Bombers open training camp with a (mostly) set roster

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are set to open training camp on Sunday ahead of a critical 2018 campaign. The club is in the midst of a 27-year Grey Cup drought (but who’s counting?) and haven’t won a playoff game since the club’s ill-fated Grey Cup run in 2011. Regular season success isn’t enough anymore — Winnipeg will need to push its success into the postseason this year in order to silence its critics.

Here is how I see the Bombers’ depth chart heading into training camp (click to enlarge):

Pivotal problem

In a story that flew under the radar last week (just kidding), Darian Durant announced his retirement from professional football just four months after signing a contract to become Winnipeg’s back-up quarterback (you can check out stories on Durant’s retirement here, here, here, and here). Durant’s departure leaves a gaping hole on the club’s depth chart behind starting pivot Matt Nichols that should be of major concern to everyone in and around the Winnipeg Football Club.

The Bombers have arguably the best offensive line in the CFL and Nichols has stayed relatively healthy since becoming Winnipeg’s starter almost two years ago. Even so, teams generally require two quarterbacks to achieve success in the CFL; with Durant gone, the Bombers will have virtually no experience to fall back on should Nichols succumb to injury.

Alex Ross spent last season with the Lions, taking meaningful snaps in four games as a rookie. Ross was highly regarded coming out of training camp but struggled in live action, completing just five of twelve pass attempts and tossing two interceptions.

Chris Streveler, signed by the Bombers two weeks ago, is a highly-regarded prospect out of the University of South Dakota. Streveler is an elite athlete (he was converted to receiver as a sophomore at the University of Minnesota prior to his transfer to South Dakota) who rushed for 1,543 yards and twenty touchdowns in 23 games with the Coyotes. The Illinois native is also a solid passer, tossing for more than 6,000 yards and 54 touchdowns (to just 17 interceptions) in two seasons as South Dakota’s starter.

Zack Mahoney doesn’t come to Winnipeg with quite the same level of college accolades. Predominantly a back-up at Syracuse, Mahoney threw for 1,951 yards over three seasons with the Orange to go along with eighteen touchdowns and ten interceptions.

Regardless of any players’ college statistics, the reality is that the CFL has chewed up and spit out a number of hotshot college quarterbacks. Ross, Streveler, and Mahoney have their work cut out for them if they are to succeed under centre this season — and there’s a chance the club will need to call on one of them sooner rather than later.

Secondary thoughts

There are four defensive backs who can be inked into the club’s starting line-up this season: Chris Randle (boundary cornerback); Taylor Loffler (safety); Maurice Leggett (TBD); and Chandler Fenner (TBD). Leggett is arguably the league’s best strong-side linebacker, but Fenner — the club’s flagship free agent addition — would receive consideration for that title as well. I believe the Bombers will deploy Leggett and Fenner in a rotation between field halfback and strong-side linebacker, interchanging the pair of play-makers to disguise looks for opposing pivots.

This leaves the critical boundary halfback spot — vacated by free agent departee T.J. Heath — and the field cornerback position vacant. Steven Clarke is my pick to win the boundary halfback spot, though Brandon Alexander and Zavian Bingham will be in the mix as well. Clarke showed well in B.C. during stints at both boundary halfback and strong-side linebacker — he earned an off-season look with the Tennessee Titans in 2016 — but was ultimately outdone by injuries. Should he stay healthy in 2018, Clarke could be an excellent under-the-radar signing for a Blue Bomber club that needs to get better in the secondary.

Anthony Gaitor, Kevin Fogg, Brandon Alexander, and Brian Walker will each be in the mix at field cornerback. Gaitor manned that spot for B.C. a year ago, while Alexander and Walker took turns in that role as rookies with the Bombers last season with mixed results.

The man in the middle

The middle linebacker position has been a sore spot for the Bombers in recent years. Without a proven commodity on the roster, the club will look to a cast of young players to earn the starting job.

Jovan Santos-Knox is the front-runner for the position after a respectable rookie season last year. Santos-Knox appeared in sixteen games in 2017, recording 47 defensive tackles, 19 special teams tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, and one forced fumble. For a club that wants players to earn their way into the starting line-up — particularly with strong play on special teams — Santos-Knox will have the inside track.

