Welcome back to the Huddle!
Once again, we are back covering another team in our series of CFL Offseason Reviews. Today, it is time to evaluate the Winnipeg Blue Bombers!
There isn’t much to say about Winnipeg’s 2019 that many CFL fans don’t already know, with the team battling through the tough West Division to eventually crush the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Grey Cup, the franchise’s first in 29 years.
Fast forward to this offseason and the Bombers are facing typical challenges of past Grey Cup winners, including losing players to the NFL while seeing some of their other key contributors price themselves out of town in free agency. So how did the team do in weathering this offseason storm? Let’s evaluate.
- DL Willie Jefferson
- LB Thomas Miles*
- WR Darwin Adams
- OL Michael Couture*
- LS Chad Rempel*
- DL Jake Thomas*
- QB Zach Collaros
- WR Charles Nelson
- DB Nick Taylor
- DL Alex Mccalister
- OL Stanley Bryant
- WR Nic Demski*
- K Justin Medlock
*Denotes National Player
Some of the best players on the Bombers’ roster were retained this offseason, but many of them aren’t highlighted here simply because they will be talked about pretty extensively when we talk about the team’s projected line-ups. Besides, there are plenty of other re-signings to discuss.
One of these is Couture, Winnipeg’s Canadian starting center. Recently, when looking back and watching some games from 2019, Couture often jumped off the screen as a mauler in the run-game, while still providing excellent pass-protection. I think so highly of Couture after watching 2019 film that I would argue he would be near the top of my list of best Canadian offensive-lineman going into the 2020 CFL season.
Thomas is another Canadian, and one that is in-line for a prominent 2020 role. Thomas started some games for Winnipeg last season, but after the loss of Drake Nevis in free agency (someone we will discuss below), he might slide in as a full-time guy at defensive-tackle.
It wasn’t surprising that the Bombers brought back Collaros, the signal-caller that helped end the team’s Grey Cup drought, yet questions will likely persist over whether he can remain healthy over the course of a whole season. When he has been consistently healthy since entering the league 2012, Collaros is among the league’s most efficient, smart passers. However, when we last really saw this was in 2016, so it is fair to have skepticism.
Departures (2020 team)
- DL Craig Roh (TOR)
- DL Drake Nevis (TOR)
- DB Derek Jones* (BC)
- LB Korey Jones (EDM)
- DB Jeff Hecht* (FA)
- DB Chandler Fenner (FA)
- LB Dexter Janke* (FA)
- QB Matt Nichols (TOR)
Not too long of a departure list for Winnipeg, but there are a few that the team could miss.
The pair of defensive-lineman, Roh and Nevis, are one example. Winnipeg had the stingiest run-defense in the CFL last season, and plenty of that had to do with Nevis, who made an impact at defensive-tackle. Roh is more of a pass-rusher, who produced 6 sacks on a rotational basis. They provided versatility to a strong-2019 unit.
Hecht, a veteran Canadian defensive-back, started some games at safety for Winnipeg last season, giving the team some ratio-flexibility.
Nichols was off to a hot start last season as Winnipeg’s starter posting a 15-5 TD-INT ratio, but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Over five seasons with the Bombers, Nichols was usually very efficient, limiting turnovers while producing a good amount of touchdowns. The loss of the veteran passer leaves Collaros as the undisputed-starter heading into next season.
Free Agent Signings (2019 team)
- DB Josh Johnson (EDM)
- DB Ranthony Texada (OTT)
- DB Jhavonte Dean (SSK)
- LB Micah Awe (TOR)
- DL Tobi Antigha (TOR)
- DB Chris Lyles (FA)
- WR Julian Feoli-Gudino* (OTT)
The Bombers weren’t very active in free agency this season, but there are a couple of players worth discussing.
Johnson is the obvious exception. He was arguably Edmonton’s most impactful defensive-back last season, being deployed in every-down coverage while being used in the occasional blitz-package. He made our list of most impactful signings in this year’s free agent period, and that’s largely because he comes at a position that Winnipeg desperately needed to fill after losing several players to the NFL–as we will see later on.
Winnipeg didn’t necessarily have a huge need at linebacker, but I like the signing of Awe to at least fill the role that the departing Korey Jones played last season as a rotational second-level player. His best CFL action came in 2017 when with BC, where he racked up a career high 70 total tackles, including an impressive 16 on special-teams. That could be where he makes his presence most felt in 2020 with the Bombers.
New CFL Arrivals
- WR Montay Crockett
- DB Terrence Alexander
- OL Nolan Ulizio
- QB Dalton Sneed
- QB Dru Brown
- DB Damian Swann
- OL Shane Carpenter
- DB Isaiah Johnson
- DB Josh Miller
- LB Jontrell Rocquemore
- DB Jamalcolm Liggins
- DB DeAundre Alford
- OL Sepesitiano Pupungatoa
- WR Deontez Alexander
- DB Dexter McDougle
- OL Chris Kolankowski*
- K Matthew Riley*
- OL Jarell Broxton
- OL Kevin Lawrence
- DL Justin Alexandre
- LB Dylan Donahue
Winnipeg is a tough team to evaluate when it comes to newcomers, given they are returning so many starters that played at a high-level last season. Still, this year’s team could stand to be a little more explosive in the passing-game, while also patching up their secondary depth. I feel these signings reflect that.
The team lacked explosive playmakers in 2019, and though this can be significantly attributed to a down-season by Darwin Adams, it made sense for the team to bring in reinforcements. In addition to Alexander (who I didn’t highlight), I believe the recent signing of Montay Crockett, a player that once ran a 4.39 at his college pro-day, signals that the team is looking for a little more explosion from the offense in 2020.
The depth at quarterback is spotty behind Collaros after the departure of Nichols, and to that end, the signings of Sneed and Brown might be important. Sneed played at the University of Montana, and would go undrafted in this year’s NFL Draft. Brown played for Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Conference, but didn’t receive much playing time until 2019. Both figure into the mix behind the oft-injured Collaros.
Swann is a Georgia product that played with the New Orleans Saints from 2015-2016 and last played organizationally in the AFF in 2019. He is listed here, as we will see later on, because of how he projects as a starter in Winnipeg’s secondary.
2020 Blue Bombers’ Draft Class
- 1st: None
- 2nd: DB Noah Hallett, McMaster (#18)
- 3rd: None
- 4th: WR Brandan O’Leary-Orange, Nevada (#37)
- 5th: K Marc Liegghio, Western (#39); DL Nicholas Dheilly, Saskatchewan (#46)
- 6th: LB Kyle Rodger, Ottawa (#55)
- 7th: LB Tanner Cadwallader, Laurier (#64)
- 8th: DB Bleska Kambamba, Western (#73)
With only seven selections in the 2020 Draft, including only one in the first three rounds, Winnipeg did not have the picks to make a huge immediate difference to their 2020 roster. Regardless, there are some interesting prospects.
Their top pick, Hallett, a safety out of McMaster, could be viewed as the Bombers replacement for free agent loss Jeff Hecht. A key component of the Marauders’ Yates Cup winning-season in 2019, Hallett patrolled the middle of the field as a ball-hawk, nabbing four interceptions and breaking-up 6 passes. He joins his brother, Nick, who was a 2019 pick of the Bombers.
O’Leary-Orange played his college football at Nevada, where he had a productive sophomore season in 2017 before being buried in a deep depth-chart over the past two seasons. I thought he might have been selected earlier based on his college pedigree of attending a FBS program, but fell to the 4th-round. He has intriguing size at six-foot-four, but will likely need to prove himself on special-teams to see playing time early in his career.
Leigghio, a kicker who attended Western, was an eyebrow-raising selection on draft-night, as Winnipeg already has one of the best in the league at the position, Justin Medlock, under contract for the foreseeable future. Still, he is the best place-kicker in this draft, making 88% of his 105 field-goal attempts over four seasons in purple.
- DL Jonathan Kongbo* (San Francisco 49ers)
- DB Winston Rose (Cincinnati Bengals)
- DB Marcus Sayles (Minnesota Vikings)
- QB Chris Streveler (Arizona Cardinals)
Possibly the CFL team facing the challenges of NFL losses the most are the Bombers, who saw four key parts of their 2019 Grey Cup squad head South.
One of these is unfortunately Kongbo, who the team took in the 1st-round of the 2019 CFL Draft. He didn’t appear much on the stat-sheet much as a rookie, but clearly put enough on tape to draw the attention of the NFL’s 49ers. He heads to arguably the NFL’s top defensive-line, so his chance of seeing legitimate playing-time there might be slim. For Winnipeg, the investment of a 1st-rounder stings.
Rose and Sayles were one of the best defensive-back duos in the CFL last season, without question. Rose led the league with 9 interceptions while anchoring the weak-side corner position. Sayles, who normally played alongside Rose in the formation, was excellent in slot-coverage from the half-back position and was a difference-maker as well. Losing a pair of All-Stars is never easy, but it happening in the same position grouping makes the loss even harder to take. Rose and Sayles will attempt to fight for roster-spots with the Bengals and Vikings, respectively.
Streveler is a fascinating athlete who started some games at quarterback for Winnipeg. He isn’t a developed passer, but that didn’t matter much in the CFL due to his absurd ability to utilize his legs, racking up over 1150 yards over the past two seasons on the ground. As football coaches have become more and more creative, the Arizona Cardinals likely have designed a role in which they want to deploy the former Bomber. With the emergence of the ultimate gadget-player Taysom Hill with the New Orleans Saints over the past few seasons, people have been quick to draw the comparisons to Streveler. I, for one, will be watching this situation closely.
On offense, Winnipeg brings back their complete starting line-up from their Grey Cup victory.
Along the offensive line, you’d be hard-pressed to find a unit that has more chemistry, with a combination of experience, youth and potential.
At tackle, Winnipeg’s American combo of Bryant and Hardwick are both consistent and high-impact players. Bryant has arguably been the CFL’s best offensive-lineman over the past five years and Hardwick is solid in pass-protection while being a true edge-setter in the run-game.
On the interior, the Bombers start a Canadian trio of Desjarlais, Couture, and Neufield. Desjarlais, a rare impact Canadian rookie, has incredible potential and plays the game with a real nasty-streak that you love to see in both run and pass-blocking. Couture I mentioned before in our re-signings category, but again, he is an elite young offensive-lineman that gives intense effort snap-to-snap. Neufield is the veteran in this group, but he played a pivotal role when he was inserted into the line-up in the back-half of last season, completing this unit.
At quarterback, you have Collaros, who has had bit of an up-and-down career. When he’s on, as he illustrated in the Bombers’ Grey Cup run, he is as good as any passer in the CFL. He is helped in the backfield by the best running-back in football, Harris, who had nearly 300 more rushing-yards than any other player in the league last season, despite missing two games.
The receiving core doesn’t have one name that jumps out at you, but all five players contribute and have complimentary skill-sets.
Lawler led the team yards last season with 637, but averaged a healthy 14.8 yards per catch. Adams is probably the most talented player in this group, but had a relatively down-year in 2019 after having back-to-back 1000-yard performances the previous seasons. Regardless, he is the most explosive receiver in this offense. Bailey, emerged in a role with this offense late last season, appearing in five games and catching 23 passes.
On the Canadian side of things, Demski and Wolitarsky are capable starters. Demski is one of my favourite players to watch in the league, as the Bombers use him in a variety of different ways, including as a rusher. What stood out from studying him lately is, funny enough, the tenacity in which he blocks in the run-game. Wolitarsky is more of a perimeter receiver, and has produced 9 touchdowns and over 1000-yards over the past two seasons.
At a glance, Winnipeg doesn’t have the most flashy offense, but there are no true holes with this unit, which shows how well this side of the roster has been assembled, with both Americans and Canadians playing key roles.
Let’s turn our attention to the defense, a unit that is talented but took some key losses on the back-end.
To begin with the obvious, Jeffcoat and Jefferson are one of the Top-3 defensive-end combinations in the league without question. Jefferson is simply a special CFL player, one with a rare combination of size, athleticism but also strong football IQ. I would argue he was the best player in the league last season with how he dominated offensive-lineman and frustrated quarterbacks by constantly knocking-down passes at the line of scrimmage. Jeffcoat had another solid year statistically last season, but what stands out is his play-to-play consistency, especially as one of the better CFL defensive-ends in defending the run.
