Bombers hit home run on opening day of free agency

It was a productive opening day to free agency for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

The blue and gold added two local products in receiver Nic Demski and running back Kienan LaFrance as well as a game-changing defensive back in Chandler Fenner.

Let’s start with who the Bombers allowed to depart via free agency. Jamaal Westerman and T.J. Heath were by far the biggest names Winnipeg failed to re-sign prior to today’s deadline; Heath is being connected to the Toronto Argonauts, while Westerman is rumoured to be joining his brother in Montreal.

Westerman is the bigger loss given his national status and impact as one of the league’s best pass rushers. He may be almost 33, but low mileage should allow the former Rutgers star to excel into his mid-30s. A ratio change in Winnipeg will soften the blow of losing Westerman — the Bombers offered him a raise on his $170,000 salary, which he turned down — but they’ll need to add some pass rushing help to compensate for his absence.

The rest of the (former) Bombers entering free agency — Clarence Denmark, Sam Hurl, and Kyle Knox — are relatively inconsequential. Don’t rule out seeing Jake Thomas or Christophe Normand rejoin the club, albeit as later re-signings.

Now onto today’s additions.

The signings of Demski and LaFrance came as no surprise. Both players were born in Winnipeg and spent their post-secondary years as members of the University of Manitoba Bisons.

The signing of Demski at a salary of $150,000 is a clear indication that the Bombers see the former first-round draft pick as a starter. Winnipeg already has a Canadian starter at field-side wide receiver in Matt Coates, so it’s safe to assume that Demski will look to start at slotback.

The former Roughrider had a tremendous start to the 2017 season (169 receiving yards and a touchdown in two games) before suffering an injury and losing his spot in the starting line-up. Should he remain healthy in 2018, Demski could be a legitimate threat to lead the CFL in receiving yards among national players.

One less important (but not totally insignificant) issue is which number Demski will wear in Bomberland this season. Demski has worn number nine since his collegiate days at Oak Park High School, a number currently occupied by placekicker Justin Medlock.

LaFrance, meanwhile, is a seamless fit in Winnipeg. The Bombers could be the only team to start a Canadian tailback in 2018, so having a legitimate national back-up for Andrew Harris is key. LaFrance’s deal — worth approximately $80,000 for this upcoming season — is also fair value given his ability to play on both offence and special teams.

The signing of Fenner was the surprise move of the day for a Winnipeg team that had already added defensive backs Steven Clarke and Anthony Gaitor in recent weeks. Fenner was excellent at strong-side linebacker in B.C. last season, the same position currently occupied by star Blue Bomber defender Maurice Leggett.

With Fenner signed through 2019, my theory is that the former B.C. Lion was signed to become Leggett’s successor at strong-side linebacker after this season. Leggett, 31, recently signed a one-year contract extension to remain with Winnipeg. The deal was expensive and, given the fact Leggett is coming off an Achilles tear, bore some risk.

Enter Fenner. The 27-year-old should start at boundary halfback this season — the spot vacated by T.J. Heath — with the ability to slot in at strong-side linebacker should Leggett not be ready to start the season. One source told me Fenner’s cover skills are on-par with Heath’s, the main difference between the two being Fenner’s gift for physicality. The fact that Fenner is three years younger also doesn’t hurt.

With all of today’s moves taken into account, this is how I now see the Bombers’ depth chart shaping up ahead of next season.

It’s a rock-solid line-up, particularly on the offensive side of the football. Winnipeg’s league-best offensive line remains intact, while Adarius Bowman and Nic Demski have added some much-needed firepower to the team’s receiving corps.

The linebacker position remains somewhat thin, though a source indicated the Bombers are comfortable with sophomore Jovan Santos-Knox taking over at middle linebacker. If Kyle Walters were to ask me for my thoughts (and he won’t), I’d recommend adding a depth linebacker (Greg Jones would be a nice fit) and a depth pass rusher (Craig Roh, perhaps?).

In any case, the Bombers have done a nice job rounding out the roster with limited salary cap space. The departures of Westerman, Hurl, Denmark, Dan LeFevour, Julian Feoli-Gudino, and Dominique Davis provided some cap relief, but between the additions of Darian Durant, Bowman, Demski, and Fenner and raises to Leggett, Chris Randle, Stanley Bryant, and Jermarcus Hardrick the club has likely all-but spent that new money.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.