Kyrie Wilson and Jevaris Jones are (somewhat) experienced challengers for Santos-Knox. Both players spent portions of the 2017 season on the club’s practice roster with Wilson dressing for last year’s Banjo Bowl (and recording one special teams tackle).

Quentin Gause, a rookie with three games of NFL experience, will also make a push for the starting job. A star at Rutgers, Gause brings size, speed, and physicality along with an impressive 6’0, 243-pound frame.

Give and take

Chris Givens joined the Bombers last season after a solid five-year NFL career that saw him amass 1,779 receiving yards between the St. Louis Rams and Baltimore Ravens. Appearing in three games last year — and recording just five catches — it appears Givens is unwilling to return north of the border.

Givens didn’t achieve the same level of success as Toronto’s Victor Butler last season, but it appears he, too, was unwilling to commit to this CFL season before trying the NFL again. Givens is expected to start the year on Winnipeg’s suspended list.

Biggie addition?

Adam Bighill was released by the New Orleans Saints this past week after spending portions of the 2017 season on both the team’s active and practice rosters.

Ryan Rigmaiden, the club’s new director of college scouting, spent the past six years working in B.C.’s personnel department. Rigmaiden has already played a role in bringing a number of former Lions to Winnipeg, including defensive end Craig Roh, quarterback Alex Ross, and defensive backs Chandler Fenner, Anthony Gaitor, and Steven Clarke. Could Rigmaiden’s influence help bring another former Lion to Winnipeg?

Darian Durant’s retirement also plays a role in the club’s potential pursuit of Bighill. While the Bombers are on the hook for Durant’s $70,000 signing bonus, his salary for the 2018 season — worth approximately $80,000 — is now free to be allocated elsewhere. Bighill would command in the neighbourhood of $200,000 per season should he decide to return north, a cap hit Bombers would be able to afford by making no more than one or two roster moves.

There’s still a chance that Bighill returns to B.C. at some point this season (should he return to the CFL this year, which isn’t a guarantee), but expect the Bombers to make a push for the services of the perennial all-star linebacker.

Final thoughts

The Bombers have a well-structured roster that should allow them to compete for a West Division title in 2018. Adarius Bowman, Nic Demski, and Kienan LaFrance are welcome additions to the offensive attack, while veteran defensive backs Steven Clarke, Chandler Fenner, and Anthony Gaitor should help stabilize the secondary. Craig Roh provides some nice depth along the defensive line, while the emergence of a stud middle linebacker (be it Gause, Santos-Knox, Jones, Wilson or Adam Bighill) would potentially put the club over the top.

There’s no denying, however, that the club badly lacks depth behind pivot Matt Nichols. Andrew Harris’ age (31) could also become a concern as the season progresses — averaging 278 touches per season since joining the Bombers two years ago, Winnipeg will have to spread the ball around more if Harris is to remain healthy for the full season.

Even so, I expect the Bombers to earn a playoff spot in the West Division come the end of the 2018 regular season. The question then becomes how they’ll fare in the postseason and, of course, whether or not this team can put an end to its long Grey Cup drought.

John Hodge

John Hodge

John Hodge is a lifelong follower of the CFL who has been writing about the league since 2014. He is a two-time finalist of the Jon Gott lookalike contest.
John Hodge
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John Hodge
About John Hodge (351 Articles)
John Hodge is a lifelong follower of the CFL who has been writing about the league since 2014. He is a two-time finalist of the Jon Gott lookalike contest.

21 Comments on Bombers open training camp with a (mostly) set roster

  1. Mr hemorRED // May 18, 2018 at 10:24 am //

    The Bombers 2018 motto: #Uselessandtoothless

    Mike O’Shea could star in the remake of deliverance.

    • Bomber Fan In The Stands // May 18, 2018 at 11:18 am //

      Glad to see someone take such an uneducated football stance, as to take a stab at the head coach’s looks…, you must be from Regina. If you are going to make a comment, that made sense, maybe have an opinion about what the article is actually about, the Bombers depth.

