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