The Winnipeg Blue Bombers got a fever and the only prescription is more Canadian receivers.
The Bombers are in a state of ratio uncertainty following a free agent period that saw right guard Sukh Chungh sign with the B.C. Lions. Chungh’s departure came just two weeks following the announcement that centre Matthias Goossen had retired to pursue a career in law enforcement with the Delta police force.
Winnipeg had a contingency plan for losing one piece of their league-best offensive line in three-year veteran Michael Couture. But losing two pieces? That presents a much tougher challenge.
2017 first-round pick Geoff Gray signed with the Bombers in October following a one-year stint in the NFL. Gray projects as a solid contributor but the 24-year-old has yet to start a CFL game.
Winnipeg also has some intriguing young Canadians in Cody Speller, Ben Koczwara, and Matthew Ouellet De Carlo. All should contribute in depth roles but none should be seen as day-one starters.
There’s also a chance that the Bombers will make a ratio change up front.
“We understand our bread and butter is running the ball and pounding and being aggressive,” said Kyle Walters at his post-free agency press conference. “We will not sway from that mindset around here.”
Sliding veteran American tackle Manase Foketi into the vacant right guard spot would help secure the offensive line. It would also force the Bombers to make a ratio change elsewhere on the roster.
Walters has hinted that the club could look to start a Canadian at defensive tackle. The problem is that Winnipeg doesn’t currently have the talent to make that work.
Jake Thomas is a solid veteran and the Bombers added 27-year-old Maxx Forde to the roster on Sunday. Both are solid depth players but I’m unconvinced either should be considered a full-time starter.
This year’s draft is also without a top-tier defensive tackle prospect. There are a number of talented edge rushers available — Laval’s Mathieu Betts, Laurier’s Robbie Smith, and Tennessee’s Jonathan Kongbo chiefly among them — but there isn’t a day-one starter who can fill an interior spot.
One part of the problem is that Winnipeg has had a string of bad luck when it comes to national players along the defensive line.
2013 first-round pick Andy Mulumba retired from football in February of 2018 without signing a CFL contract following five years in the NFL. Veteran pass rusher Jamaal Westerman chose not to re-sign with the Bombers last winter despite receiving a solid contract offer from the club.
Then there’s Faith Ekakitie, the Iowa product that Winnipeg drafted first overall in 2017. Ekakitie, released in last year’s training camp, has since been signed and cut by Montreal after missing the 2018 season with a torn Achilles.
Winnipeg shouldn’t look to the defensive line to fix its ratio problem. Instead, the solution lies in the receiving corps.
Nic Demski re-signed with the Bombers on a two-year deal that will pay him more than he earned a season ago. He’ll be in the starting line-up — that’s a given.
Drew Wolitarsky was the CFL’s third-leading national receiver in 2018 despite starting at the little-used field-side wideout spot. The Minnesota native deserves a chance to start at slotback where his physical style and full frame (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) can be used most effectively.
That leaves Wolitarsky’s field-side wideout spot vacant.
Enter Rashaun Simonise and Daniel Petermann, a pair of picks from last year’s draft. Simonise has the perfect frame for the position (6-foot-4, 200 pounds), while Petermann was effective when given the opportunity to perform a season ago.
Why not let the pair compete for the starting role in training camp? If one player wins the job the other can rotate elsewhere in the receiving corps while also contributing on special teams.
Another factor is Andrew Harris. Harris is an elite player who dominated for stretches of 2018, recording a career-best 1,390 rushing yards. The five-time CFL all-star also turns 32 in April, meaning his days of handling 300 touches a season without succumbing to serious injury are limited.
What better way to limit the hits on Harris than to occasionally deploy him at slotback? Nic Demski and Johnny Augustine are capable of taking on the extra carries with Harris rotating as a receiver.
There’s also the matter of this year’s draft.
New Mexico’s Brayden Dickey, Laurier’s Kurleigh Gittens Jr., St. FX’s Kaion Julien-Grant, UConn’s Hergy Mayala, Arkansas State’s Justin McInnis, and Laval’s Alexandre Savard are all receivers who will receive first-round consideration.
It’s the deepest receiver class in years and the Bombers are in a great position to take full advantage with four picks in the draft’s first 23 selections.
The Bombers have struggled to uncover impact American receivers in recent years and are now looking to start an extra Canadian elsewhere on the roster.
Starting three national receivers simply makes sense. It kills two birds with one stone and would allow the Bombers to make the most of this year’s draft class.
Make it happen, Mr. Walters.