The past few weeks have gone extremely well for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers but you won’t find general manager Kyle Walters smiling about it.
Even though he’s gotten star players in quarterback Zach Collaros, defensive end Willie Jefferson and linebacker Adam Bighill to restructure their contracts and been able to re-sign key pending free agents such as running back Andrew Harris and left tackle Stanley Bryant, Walters told reporters during a conference call Tuesday that this off-season has been a “miserable experience.” With teams cutting back on costs and spending closer to the CFL salary cap floor owing to the pandemic, Walters has been stuck with the responsibility of being the bearer of bad news.
“It’s just not fun having these conversations. A couple of the agents and I were just saying that it’s so mentally draining,” said Walters, who chatted with the media for nearly 30 minutes.
“You just don’t have any good conversations… It seems like it’s been now, I don’t know, four months of draining, miserable conversations with people, which tends to take a toll on you. I wouldn’t say I feel good about it. I would say right now I feel more of a relief that the majority of the legwork is over. There are still some pieces to add here and some work to do. But I wouldn’t call it a happy feeling right now, it’s more of a sense of relief, to be honest with you.”
One of the toughest conversations was with Bighill, as it’s been reported he was scheduled to receive $260,000 this season. It has been reported that the two-time CFL most outstanding defensive player will now make approximately $115,000, meaning the 32-year-old Montesano, Wash., native who lives in Winnipeg year-round with his family has taken the biggest pay cut on the team.
“That was a very difficult one… It came down to this appears to be the market where the American middle linebacker numbers were going and this is what we had left. I explained to Adam this is it,” Walters said.
“You know, he and his family and his agent obviously decided to stay in Winnipeg and were happy. (Head coach Mike O’Shea’s) preference for me was to bring everybody back. Obviously, for Adam, for everything he does, he was right up there at the top of Mike’s list with a number of guys.”
Walters added: “I don’t want to get into specifics, but Adam went above and beyond relative to the others, I believe.”
The majority of the heavy lifting is done but there’s still some work left to do. The Bombers’ pending free agent list now sits at 15 names after Canadian offensive lineman Patrick Neufeld agreed to a one-year extension on Tuesday. That list doesn’t include kick returner Janarion Grant and wide receiver Kenny Lawler, who were released from their contracts when the 2020 CFL season was cancelled in hopes of landing an opportunity in the NFL, but the Bombers hold their negotiation rights as well. Players who don’t re-sign with the Blue and Gold before Feb. 9 will hit the open market. In addition to Lawler and Grant, some of the biggest names from the 2019 Grey Cup team who remain unsigned are kicker Justin Medlock, defensive tackle Steven Richardson, Canadian offensive lineman Cody Speller and wide receiver Lucky Whitehead.
Walters touched on all of those names, most notably Medlock, as he said the veteran kicker is currently contemplating retirement and hasn’t informed the team of his plans. The Bombers were close to agreeing on a dollar amount with Lawler, the team’s leading receiver in 2019, but contract talks have recently stalled. The Blue and Gold are much further from reaching an agreement with Richardson as the University of Minnesota product countered their initial offer with a much higher price tag. There’s been some back and forth discussions with Speller but that’s up in the air. Grant and Whitehead are still exploring NFL opportunities. Walters said his approach to free agency will depend on how it plays out with the rest of his pending free agents. But even if a couple of those names get away from him, don’t expect Walters to make a huge splash.
“I think a large portion of the teams are trying to put their core back together as best they can and then see what’s out there in free agency and see maybe if you can add some value in certain positions,” he said. “Maybe a team or two is targeting one high-end guy and putting money aside, but for us, we focused our attention on, obviously as you can tell, bringing back our core group of guys.”
That core group, though, isn’t a young one. It remains to be seen how much longer guys like Harris (33), Bryant (34), Collaros (32) and Bighill (32) can play at an elite level. But Walters believes if there’s a year to have a roster full of vets, this is it as no one knows how much time teams will have to prepare before a Week 1 kickoff.
“Who knows what this season is going to look like? Obviously, we’re all planning for a May training camp, but will there be parameters put on that? How intense practice will or won’t be? Will it start? All those questions everybody has that nobody has the answers to… Our strategy, whether it’s good or not I don’t know, but our strategy is I think it behooves us to try to bring a veteran group back,” Walters said.
“You know, is there going to be pre-season? Who knows. Going through all the scenarios, this is slightly different than a normal training camp where you pencil in May the 10th and you know you’re going to get two preseason games… With all the uncertainty, continuity, in particular this year, is going to help.”
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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