There’s a reason why all but three Canadians on the Blue Bombers’ roster have been acquired during the Kyle Walters era.
Joe Mack, a man who once admitted to having never heard of Hec Creighton winner and current CFL Most Outstanding Canadian Brad Sinopoli, left the Bombers’ cupboard completely bare of national talent upon his firing in mid-August of 2013.
Walters made some quality additions ahead of the 2014 season — trading for Patrick Neufeld at the 2013 trade deadline and selecting Matthias Goossen second overall in the 2014 CFL draft chiefly among them — but his team still boasted the worst Canadian talent in the league, an embarrassing feat considering the Ottawa RedBlacks were an expansion franchise that season.
Fortunately for Bomber fans, things have changed quickly in two years. Jamaal Westerman, signed as a free agent last May, is arguably the best pass rusher in the CFL regardless of nationality. Sukh Chungh, the second overall selection of the 2015 CFL draft, is well on his way to becoming one of the league’s premier guards. Matt Bucknor, acquired from Hamilton two off-seasons ago, has yet to miss a game at field-side corner in two seasons. And Andrew Harris and Keith Shologan, both added in free agency this past February, are household names with all-star credentials.
While not an elite group, the Bombers’ level of Canadian talent is at or slightly above league average for the first time in over a decade. The club currently has eleven Canadians with at least eighteen career starts and a nice handful of prospects that are likely to develop into starters and/or quality special teamers in years to come.
Sukh Chungh, Rory Kohlert, and Jamaal Westerman will all maintain their starting roles from last season. Patrick Neufeld remains a starter, though it appears he has made a permanent shift from left guard to right tackle. Expect the Bombers to fill Neufeld’s vacated left guard spot with an American player.
Matthias Goossen, still just 23, looks to enjoy his first full season as the club’s undisputed starting centre. Goossen impressed late last year and should find a positive mentor in veteran centre Jeff Keeping, a former Leo Dandurand trophy winner with Toronto.
Keith Shologan takes over at nose tackle from international Zach Anderson, who, after a disappointing 2015 campaign, recently signed a free agent deal with Hamilton. Shologan had a career-high seven sacks with Ottawa a season ago and, at 30, should still have enough gas in the tank to perform at a high level in blue and gold.
Andrew Harris, the seventh and final projected starter, is a player who requires no introduction. A two-time CFL all-star, Harris gives the Bombers the best backfield threat they’ve had since Fred Reid won the CFL rushing title in 2010 with 1,396 yards on the ground. Don’t be surprised if Harris eclipses 650 yards receiving in Paul LaPolice’s pass-happy offence.
This projection leaves returning starters Sam Hurl, Matt Bucknor, and Julian Feoli-Gudino without first-string roles. If any of these players see time as a starter this season for reasons unrelated to injury — the Bombers have often started more than seven Canadians under head coach Mike O’Shea — expect it to be Bucknor. Winnipeg’s secondary is currently undergoing a transition with free agent addition Macho Harris set to start at safety, Maurice Leggett permanently moving to SAM linebacker, and Chris Randle possibly taking over from Demond Washington (now with the Tiger-Cats) at boundary halfback. Ultimately, the secondary’s starting line-up will be determined by two things: the quality of Winnipeg’s young international defensive backs and the extent to which O’Shea is determined to start eight Canadians. If there are multiple American standouts in training camp and O’Shea is content to only start seven nationals, expect Bucknor to play exclusively on special teams. If the incoming defensive backs disappoint in camp and O’Shea is determined to start an extra Canadian, expect Bucknor to maintain his starting spot at field corner.
Draft position and positional needs
The Bombers gave up their first round pick in this year’s draft to select Dartmouth safety/linebacker Garrett Waggoner in the CFL’s supplemental draft last May. The club was, however, able to recoup a top-ten pick in last September’s trade that sent veteran guard Chris Greaves to the Eskimos. As such, Winnipeg will select at the following spots barring further trades: 9, 10, 19, 28, 37, 46, 54, 63.
The Bombers’ primary positional need is along the offensive line. Tommy Griffiths, an undrafted Wilfred Laurier product, beat out 2014 sixth round pick Quinn Everett last season for the fifth and final Canadian offensive line spot on the roster. Unfortunately for Winnipeg, Griffiths retired this past December at the age of 24.
As such, look for the Bombers to select two offensive linemen in this year’s draft — one with one of their top two picks and the other with a mid-to-late round selection. As discussed with draft master Justin Dunk on this week’s episode of the Blue Bomber Talk Podcast, the Bombers will likely end up selecting Grand Valley State’s Brandon Revenberg or Concordia’s Roman Grozman depending on availability. Buffalo’s Dillon Guy is also a prototypical Mike O’Shea prospect — tough as nails, physical, and a team-first kind of guy — though his draft position is in question given the condition of his knee seven months after tearing his ACL.
Outside of the offensive line, the Bombers would be wise to draft the best available player. Adding a pass rusher like Virginia’s Trent Corney would be a tremendous asset behind Westerman, though it is unlikely the New York Jets’ mini-camp invitee will still be available at ninth overall. Alex Singleton, a player with one year of NFL experience under his belt, would also be a good pick who could have an immediate impact on special teams. Singleton would also be a strong positional fit should the Bombers ever go back to starting a Canadian in their linebacking core. Finally, Calgary’s Mercer Timmis would also make positional sense for the blue and gold. Timmis, once thought to be a sure-fire top-five pick in this year’s draft, has fallen on most draft boards after a disappointing performance at the CFL combine. If available at 19 — which, while unlikely, isn’t impossible — Winnipeg would be wise to select Timmis to continue building depth behind starter Andrew Harris.
For the first time since taking over as general manager of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Kyle Walters is no longer hamstrung by his team’s lack of Canadian talent. After picking an offensive lineman early on, the Bombers can afford to select the best player available with all seven of their remaining picks.
For the sake of Bomber fans, here’s hoping Walters picks the right guys.