Tait: Kyle Walters checks in ahead of free agency

Kyle Walters calls it a ‘grind’ – the word being spit out with a sigh and a certain amount of resignation — but it’s a task the Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM also attacks with a certain amount of satisfaction.

After all, the back-to-back Grey Cup championships tends to positively impact the mood around the club’s football operations department even as it began to deal with a long list of prospective free agents, which once totalled 41 and has now been whittled down to 26 in advance of next month’s open market.

Walters met with the local media via Zoom on Monday and addressed several topics, including trying to keep as much of this championship squad intact while dealing with a tight salary cap and every player deserving of a raise.

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“It’s been a grind of a process,” began Walters. “You have an idea of what number you think is fair and you go with and both sides rarely ever think that number is fair.

“It’s a fluid process, where if you’ve got an offer in with Player A and it certainly looks like you’re a long way apart that could affect maybe what the plan is for Player C, D and E and down the list and down the list. We’ve still got a lot of names on that list that we’re trying to work through and depending how it goes with one it may free up some space with the other ones.

“So, it’s a very fluid process on a daily basis.”

The Bombers knocked another name off the free-agent list on Monday, with long-snapper Mike Benson agreeing to a one-year contract extension. He joins quarterback Zach Collaros, linebackers Adam Bighill, Jesse Briggs and Shayne Gauthier, defensive linemen Jackson Jeffcoat, Willie Jefferson and Jake Thomas, fullback Mike Miller, offensive linemen Stanley Bryant, Jermarcus Hardrick, Pat Neufeld and Geoff Gray and safety Nick Hallett as the crew that has been retained for 2022.

Defensive end Jonathan Kongbo, meanwhile, has signed with the Denver Broncos while cornerback DeAundre Alford – who was under contract for ’22 – has landed with the Atlanta Falcons.

Prioritizing who would be offered deals first – and, obviously, for how much – was task No. 1 not long after the club had captured its 12th championship on December 12th.

“That was the first meeting with the coaching staff right after the Grey Cup,” Walters said. “We sit down and as I said to Buck (Pierce, offensive coordinator) and Richie (Hall, defensive coaches) and the position coaches, if everybody wants fair market value there’s no chance we’re going to be able to re-sign everybody. So, let’s go through a priority list from each side of the ball and see if we can get these ones knocked off and go from there.

“It’s certainly a group effort to see who the core guys are and start trying to get them knocked off and see what that costs. That affects every other decision that is made, and still is.

“… There wasn’t much of a break, I’ll say that, from winning the Grey Cup to starting to worrying about next year. There wasn’t a whole lot of time for enjoyment this year.”

Walters and his rivals across the Canadian Football League are working with a moving target that is the salary cap, what with the collective bargaining agreement scheduled to expire in May.

Interestingly, Walters said in many ways staying atop the CFL perch right now is a tougher task than the fight to get to the summit.

“I said this the other day: you can make the case that it’s more challenging now trying to keep this group together than maybe a few years back, where when you look at your spreadsheet and you’ve got holes on there just because players aren’t good enough, so you start targeting some free agents,” he said. “Well, this is more challenging because we like all the players on our team. You look at the group on that list, it’s like how do you make it all work? And it’s virtually impossible. It’s virtually impossible, as I said, for everybody to get what’s fair market value.

“And you’re going to have to move on from some players that are good because you can’t piece it all together. You try to figure out, prioritize, who you have under contract, potentially if you leave what’s the replacement. What potentially could be replace by scouting. What potentially could be replaced through the draft. And you make some very difficult decisions. Not because you don’t think that player is good or you don’t want them on the team. It’s just impossible to make it all work. So, it’s a big challenge.”

Some other highlights from the Walters media session, which covered close to 30 minutes:

On contract negotiations with RB Andrew Harris, also a pending free agent:

“Ongoing, like everybody. Mike (O’Shea, head coach) 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.”

Asked if that means Harris has an intention to keep playing and not retire, Walters added:

“I guess based on what I said, there’s discussions on Andrew’s future, correct.”

One more on that issue – both Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine are pending free agents, and Walters was asked if it was possible to again have all three Canadian RBs on the roster.

“That would be a tough one. Financially and realistically, I don’t see how that would work. But, maybe. You never know. Never say never.”

On NFL interest for guard Drew Desjarlais — who has had 12-13 workout requests from teams down south – Walters indicated the club expects to lose him. He listed Geoff Gray and ’21 draft pick Liam Dobson – who may also draw NFL interest – as possible replacements.

“You can’t replace (Desjarlais). He came in and won a starting job as a Canadian O-lineman halfway through his first year and established himself as one of the best guards in the game. I think somebody like Geoff Gray, who’s been working and grinding, is ready to step up and play. And Liam Dobson, who we drafted last year, if he doesn’t get an NFL shot will come in and be able to compete. We can’t replace Drew, but we have some pieces in place that will need to step up.”

Meanwhile, receiver Kenny Lawler has had a workout with the Atlanta Falcons and is waiting to see if they will make him a contract offer. As well, kicker Sergio Castillo has made no secret of his desire to take one more stab at the NFL.

On the receiving corps, with the uncertainty around Lawler and Darvin Adams, Rasheed Bailey, Drew Wolitarsky and Janarion Grant all pending free agents:

“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 on 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. 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.”

On Sean McGuire, Chris Streveler and the back-up QB spot:

“I’ve said it, that without the preseason quarterbacks, the backup quarterbacks, didn’t get a chance to play this year. Sean was able to get in and play in that game in Montreal which was terrible conditions and obviously he didn’t play quite as well, but I don’t know that it was a fair evaluation. It’s tough at that position. You can evaluate in practice and they can look great in practice, but you just don’t know until the player gets into a game under fire how they react. 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.”

As to Streveler, who finished the year on the practice squad of 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 going to 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.”

On the league-wide pending free-agent list:

Walters indicated that he and assistant GMs Ted Goveia and Danny McManus are looking at the league-wide list of prospective free agents and trying to identify pieces who could help plug the holes of those who might leave.

“Based on some of the negotiations that are going on right now, it’s like, Plan B might be better. How do we replace this?

If it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to get one of our own guys re-signed from a price-point standpoint, then let’s start exploring other options. So those discussions certainly have started.”

Again, while attacking the to-do list can be a grind, trying to make this all work as two-time defending Grey Cup champions is obviously much more appealing than the alternative.

“It’s where you want to be as an organization. Winning helps and people want to be around winning, you know, back-to-back Grey Cups. Mike’s obviously built a team in his image where they’re loyal, hardworking, and they like it here. For some of those veteran players, if they’re comfortable in a situation and the contract seems fair, they don’t need to go looking for a few extra thousand somewhere else. It’s nice to have that group of players feel that way and hopefully it helps with the next group when the leadership group like that all resigns and hopefully some of the younger guys all follow suit.”

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