Durant a great addition, but Bombers still have work to do

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers came to terms on a one-year contract with veteran quarterback Darian Durant late yesterday evening.

The former Rider is coming off a one-year stint with the Montreal Alouettes that saw the 35-year-old have arguably the worst season of his career. Throwing just fifteen touchdowns to sixteen interceptions, Durant’s play was one of many factors that led to a poor 2017 season in La Belle Province.

Despite his recent struggles, I believe that Durant is the perfect addition to Winnipeg’s quarterback stable.

The Alouettes allowed 46 sacks a season ago, second-most in the CFL and most in the East Division. Ernest Jackson, Montreal’s prized free agent signing, was badly misused last year at boundary wide receiver after a dominant 2016 season at slotback in Ottawa. Between a lack of protection, a scarcity of targets, and uneven coaching — an over-matched Anthony Calvillo took over Montreal’s offence following the firing of Jacques Chapdelaine in September — it’s little wonder that Durant’s play suffered.

Like Zach Collaros in Saskatchewan, I expect Durant to enjoy a bounce-back season this year. Durant has been reunited with Paul LaPolice, his offensive coordinator from the most productive seasons of his career (2008-2009), and his favorite target in Weston Dressler. As an added bonus, the veteran pivot won’t be expected to carry the weight of an entire organization on his shoulders in Winnipeg. A back-up for the first time in a decade, Durant will only be asked in the play in the event that starter Matt Nichols stumbles or succumbs to injury.

And that’s huge for the Bombers. Winnipeg hasn’t had two proven pivots under contract in well over a decade — heck, there have years they didn’t even have one — and Durant’s presence will alleviate the pressure on Nichols to play even when he’s hurt.

Dan LeFevour was poor last season, completing 21 of 34 passes for just 171 yards and two interceptions in one relief appearance and one start. The club’s decision to start LeFevour over Dominique Davis late in the season also spoke volumes about how little the team believes in the future of its young pivot.

Davis, who will turn 29 in August, is quickly becoming too old to be considered a developmental pivot. If he’s not ready to produce now, there’s a good chance he’ll never be ready to produce in the CFL.

Winnipeg has already signed two rookie quarterbacks to bring to training camp in May in Southern Illinois product Josh Straughan (23) and East Carolina product Philip Nelson (24). Should one or both impress in training camp, Davis could find himself out of work.

Durant immediately stabilizes the quarterback position in Winnipeg, a team that has needed a quality back-up for longer than fans care to remember. The fact that he struggled in Montreal last season is irrelevant — the Alouettes have chewed up and spit out close to a dozen quarterbacks since the retirement of Anthony Calvillo. Behind Winnipeg’s league-best offensive line and operating in Paul LaPolice’s quarterback-friendly system, I have little doubt that Durant will perform if called upon this year.

While the Bombers are in good shape under centre, other areas of concern remain on the depth chart that Winnipeg will need to address in the coming weeks.

Winnipeg made the head-scratching decision to re-sign Drake Nevis earlier this month to a deal that I’m told is essentially the same as the rich contract he signed last year. Rewarding a player coming off a disappointing season is peculiar, considering the club’s needs elsewhere.

The Bombers also elected not to play hardball with veteran returnees Weston Dressler and Justin Medlock. Medlock had a down year in 2017, while questions surrounding Dressler’s durability are unlikely to go away as the veteran continues to age. Re-signing these players to contracts that are (in my opinion, anyway) above market value will hurt Winnipeg’s ability to re-sign some of their remaining free agents.

And there are still many key pieces the team needs to lock up. The Bombers are currently without a legitimate seventh Canadian starter, a spot that would optimally be filled by star defensive end Jamaal Westerman. Jake Thomas would also make sense in a starting role, though the re-signing of Nevis makes the possibility of starting a Canadian defensive tackle unlikely.

The club’s secondary is also still surrounded by uncertainty. Re-signing Chris Randle was a great move, but T.J. Heath and Maurice Leggett are stars the club can’t afford to lose.

The team is also currently thin at receiver and linebacker.

Chris Givens may be ready to contribute more in his sophomore season, but the team would be wise to save some cap space in the event that a speed demon like Diontae Spencer or a big-bodied pass catcher like Vidal Hazelton reach free agency. L’Damian Washington and Ryan Lankford left much to be desired in depth roles last season; unless Darvin Adams and Weston Dressler remain healthy for an entire season, the club will need better young pieces to fill out the receiving corps.

The list of linebackers that may reach free agency — Bear Woods, Jeff Knox Jr., Taylor Reed, Larry Dean, etc. — is also tantalizing. Jovan Santos-Knox had a solid rookie season in 2017, but Ian Wild has his own history of injuries. The Bombers like fielding a number of Canadian linebackers — call it the Mike O’Shea effect — but they’ll need an impact American or two to bring more physicality to Richie Hall’s leaky defence.

Durant is a great addition for the Bombers, solidifying the most important position in the game for a team that will look to take in the next step this upcoming season. Other questions remain — questions that would best be answered before the opening of free agency next month.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.