What Ryan Smith’s retirement means for the Bombers

The irony in the retirement by Winnipeg Blue Bomber’s receiver Ryan Smith is that it followed four months of speculation that the petite speedster would be released by the club. I don’t believe the Bombers ever planned to cut Smith, but the team would have been justified in doing so.

Smith signed a monster 3-year, $450,000 deal with the Bombers prior to the 2016 regular season. Coming off a 59-reception, 991-yard season with Saskatchewan, Smith came to Winnipeg as the consensus number one deep threat in the CFL. That quickly changed when Smith failed to catch a pass of more than 28 yards through the first four games of the season.

Though his numbers improved after the club promoted Matt Nichols to the starting quarterback role, Smith still only recorded 53 receptions for 488 yards and one touchdown in the regular season. The deep threat whose average reception went for 16.8 yards with the Riders in 2015 posted a measly 9.2 yard-per-reception average in 2016 — almost two full yards short of Montreal’s Nik Lewis, widely considered the best possession receiver in the CFL.

In fairness to the slotback, Smith had an outstanding performance in the West-Semi Final. In what will now be remembered as the final game of Smith’s career, the receiver recorded seven receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns.

Injury trouble was undoubtedly a factor in Smith’s decision to retire. After suffering at least one diagnosed concussion with North Dakota State and Saskatchewan, Smith missed weeks 5 to 11 in Winnipeg this past year due to a “lower body injury” (groan). He then returned briefly before missing week 13 with an “upper body injury” (louder groan).

It appears that Smith’s decision to retire came as a genuine surprise to the club. Smith tweeted his encouragement for people to purchase season tickets just two weeks ago, calling into question the timeline of his decision-making.

Fortunately for Winnipeg, Smith’s replacement in the starting line-up is already on the roster. Clarence Denmark, released by the Bombers following the signing of Smith in February of 2016, re-joined the club this past July following a rash of injuries to the receiving corps. Denmark, who had never before surpassed five touchdowns in a season, caught 53 passes for 705 yards and eight scores in just ten games.

Where Smith’s retirement hurts the Bombers is depth. As it stands, the Bombers’ primary back-up receiver is now Gerrard Sheppard, a big-bodied target (6’2, 211) who recorded 13 receptions in seven contests during his rookie season. There are free agent options for the club — Phil Bates, Tori Gurley, Joe West, Greg Wilson are all available — but, with April just around the corner, the Bombers are somewhat late a to the game.

Smith’s retirement also disadvantages the Bombers in terms of cap management. Having an extra $150,000 to spend at this time of year is huge, but it’s money the club would have liked to spend a portion of that six weeks ago in free agency.

One player the Bombers may take a more serious run at is free agent receiver Devon Bailey. The former first round pick is Canadian, big (6’5, 200), and young (25), but has yet to sign a contract despite interest from a number of teams. If the Bombers use a portion of Smith’s 2017 salary to lure Bailey to Bomberland, he could provide a substantial boost to the club’s national receiving depth.

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