Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters held his end of the season press conference on Friday and covered a number of important issues but much of the discussion centered around the game’s most important position: quarterback.
With that in mind, here are eight takeaways from the meeting with Walters.
1) He has faith in Matt Nichols
Nichols is under contract with the Winnipeg Football Club through 2020 but after a career-best season in 2017, the 31-year-old’s totals dropped by over 1,300 passing yards, 10 touchdowns while his interceptions rose by five.
“Statistically, maybe his number weren’t where they were, but we were a double-digit win team and he led us into the playoffs and into a couple tough environments and we were real close to getting to the Grey Cup with him as our quarterback,” Walters said. “He went out in a little bit of a stretch there where he tried to do too a little bit much and make plays, instead of just letting the game come to him and took a deep breath over the bye week and cleaned that up.”
Nichols led the Bombers to the playoffs for a third straight season and earned the first post-season victory of his career in the West semifinal victory in Saskatchewan.
“When Matt’s playing clean football we win. We’re double the amount of wins versus losses when he’s playing. He’s the leader of our team, the guys rally around him,” Walters said.
“We believe we can win the Grey Cup with Matt Nichols.”
2) The Strevelation is the real deal
The Bombers were intrigued by Chris Streveler’s athleticism from the first time scouts saw him live.
When Winnipeg brought the rookie quarterback to training camp he continued to impress in other ways and guided the team to a 1-2 record while Nichols missed the first three weeks with an injury.
“Players rallied around him, he fit right in instantly – hard worker. Got thrown into the fire and held his own. LaPo [Paul LaPolice] and Buck [Pierce] and the offensive staff did a great job of utilizing his skill set throughout the year to the point in that in that Sask playoff game he’s out there in the last couple minutes running our short yardage/running offence,” Walters said. “That shows the confidence that the coaching staff had in him. We’re real excited to have him back under contract and see his growth.”
Streveler played in 12 games throwing for 1,134 yards, 11 touchdowns against five interceptions while rushing 77 times for 441 yards and 10 majors. Impressive numbers for a first-year CFL quarterback.
The soon-to-be 24-year-old signed a two-year contract with the Bombers and Streveler is already garnering NFL attention thanks to a wise approach.
“Obviously like a lot of guys coming out [Streveler] wanted the NFL. I think his agent realized he was going to be in the CFL at some point, show what he could do and then try the NFL,” Walters said. “Instead of waiting a full year and kicking it around down there and going to workouts, he came up here and wants to get his two years in and then try again while he’s still young. I anticipate that is still their plan.”
3) Bombers won’t chase high profile QB free agents
Bo Levi Mitchell, Mike Reilly, Trevor Harris and Zach Collaros headline a big name free agent quarterback class but don’t expect Winnipeg to be in the mix.
“Within the financial restraints that we’re in, the contract structures that we’re committed to – are we willing to potentially throw your hat into the ring of a free agent and potentially not get him? That’s risky business,” Walters said.
Reiterating the commitment to Nichols.
“We had the top scoring offence in the league this year,” Walters said,
4) There’s uncertainty surrounding the salary cap
After Ottawa Redblacks general manager Marcel Desjardins stated he had a “pretty good sense that the cap isn’t going to move a whole lot” and the CFLPA responded, Walters wasn’t going to make any assumptions on where the salary cap number might be when the new collective bargaining agreement comes to fruition.
“No idea. Between the union and the league that’s for those guys to sort out. We were just debriefed at the Grey Cup generally by the league lawyers and the commissioner – a lot of uncertainty right now,” Walters said. “I just receive the information and act accordingly. It’s just hard to operate with uncertainty, it’s hard to plan with uncertainty.”
5) Bighill a big priority
The Bombers have 32 pending free agents and standout linebacker Adam Bighill is the biggest focus to get re-signed according to Winnipeg’s GM.
“Adam Bighill’s name’s right at the top of the list of guys we certainly would like to have back in the organization,” Walters said.
Bighill agreed to a one-year 2018 pact in Winnipeg for $175,000 where he made a significant impact registering 105 tackles, four sacks, four forced fumbles, two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown on the way to earning the 2018 Most Outstanding Defensive Player award.
“There’s the player experience which I’m quite confident in this city that he enjoyed his experience this year, that he saw what a first-class organization we are, I know he enjoyed his time here and we had success on the field, but then there’s the business end of things,” Walters said.
6) Upgrading the receivers a focus
Even though much has been made about the lack of another dynamic American pass catcher to pair with Darvin Adams, Walters feels it’s more a function of how the ball is divided up on offence.
“It’s as much as the way our offence is structured when there’s so many touches for our tailback and he is such a big part of our offence through the running game and the passing game, that something’s gotta give,” Walters said.
Winnipeg led the league in rushing attempts (424), yards (2,429) and yards per carry (5.7), with 239 carries going to outstanding Canadian Andrew Harris who also led all running backs with 58 catches.
Darvin Adams was the lone Winnipeg pass catcher to go over the 1,000-yard mark in 2018 with 1,028 yards and 10 touchdowns on 61 catches.
“Darvin gets his touches and you saw the emergence of [Drew] Wolitarsky this year and [Nic] Demski’s getting more. There’s just not enough touches to go around,” Walters said.
“Do we need to find another receiver that can make plays outside of the design of the system? We need to find players that can go up and make a 50-50 play. It’s no secret that is a question organizationally.”
7) LaPolice is a wanted man
Offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice called the plays for the CFL’s highest-scoring offence in 2018 and his name has been circulated around the league as a potential head coach candidate.
LaPolice is under contract through the 2019 season but if he has the chance to become a head coach again the Bombers won’t get in the way.
“Wade [Miller], myself and Mike [O’Shea] are all on the same page that if one of our coaches is given an opportunity to climb their professional position then we would grant any of them that opportunity,” Walters said. “I don’t think it’s fair to hold somebody back from a potential spot if that’s what they’re interested in doing.”
8) Players looking at the NFL
There are at least two players who want to see what NFL opportunities might be available.
“Jackson Jeffcoat, Jovan [Santos-Knox] have certainly expressed that they’d like to at least see if there is any interest down there. That puts everything on hold for those two young men until the end of January, ” Walters said.
Since signing in Winnipeg, Jeffcoat has 12 sacks in 28 games while forcing three fumbles, snatching one interception and making 57 tackles.
Santos-Knox put together a career-best season in 2018 recording 82 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles.