The Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ off-season is barely two weeks old, yet the team has already made some positive moves. First it was announced that offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice would return for next season, after which it was reported that the team had signed offensive linemen Jermarcus Hardrick and Patrick Neufeld to contract extensions.
Coach O’Shea confirms Paul LaPolice will remain with the organization next season.
— WPG Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) November 15, 2017
It’s an encouraging start for a team that has a lot to prove in 2018. The Bombers may have won 23 games over the past two years, but have zero playoff victories to show for its regular season success. There’s also the small matter of the team’s 27-year Grey Cup drought, something that Bomber fans are unlikely to let the club soon anytime forget.
Below are a number of thoughts, questions, and predictions for the upcoming off-season.
A role for Noel?
The downfall of the 2017 Winnipeg Blue Bombers was the club’s leaky defence. Richie Hall’s unit was embarrassed by Mike Reilly and the Edmonton Eskimos in the West Semi-Final, allowing five touchdowns of fifteen or more yards along with several other explosive gains.
The Bombers simply have too much talent on the defensive side of the ball for the unit to perform so poorly. Even without Maurice Leggett and Jamaal Westerman, the club still entered the playoffs with three all-star defensive backs in Chris Randle, T.J. Heath, and Taylor Loffler, a tackling machine in rookie Jovan Santos-Knox, and three very formidable young pass rushers in Tristan Okpalaugo, Jackson Jeffcoat, and Cory ‘Poop’ Johnson.
To me, this is a key indication that the club’s defensive struggles are scheme-related. The Bombers gave up too much yardage all season long in 2017, a problem that only became worse in the post-season. Head coach Mike O’Shea and general manager Kyle Walters have both spoken to the club’s defensive woes, insisting that the unit must be better next year. For two men who are loath to criticize their own people publicly, I’d say these comments are a fairly clear indication that defensive coordinator Richie Hall won’t be back in 2018.
This leads us, of course, to the question of who will coach the club’s defence next season. To me, there is one candidate that stands out above all others: former Montreal Alouette defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe.
Thorpe served as Montreal’s defensive coordinator from 2012 until September of this year when he was unceremoniously fired by general manager Kavis Reed. During that time, Montreal was known for having one of the CFL’s most physical defences. The Alouettes finished in the top-half of the CFL in points allowed, sacks, and forced fumbles every year from 2013 to 2016.
The unit also regressed tremendously following Thorpe’s departure from Montreal following week twelve of this season. Thorpe’s defence gave up an average of 401 yards and 27.6 points per game during the first eleven weeks of the season. Following Thorpe’s dismissal, the Alouettes gave up an average of 448 yards and 39.4 points per game — shocking numbers considering the club used essentially the same personnel before and after Thorpe’s firing.
There are other candidates — Kahlil Carter and Brent Monson in Calgary might be ready for an expanded role, while Phillip Lolley’s work this past season in Hamilton was outstanding — but Thorpe is a proven commodity who is available, interested in working next season, and capable of getting the most out of Winnipeg’s personnel. The club would be wise to do whatever necessary (ie. write a big cheque) to bring him in as soon as possible.
No More Medlock?
Justin Medlock made some intriguing comments about his future during locker room clean-up, saying he’ll be exploring all options moving forward — including retirement. While losing Medlock would be a tough break for the Bombers, his value to Winnipeg has never been lower since joining the club as a free agent in February of 2016.
Medlock is still a great kicker, but his value is diminished for two reasons. For one, the soon-to-be 35-year-old is coming off the worst season of his career, connecting on just 56 of 70 field goals. His punting improved slightly from 2016 to 2017, but the Bombers pay Medlock his hefty salary with the expectation that he’ll make virtually everything. Finishing tenth in field goal percentage among kickers with more than ten attempts — as Medlock did this season — simply doesn’t cut it.
Secondly, the Bombers don’t need Medlock as badly as they once did. Winnipeg lost a number of games in 2015 due, in part, to the poor play of placekicker Lirim Hajrullahu (who, in fairness, has been very good for Toronto over the past two seasons). Medlock secured the position in 2016, but the Bombers have since drafted a blue chip specialist in Montreal’s Felix Menard-Briere. Menard-Briere is a better punter than placekicker, but his Canadian passport might make it worthwhile for Winnipeg to consider pairing him with a young national placekicker next season instead of bringing back the high-priced Medlock.
Regardless of whether or not Medlock is back in Bomberland next season, expect the veteran placekicker to play in 2018. This is just a hunch, but I’m doubtful the seven-year CFLer is ready to pack it in just yet.
The Bombers fielded the best offensive line in the CFL in 2017, allowing a league-low 71 quarterback pressures and opening a ton of holes for rushing champion Andrew Harris. National starters Matthias Goossen (centre) and Sukh Chungh (right guard) are both under contract for next season, as is American right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick (as of three days ago). This leaves left tackle Stanley Bryant and left guard Travis Bond as pending free agents along with reserve tackle Manase Foketi.
Let’s start with Bryant. Bryant signed with Winnipeg three years ago fresh-off back-to-back all-star seasons in Calgary, getting a deal worth approximately $160,000 annually. Now 31, Bryant regained his all-star form in 2017 and was recently named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman. While winning the award will help his bargaining position, Bryant may have a tough time negotiating a raise with the Bomber brain trust for next season as he’s already one of the highest-earning American linemen in the league.
Now onto Bond. Unless the club believes that Bond can play tackle, I don’t think the 2016 all-star is still in the team’s plans following last week’s re-signing of Patrick Neufeld. Neufeld played very well in place of an injured Bond late in 2017, likely giving the Saskatchewan native the inside track to the left guard spot in 2018. Starting Neufeld would also increase the club’s ratio flexibility, an added bonus to moving on from Bond.
Also of interest is the future of 2017 first round draft pick Geoff Gray. Gray has spent the entire 2017 season on the New York Jets’ practice roster, though his future down south is unclear. Should he become available, starting three (or more) Canadian offensive linemen becomes significantly easier for a Blue Bomber club that has starting just two national hogs for the majority of the past two seasons.
Mulumba on board?
Andy Mulumba is one of the most intriguing names in Bomberland at the moment. Mulumba, the second overall selection in the 2013 CFL draft, has spent the past five seasons in and around the NFL. After striking out in an NFL training camp for the second-straight year in September, Mulumba had interest in coming north before learning of the CFL’s minimum two-year commitment for rookie players.
Kyle Walters has yet to receive a counter offer from Mulumba’s camp after offering the pass rushing specialist a contract shortly after his release from the Rams. Part of the issue is that Mulumba’s agent, Tom Tafelski, is not a CFLPA-recognized contract advisor. Without a realistic understanding of the CFL’s salary cap, contract regulations, and ratio, it’s impossible to properly work on behalf of one’s client.
The reason Mulumba is so critical to the club’s future is the pending free agency of ratio-breaking defensive end Jamaal Westerman. If the Bombers can lock-up Mulumba, extending Westerman to a rich contract will be unnecessary. If Mulumba decides he’s not going to sign, re-upping Westerman becomes critical to maintaining the club’s ratio.
Whatever the future holds for Mulumba — a contract, a trade, or retirement — resolving the tension surrounding the Eastern Michigan product is a key step to determining the course of the club’s off-season.
Never say Nevis
I expressed concern back in February that Drake Nevis would become Euclid Cummings 2.0 for the Bombers, a prediction that sadly came true.
Cummings, coming off a strong 2015 season in Toronto, signed a big-money deal with Winnipeg last year to become the interior pass rusher the club sorely needed. After a disappointing 2016 campaign, Cummings signed with Edmonton where he enjoyed a rebound season, recording 21 tackles and eight sacks with the Eskimos.
Nevis’ production suffered a similar dip in Winnipeg after signing with the team this past February. Recording just 22 tackles and one sack in 2017, Nevis ended up being a healthy scratch for four regular season games. I was right on my last prediction, so I’ll make another — being utilized properly, Nevis enjoys a strong season with a different club next season.