On the inside, there are more questions. This is one area where the team lost key players in free agency, but the replacement options are interesting. Thomas, a Canadian, started some games last season and has spent his entire 8-year CFL career in Winnipeg, always being a productive rotational player. He notched a career-high 5 sacks last season and could have a great year as a full-time guy in 2020. Richardson was a player that typically rotated with Thomas last season, producing 25 tackles and 2 sacks in his first year in the league. At 24, he is a potential breakout candidate along this defensive-front.
The linebacking core is an interesting group as well. Wilson emerged as a jack-of-all-trades in his third CFL season and displayed good cover instincts. Bighill needs no introduction as a long-time CFL standout, operating as one of the league’s fiercest and most dynamic linebackers, excelling in zone-coverage and on the blitz. If there is one problem area for this group it could be the inexperienced Maston, who has played three CFL seasons but has rarely been able to crack the starting line-up. We will find out more about him in 2020 in a projected increased-role.
In the secondary are the biggest questions for this unit. One myth about the 2019 Bombers that people may not cue into is the fact that this secondary was not that good at preventing the pass, finishing 6th in the league in the category. In reality, last year’s group was a talented-bunch but one that relied on risk-taking and forcing turnovers, which they produced often. The departing contingent of Sayles and Rose to the NFL, who produced a large-chunk of those turnovers, leaves this unit with plenty of questions going into 2020.
Starting at corner we have the newcomer Swann scheduled on this initial projection. He hasn’t played significantly since the spring of 2019 during the AAF’s shortened-season, but has a rare college pedigree, where he excelled at Georgia. Time will tell how he performs in the CFL, but for now its a bit of a question mark. His adjustment to the league could be helped by Johnson, who as we explained earlier, is a multi-talented cover-man that is coming off a great 2019 with the Eskimos.
Alexander at safety is a consistent player when on the field, though he doesn’t produce many highlight-worthy plays. He is a solid-starter.
On the right side, Taylor and Jones make up a questionable pairing. Taylor has been in the CFL for four years but is unproven as a starter at half-back. Jones started games down the stretch last season, including the team’s Grey Cup win, but was arguably the weakest link of the unit. He is projected for a full-time role in 2020 with a chance to prove himself.
Ultimately, don’t be surprised if this defense takes a step back towards the beginning of next season while they incorporate different pieces on the back-end. Regardless, the team’s front-seven will likely be as good as any in the Canadian Football League, with Jefferson and Bighill being the biggest difference-makers.
Looking at Winnipeg’s special-teams, the core elements remain the same for 2020.
It appears Medlock will be back to handle both kicking and punting duties, although it is unclear of the team’s plan for 5th-round pick Marc Liegghio, who also performed both jobs at Western.
Grant is a terrific return-man with big-play capability, as illustrated by his league-leading 3 punt-return touchdowns last season.
We’ve reached the end of this review but before we say goodbye, a look at what it all means for the 2020 Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
As defending Grey Cup Champions, plenty of weight will be placed on this team to again have a spectacular season. With many returning components, including the vast majority of the offense, it is easy to believe in Winnipeg going into 2020.
However, there are a few pivotal factors.
One will obviously be the health of quarterback Zach Collaros. If remains healthy, I don’t see why this passing-offense can’t drastically improve in 2020. But, it is a BIG question.
On defense, the main concern has to be the new starters in the secondary and if they can prevent big-plays while still taking away the football at a decent rate. A tremendous front-seven led by two of the best players in the sport in Jefferson and Bighill give them the chance to do that, but ultimately, it will be up to the perimeter players to provide consistent coverage.
When looking at Winnipeg, it is hard not to admit that this team has one of the highest game-to-game floors of any CFL team given how well they control the line of scrimmage and run the football. To this end, the Bombers should be a shoe-in for the playoffs competing against other western teams. I certainly consider this team among the top Grey Cup contenders, but I cannot say with confidence that they would be my personal pick to take home the trophy, given that a team like Saskatchewan had less turnover and has similar strengths.
Did we miss any offseason additions? Do you agree with our analysis? Be sure to let it all out in the comments below!
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