After building the Winnipeg Blue Bombers into back-to-back champions, general manager Kyle Walters hasn’t had much of a chance to pat himself on the back.
Sure, he took a sip from the silver mug like everybody else in the organization, but with a shorter offseason and over 40 pending free agents, Walters had to quickly get back to work. With one-year contracts being the norm in the CFL, keeping a Grey Cup roster intact becomes an even bigger challenge.
“Yeah, it’s a painful process. It’s not fun,” Walters said Monday.
“Going through this every single year and trying to piece your team together, it’s beneficial for the teams that maybe didn’t have very good years and need to flip their roster… But it is tough for the teams that have had some success to try to keep everybody together.”
Luckily for him, he doesn’t have to twist anyone’s arm about returning to Winnipeg. A chance to become the first group in franchise history to win three straight championships is a pretty easy sell. Throw in the fact that players consistently rave about the culture and it’s no surprise to see big names such as Zach Collaros, Adam Bighill, Willie Jefferson, Jackson Jeffcoat, and Stanley Bryant skip free agency to re-sign with the Blue and Gold.
The majority of the core is locked up, but there’s still some major questions that remain. In a wide-ranging conversation with reporters on Monday that lasted nearly 30 minutes, Walters shed some light on the offseason and spoke about what his club may look like in 2022.
Will Andrew Harris be back?
He’ll be 35 by the time the 2022 campaign begins and he’s coming off two straight Grey Cup victories, but it doesn’t sound like Andrew Harris is ready to call it a career just yet. Walters said negotiations with Harris are ongoing.
“Mike (O’Shea) and Andrew had a good talk last week; I’m not going to get into the specifics of it, but there’s a lot of moving pieces on the go and still a lot of decisions that need to be made between now and training camp and, short-term, February 8 when free agency starts and then right up until training camp,” Walters said.
Harris missed seven games due to injury in 2021. Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine filled in admirably when Harris couldn’t go, but don’t expect to see the same stable of tailbacks next season. Oliveira and Augustine are also without deals for 2022.
“That would be a tough one,” said Walters on keeping all three. “Financially and realistically, I don’t see how that would work. But, maybe. You never know. Never say never.”
Time to focus on skill positions
When it came to building a championship roster, Walters and the Bombers started in the trenches. So, it’s no surprise to see the team take a similar approach to their restricted free agents. Walters wasted no time in inking Bryant, Jermarcus Hardrick, Patrick Neufeld and Geoff Gray on the offensive line. The same can be said for the defensive line with a priority being placed on Jefferson, Jeffcoat, and Jake Thomas.
Now that the lines are mostly sorted out, Walters will be shifting his attention to skilled position players. The name at the top of that list is safety Brandon Alexander. Defensive backs Alden Darby, Winston Rose, Nick Taylor, and Mike Jones aren’t under contract, either.
“The most impactful free safety in the CFL over certainly last year. And he’s a leader. All the stuff that you hear Adam Bighill as a leader, his cohort or partner in that is Brandon Alexander,” said Walters.
“I haven’t got into it too terribly much yet with the receivers and the DBs, but that’s the next group that we’ll start trying to tackle in regards to getting guys knocked off. But we anticipate Brandon being back as a Bomber again.”
The Bombers might need to go find a new No. 1 target as Kenny Lawler — the CFL’s leading receiver last season — recently had a tryout with the Atlanta Falcons. Walters will also need to make decisions on fellow passcatchers Rasheed Bailey, Darvin Adams, and Drew Wolitarsky.
“Yeah, that’s the big headache right now, is kind of waiting on Kenny. You’ve got that dollar value earmarked that you hope might get him done. And depending if he signs or doesn’t sign, and then, yes, certainly Rasheed had a breakout year and they would like to be paid accordingly. And Darvin’s a veteran guy. So that’s one of the spots where you could see some change,” Walters admitted.
“And yeah you need your scouting department to come through and find some young players to come in. We’ve built our team along the lines of scrimmage and we’ll continue to do so. But it’s pretty difficult to pay everybody the fair market value that they deserve.”
Could the fur coat, cowboy hat, and jorts make a return to Winnipeg? It’s possible, but not if there’s a team out there that sees Chris Streveler as starter material. Streveler, a fan favourite in the team’s 2019 Grey Cup run, finished last season on the practice squad for the Baltimore Ravens.
“Chris is still kind of gonna explore the NFL for a few more weeks. He really hasn’t expressed anything other than ‘I’m gonna focus on the NFL right now,’ would be the first point. And the second one, if someone wants to throw some starter money at Chris, then 100 per cent we would not be able to afford him,” said Walters.
Backup quarterback Sean McGuire got his first career CFL start in Week 15 on a rainy afternoon in Montreal and looked dreadful. McGuire hasn’t been re-signed yet but Walters said the team still believes he’s capable of holding the backup job.
“We feel strong about Sean, but it’s an unknown because of the lack of time he’s had to play. As I said, it’s a shame the one game he got to play was such terrible conditions for a quarterback to have to go in there.”
Defensive back DeAundre Alford (Atlanta Falcons) and defensive end Jonathan Kongbo (Denver Broncos) signed NFL contracts and they probably won’t be the only Bombers to make the jump down south. Canadian offensive lineman Drew Desjarlais has had over a dozen NFL workouts and it should be only a matter of time before he puts pet to paper with a team. Kicker Sergio Castillo is eager to get another shot at the NFL but he hasn’t had any opportunities come his way yet.
“If they go on to sign in the NFL, that’s good for them, that’s good for our league and in Drew’s case, that’s good for U Sports. He came from a program at the University of Windsor that didn’t do a lot of winning. He shows up and wins two Grey Cups and is on the verge of signing in the NFL. So, that’s an awesome story for him and hopefully he can provide some hope or a blueprint for a lot of these other young Canadian kids playing at U Sports schools that maybe aren’t a Western, a Montreal, a Laval, a Saskatchewan, some of the bigger programs. Keep working hard and you can get your shot as well.”
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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