      I think we are sitting pretty for talent on both sides of the ball. My only hope is the talented guys we brought in on defense can learn/understand Ritchie Hall’s defensive system. I still believe it was a mistake bringing him back as DC, but oh well.

      Santos-Knox.., a diamond in the rough, good find. Legget, Fenner, Clark, Loffler, and don’t forget Ian Wild (who I believe will be stronger after his injury, and provides great leadership prescence). Don’t count the Bombers out of anything!

      GO BLUE!!!

  2. Givens was underwhelming to say the least so he isn’t a loss. Bighill would be a great addition (except his salary) as I believe that Santos-Knox is undersized at the middle LB (although a really good looking sideline to sideline player). Hopefully Gause is the real deal but the Bombers haven’t been great at finding MLB’s or receivers for ‘like forever’. Langford is OK as a returner and a backup receiver. I think we can do better- he’s lanky and he plays a little tentatively in the tough going for my liking.

  3. I’m looking forward to the Bombers beating up on Calgary!

  4. riderontheisland // May 18, 2018 at 12:12 pm //

    Sorry, but I don’t see their additions as all that exciting and wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the season non had a big impact or at least not as much as the player they were replacing. I think they are a strong team, but I don’t believe they will compete for first in the West. I see the Esks being the team to beat and I believe it will be the Riders in second, but the Stamps may be able to hold on to that spot but really I think they battle the Bombers for third.

    • greenenvy? // May 18, 2018 at 3:13 pm //

      I have to agree. The Bombers adding Bowman gives them a bit more size in the receivers. Demski is an enigma wrapped in an enigma. On defence I like the addition of Fenner but, like the review on the 3Down podcast, the defence is an issue. For me Roh doesn’t replace Westerman, Fenner is a different DB than Heath & who replaces Heath? So not much new on the Hall defensive front which just couldn’t stop the big plays or big yardage piling up. The Bombers have the last 2 seasons lived & died off turnovers. If they don’t out-turnover a team they lose – 1 win in 2 years when losing the battle. With the offence relying heavily on Harris on the ground & in the air as well, they are fairly predictable. Their pop gun offence relies on good field position given them by their ball hawks. Plus nobody the past 2 years relied more on their kicker giving them points. Medlock’s leg allowed them to go for long FG attempts when other teams wouldn’t. There’s a lot that has to go right for the Bombers.

  5. big guy // May 18, 2018 at 1:25 pm //

    Wpg could go either way in my books. Not having a decent backup QB is really pushing your luck but their offensive line is impressive so it might not be that big a deal. I would say Wpg, Calg and the Riders will battle for 2nd spot in the west. Edm in first because of Reilly. Not sold on Calgary this year unlike most years, just don’t feel confident in Mitchell. Stamps got fat on deep throws and hoping for interference calls last year and that didn’t pan out for them in the GC.

    • greenenvy? // May 18, 2018 at 3:27 pm //

      Their OL is good but you have to look a little deeper. Bombers were 1st in fewest pressures allowed. I like pressures as a D stat, not so much on Offence. Here’s why? The Eskimos gave up fewest sacks but allowed the most pressures. But when you look at Reilly, whose avg yds/completion was the highest among starters & Nichols the lowest, it paints a different picture. While Nichols targeted Harris 120+ times with short passes (avg yardage per pass in the air to Harris was less than 2 yards meaning a lot of dumps in the backfield or just over the line of scrimmage), Reilly led the league in pass attempts of 20+ yards with 109 throws. How do you get pressure on a QB who dumps off the ball to his RB 1 every 4 throws? Reilly famously stays in until the last second before unloading. The OL has to hold blocks a lot longer. So when you look at a team that had the least long pass attempts vs a team that throws long a lot, pressures look a little different. With the addition of Bowman, will LaPo go long more often? I wouldn’t count on it. Nichols had the worst completion % on long throws in the league, excepting Collaros. Part of that may have been throwing the ball away rather than take a sack unless he is the most inaccurate QB throwing deep. I don’t see that. His completion % overall led the league but, again, that is partly explained by so many short dump passes. How good is the Wpg OL? I really don’t know.