For the Bombers, poaching interior pass rushers from other teams in free agency simply hasn’t paid off. Cory ‘Poop’ Johnson had a stellar rookie season in Winnipeg this season — 20 tackles, five sacks, and 21 quarterback pressures in sixteen games — while former first overall pick Faith Ekakitie spent his rookie year adjusting to the Canadian game.
This off-season I expect the Bombers to mostly stand pat at the defensive tackle position — they’ll bring in some American rookies in the hopes of finding a gem, of course — but the trio of Johnson, Ekakitie, and veteran Jake Thomas is a pretty good core. This will also allow the Bombers to save some money (more on that in a moment).
Dollars for Demski?
Matt Coates had an impressive 100-yard performance in the playoffs, but there’s no argument that the Bombers would still do well to improve their stock of national receivers. Enter Nic Demski, the Winnipeg native who many fans wanted to see play for his hometown team before he became a first round pick of Saskatchewan three seasons ago.
As great as Demski would look in blue and gold, I wouldn’t count on the University of Manitoba product returning to Chancellor-Matheson Road this winter. Demski is coming off an injury-plagued season that saw the 24-year-old make just five catches in seven contests following an explosive start (14 receptions for 169 yards and one touchdown in two games). This isn’t the year for Demski to hit a home run contract, making it unlikely he’ll press hard to make it to free agency.
The Riders could also ill-afford to lose Demski. Despite his injuries, Demski was still easily Saskatchewan’s second-leading Canadian receiver behind Rob Bagg, who turns 33 in February. I’m not saying Demski will never return to Winnipeg, but I don’t expect it to happen this off-season.
The Bombers have plenty of decisions to make in their secondary heading into 2018. All-stars Chris Randle (boundary cornerback) and T.J. Heath (boundary halfback) need new contracts, while rookie field-side defensive backs Brandon Alexander and Brian Walker struggled late in the year.
Randle is already among the CFL’s highest-paid cornerbacks, meaning its unlikely he’ll require a hefty raise to remain in blue and gold. The same can’t be said for Heath, a two-time all-star who is old for a CFL sophomore at 30. This year may be Heath’s only opportunity to get a big-money CFL deal, meaning the Bombers will have to make a large financial investment to keep the five-year NFL veteran in Winnipeg next season.
It’s tough to speculate too much about the secondary without knowing who the club’s defensive coordinator will be next season, but it’s fair to assume that the Bombers’ defensive backfield will look different in 2018. The only player who is guaranteed to return is two-time all-star Taylor Loffler, the hard-hitting Canadian safety who is under contract through 2018.
Don’t forget Leggett
He may be rehabbing a torn Achilles tendon, but Maurice Leggett is (in my view, anyway) the most important remaining free agent for Winnipeg to re-sign this off-season.
Leggett plays the CFL’s hardest defensive position at strong-side linebacker and does so at a higher level than anyone else in the league. Since 2014, no player has recorded more interceptions, fumble recoveries, takeaways, defensive return yards, or defensive touchdowns than Leggett. His 220 tackles, eleven sacks, six forced fumbles, punt return touchdown (2017), and missed field goal return touchdown (2014) also speak volumes about his defensive prowess and explosive athleticism.
— Darrin Bauming (@DarrinBauming) October 19, 2017
Now 31, Leggett is likely due the final big-money contract of his career. A full-time Winnipeg resident, I fully expect Leggett to be back with the Bombers next season. With that being said, the club will (rightfully) have to pay-up for his services.
It’s hard to see the Bombers bringing back Drake Nevis, saving the club approximately $130,000 against the cap next year. It’s also safe to expect that Clarence Denmark, now 32, will retire this off-season after a career-worst 2017 campaign. Canadian receiver Julian Feoli-Gudino and linebackers Sam Hurl and Ian Wild are also potential veterans who won’t be back in 2018, creating further cap savings for the blue and gold.
