeg has very good depth here, as well.
Brady Oliveira burst through part way through the 2022 season when he decided just to be Brady, rather than trying to be Andrew Harris’ replacement. And, boy oh boy, did that work like a charm. The talented Johnny Augustine will get lugs in, too, whenever Oliveira gets an in-game rest.
Mike Miller. That is all. Actually, no it’s not. I’d love to see young special teams demon Konner Burtenshaw – the last man taken in the 2022 draft – get some time on offence as well. But Miller is the guy.
|Defensive Back||Linebacker||Defensive Line|
|Winston Rose (CB)||Malik Clements (WLB)||Willie Jefferson (DE)|
|Deatrick Nichols (HB)||Adam Bighill (MLB)||Jake Thomas* (DT)|
|Brandon Alexander (S)||Alden Darby Jr. (SAM)||Ricky Walker (DT)|
|Jamal Parker (HB)||Jackson Jeffcoat (DE)|
|Demerio Houston (CB)|
* denotes National
** denotes Global
Like the offensive line, Winnipeg has veteran stars to lead the way with Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat on the outside and veteran National tackle Jake Thomas back to navigate the butcher’s blades of the interior. Easy. It’d be super-easy had veteran Casey Sayles not left for Hamilton in free agency, but he did. That means there could be some question as to how the Bombers proceed, but since general manager Kyle Walters indicated during the off-season that the organization had faith in Ricky Walker to step up, the 27-year-old gets the top of the depth chart slot as he enters his third CFL season.
Adam Bighill in the middle. I know. Shocker. At SAM, I love me some Alden Darby Jr., a guy who looked like a natural for the position immediately when he was first moved there a few years back by the Argos.
He’s also so good in the secondary that if the Bombers want to call the position a DIME and consider it a defensive back spot, so be it. I mean, a rose by any other name would still be Darby. Unless it’s Winston, I guess. But I’m kind of getting into the weeds here, aren’t I? Point is: Call it a SAM, call it a DIME, Darby is in that spot. At weak side, Malik Clements did such an admirable job after Kyrie Wilson went down with an Achille’s injury in 2022, and Wilson starts training camp on the six-game injured list.
Veteran Brandon Alexander returned from a knee injury late last season to reclaim his spot as the starting free safety for Winnipeg. More veteran presence is found at one of the corner spots, where Winston Rose gets the start. On the other corner, Demerio Houston was cruising into a position of dominance when his season was cut short due to injury, last August. If he’s back to being completely healthy, he gets the nod. If not, Desmond Lawrence, the former Ticat who joined Winnipeg late in the season and started in the Grey Cup, would be there. All-Star Deatrick Nichols is a given at one of the halfback spots and Jamal Parker, who played both corner and half during Winnipeg’s injury-riddled season of secondary flux in 2022, gets pencilled in at the other halfback position, where he started in the 2022 Grey Cup Game.
|Sergio Castillo/Marc Liegghio*||Mike Benson*||Janarion Grant|
* denotes National
** denotes Global
This one was gonna be a fun one, until the Edmonton Elks released Sergio Castillo and the Bombers phoned him, like, five seconds later to see if he wanted to come back to Winnipeg. So, Sergio it is.
Marc Liegghio averaged nearly 47 yards per, last season, and was fourth in kick-off yardage, so I can see him taking care of those duties for the Bombers.
Mike Benson goes into his 10th season in the CFL, third with Winnipeg.
Janarion Grant. Two punt return TDs during the regular season, another in the Western Final. And another one in the Grey Cup. Led the league in punt return yards in 2022. If the Bombers’ defence would just give up some more touchdowns, we’d get to see him run back more kick-offs, too. Can you imagine?