  6. Slippery Dee // May 18, 2018 at 1:58 pm //

    Bombers are thin on the Oline behind the starters. No backup QB and a mystery at MLB (again) offsets any additions. Basically, same as last year talent wise. Could make a run but depth is a huge concern here

  7. fannotacoach // May 18, 2018 at 2:04 pm //

    Interesting perspective from all but two posters that can’t get out of the sand box.
    Looking forward to a competitive CFL in the west this year!
    Looking forward to CFL action!!

    • fannotacoach // May 18, 2018 at 2:07 pm //

      Wow! Congrats to 3D for removing one of the comments. It was just way over the top and poster should have been ashamed to even think like that!

  8. Mr.Red2 // May 18, 2018 at 2:06 pm //

    K. Branning seems good. Colts, Cardinals and Detroit Lions were interested in him. Lots of potential!

  9. Battle of the prairies will be hot this year between Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Saskatchewan for the top 3 spots. I can see it going down to the last weekend.

  10. Huff's Neighbor // May 18, 2018 at 2:38 pm //

    Not convinced at all the the Bummers are better. LaFrance average at best. Harris getting older. Nichols one hit from the bench and then what? Every team has arguably the best O line at this time of year. Let’s revisit come labor day. 3rd in the west at best, maybe the cross over. But I expect the east to be better this year so maybe no cross over.

  11. True green // May 18, 2018 at 3:33 pm //

    I think the Bombers look good this year with their biggest strength on the Oline. QB backup…. well that’s an issue. But what team doesn’t have a week spot somewhere? They need to find something reliable though as that’s the worst Position to have questions at. For this reason I put the Stamps and Bombers fighting for third this year. Edmonton and Sask should be 1 and 2.

    Can’t wait for the season to begin! Good luck to all!

  12. MR. Green // May 18, 2018 at 4:33 pm //

    Will nipeg will have a good season, but like Calgary, must keep that starter healthy, it ruins seasons. Last team it got was the Riders in 2014 when Durant had us at 8-2 and in first place.
    Nichols is smart tho and I think he will be able to stay healthy. Last year at CFL week when the 4 QB’s were on stage answering g questions, I was there, Glenn and Mitchell seemed to need attention. BoLevi tried to be funny but was not. Reilly was actually the funny one and Nichols was quiet, but had the best answers. Bo and Glenn were fake.

  13. The Blue will need to find a back-up QB or their season could be over in 1 hit.

  14. Agree the Bombers will be a playoff team with the caveat that everyone including Nichols in particular stays healthy for yet another full season. However, y’all are underestimating the loss of Travis Bond on the Oline. A huge whole that hasnt been replaced. Also, your oline was basically healthy the whole season,last year. Not something likely to happen again. Harris is definitely a stud, but, how much longer can he carry this load at 31 without any serious injury? You’ve also ignored the value of Health, arguably…..to use your own words, one of the very best cover DBS in the league.

  15. MJ Bandit // May 18, 2018 at 7:38 pm //

    A Richie Hall led D with some big holes (MLB, secondary, DT (if they start that Pooh guy again) is in for some big trouble – maybe O’Shea takes more of a role there as he has said, and that could help?

    Solid O-line; Harris is league best at RB and Bowman, Dressler, Adams, plus maybe Demski, Wolitarsky, Simonise/Petermann pull through – pretty decent at receiver; Nichols goes down and it’s BIG trouble.

    Could see a good season = above .500; or possibly getting whacked lots and well under .500 ?

  16. True Blue // May 18, 2018 at 8:29 pm //

    It’s nice to see most of the posters submit reasonable and and seemingly educated responses to this article with the exception of a couple uneducated drivel and cheap shots, name calling etc that means nothing. Wish we’d see more of this respectable fan banter.

    The four teams in the prairie provinces are the strongest in the league right now in my opinion and it should be a war between them all this season.

  17. 1 Edmonton
    2 Calgary
    3 BC
    4 Saskatchewan
    5 Winnipeg

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