It’s part of the new and uncomfortable reality for every general manager in the Canadian Football League. And perhaps even more so for Kyle Walters and your 2019 Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The Bombers GM has spent much of the last few weeks in uncomfortable conversations with players – both already signed for 2021 and those who were/are heading to free agency next month – in the wake of a lost 2020 season and a mandate to lower expenses.
And so when he was asked to characterize the last few weeks in the first question of a media conference call on Tuesday, it wasn’t all that surprising for Walters to begin with ‘chaotic.’
“You can hear my phone – it’s still going. It’s non-stop,” he said. “It’s been very busy and draining and stressful with a lot of not-pleasant conversations with a combination of players and agents.
“It’s been real, real busy and I can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel with where we’re at now.”
Yes, even against that uncomfortable backdrop the Bombers have still managed to re-sign 18 players from their pending free agent list, including (in alphabetical order) Brandon Alexander, Tobi Antigha, Rasheed Bailey, Stanley Bryant, Nic Demski, Shayne Gauthier, Geoff Gray, Jermarcus Hardrick, Andrew Harris, Jackson Jeffcoat, Josh Johnson, Mercy Maston, Sean McGuire, Mike Miller, Pat Neufeld, Nick Taylor, Jake Thomas and Kyrie Wilson.
At the same time, he’s also restructured contracts of a number of players already under contract, including high-profile stars like Zach Collaros, Willie Jefferson and Adam Bighill.
Given the names the club has been able to re-sign, Walters was asked if the work already done has made him feel better about where things currently stand. Clearly, based on his candid answer, the experience has been something of an emotional ordeal.
“It was just a miserable experience,” said Walters. “It’s just not fun having these conversations. A couple of the agents and I were saying it’s just so mentally draining… you just don’t have any good conversations. Going back from the operations cap where our budget has been cut and our salaries have been cut and then roll right into the salary cap where it’s the same thing and we’re operating out of a lower cap than we’ve had. It seems like it’s been 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 I feel more a relief that a majority of the legwork is over. There’s still some pieces to add here and some work to do.”
Walters spoke for over 20 minutes in his media conference call. Here are some of the other notable talking points from that conversation:
THE BIG FREE AGENT NAMES REMAINING
Walters announced during his call that veteran guard Pat Neufeld had signed a one-year contract extension, a move which leaves only Cody Speller – the versatile guard/centre – as unsigned along the offensive line.
The Bombers’ remaining pending free agent list includes 14 players who suited up in 2019, including starters Kenny Lawler, Steven Richardson and Speller, kicker Justin Medlock, returners/receivers Lucky Whitehead and Janarion Grant.
Here’s Walters on where negotiations stand with some of the key names:
“Kenny, we’ve been in long talks with. They’re taking their time. I thought we were fairly close on a dollar amount, but it’s stalled. So we’re just plugging along with Kenny.”
“With Cody we had an offer in earlier on and there was some back and forth, so that’s still up in the air.:”
“Steven Richardson we were quite a ways apart in our initial thought. Our offer and their counter offer, we were nowhere near in the ballpark.”
“Justin’s pretty quiet. I know Mike (O’Shea) had spoken with him and Justin, like every offseason, takes his time. Him and his wife and their family decide what their plans are, so we’re not sure.”
Lucky Whitehead and Janarion Grant
“Janarion and Lucky we’re talking to. They’re trying to exhaust all NFL opportunities, as is their plan. We’ve spoken to them and there’s not much going on there just yet.”
THE PAY CUT CONVERSATIONS
Walters indicated that it’s not just the Bombers’ star players who have had to bite the bullet for 2021, but just about everybody on the roster and in the organization.
“We had some high-priced guys, rightfully so… all of the higher-end guys had to take pretty good hits,” he said. “Adam has been the most publicized, but everybody on the team, across the board, even some of the lower-end guys, from a team all buying in standpoint have kicked in a little bit here and a little bit there to make it more of a team effort to try and figure out a way to get this cap in a more manageable spot.”
Bighill’s cut has been significant – he explains his rationale here – and Walters suggested that the veteran middle linebacker ‘went above and beyond’ relative to the other cuts.
“That was a very difficult one,” said Walters “Adam and I had some serious talks. His agent and I had some serious talks. It just came down to this was the market for American middle linebacker numbers were going and this is what we had left. I explained to Adam, ‘This is it.’ Him and his family and his agent decided to stay in Winnipeg and we’re happy.
“Mike’s (head coach O’Shea) preference to me was to bring everybody back and obviously Adam, for everything he does, was right up there at the top of Mike’s list with a number of guys. Mike wants that core group back, especially the guys that bring the leadership that fans don’t see in the locker room leadership. Adam is building something beyond football in this city and it appears as though he wants to make Winnipeg his home and made the decision to stay with us.”
THE 2021 FREE AGENT GAME PLAN
Much of the heavy lifting has been done with respect to the Bombers free agent list as Walters & Co. have done a masterful job of keeping much of the core together.
Given that – and the challenges of working to the salary cap floor rather than the ceiling – it will be fascinating to see what unfolds when the free agent market opens on February 9.
Walters said the Bombers’ approach will depend on what happens in the days leading up to then, especially with respect to the negotiations with Richardson and Lawler.
“It will be very interesting,” he said. “Normally at this time you have an idea of who is going to free agency based on, if we look at receivers as an example, you look at the highest-paid guy and say, ‘Well, that receiver is in that ballpark so it’s going to cost that much money to get him.’ Now everything has been reset this year so I’m not sure what to expect from a numbers standpoint in free agency.
“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 if you can add some value at certain positions. Maybe a team or two is targeting one high-end guy and putting money aside but, for us, we’ve focused our attention – as you can tell – on bringing back our core group of guys.
“I think we’ll take a deep breath and see who is going to free agency and see what the market is and see if maybe if you can add a couple value pieces more than a big splash, I would say.”
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