Veterans Weston Dressler and Justin Medlock could both be back next season, but neither will earn the same $175,000 contract annually they’ve had over the past two years. Winnipeg won’t have a ton of money to play with heading into 2018, but the club should have enough cap space to re-sign plenty of its own free agents while potentially adding two or three from other clubs.
Jermarcus Hardrick undoubtedly got a healthy bump in pay when he recently re-signed with the Bombers after an all-star 2017 season. Versatile running back/receiver Timothy Flanders has been retained and likely got bumped up in salary. A few other pending free agents who can expect substantial raises if they choose to re-sign in Winnipeg are Leggett and Heath.
There are also a handful of players who could be up for raises despite not being pending free agents. Kyle Walters has a history of re-signing his Canadians well in advance of their contracts expiring, as has recently been the case with special teams ace Derek Jones, centre Matthias Goossen, and guard Sukh Chungh. Given the importance of retaining national talent, it’s sometimes worth paying more upfront to ensure players stick around long-term.
As mentioned above, Taylor Loffler’s contract is set to expire at the end of the 2018 season. After being named an all-star in his rookie and sophomore campaigns, the UBC product is likely to become the CFL’s highest-paid safety when he signs his next contract. In the interest of keeping him in blue and gold, the Bombers may consider it worthwhile to re-sign him now.
The same may also be said for standout rookie defensive linemen Cory ‘Poop’ Johnson and Jackson Jeffcoat, though it’s possible both players will look to try the NFL after next season.
It’s impossible to know which players will make it to free agency in February, but we can speculate as to who the Bombers may decide to chase should they become available.
The Bombers desperately need to add a big-bodied receiver — someone who can be relied upon to convert on second down like Brad Sinopoli in Ottawa or Manny Arceneaux in B.C.
One such player who may become available is Saskatchewan’s Bakari Grant. The Riders are deep at receiver and, at 31, Grant may be the odd man out should Chris Jones decide to move forward with Duron Carter, Naaman Roosevelt, and Caleb Holley (who just signed a sizeable extension) as his top-three American targets. Grant would immediately become Winnipeg’s biggest target and one who could become a second down safety net for Matt Nichols in 2018. The downside? Grant is not a pending free agent.
Two other targets to keep an eye on are Ernest Jackson in Montreal and the aforementioned Arceneaux.
Jackson was badly misused by the Alouettes in 2017, playing almost exclusively at boundary wide receiver after two 1,000-yard seasons with Ottawa in the slot. If he were willing to redo his contract (Jackson is not a pending free agent), the 31-year-old might be worth acquiring via trade.
Arceneaux, meanwhile, is a pending free agent. He’s likely too expensive for the Bombers to add, but it’s not impossible to imagine Arceneaux leaving the west coast. There is uncertainty regarding the future of the Lions organization with David Braley reportedly interested in owning the team for one more year and the cost of living is far lower in cities like Regina, Winnipeg, and Hamilton than Vancouver.
Another name to keep an eye on is Chris Williams. Williams is anything but a big-bodied receiver at 5’9 and 155 pounds, but Paul LaPolice loves having speedy play-makers at his disposal. After a poor season in B.C., Williams is unlikely to play out the final year of his contract with the Lions without taking a large pay-cut (something he may not be willing to do). Still just 30, Williams could have some game left — particularly with a chip on his shoulder after finishing the 2017 season with the Lions as a healthy scratch.
Other positions for the Bombers to take a look at this off-season are middle linebacker and defensive back. The club will likely elect to find its own middle linebacker for 2018 — proven commodities like Larry Dean or Tank Reed, if available, will likely be too expensive — but the addition of a veteran defensive back would be most welcome.
A number of veterans such as Don Unamba, Jovon Johnson, Dominique Ellis, and Brandon Stewart had strong seasons after not initially making CFL rosters out of training camp. Signing such a veteran would help secure the field-side of the Bombers’ secondary after a year that saw rookies Roc Carmichael, Brandon Alexander, and Brian Walker struggle to make plays.