With a new collective bargaining agreement soon to be ratified, it’s time to start getting excited for CFL training camps to open on May 19th.
Here’s everything you need to know as things get underway in Winnipeg.
The depth chart
I’ve taken the liberty of making my own version of the Bombers’ depth chart heading into training camp.
Here’s the offence.
And here’s the defence and special teams.
Reference the images above as you read the piece below. The depth chart is far from official — again, it’s just my take on where players may line-up — but it’s helpful for putting the club’s roster into perspective.
What do playing receiver and right guard have in common? On the surface, the answer is nothing.
Looking deeper, the positions are linked closely at this year’s Blue Bomber training camp.
We already know how the Bombers will deploy six of their seven national starters: running back; slotback; wideout; left guard; centre; and safety.
The seventh and final spot will be either right guard or receiver — specifically, field-side slotback.
The Bombers have spoken at length over the past number of years regarding the importance of their offensive line. The club will only start a national player at right guard (more on that in a moment) if there is one capable of doing so at a high level.
The trade-off to starting an extra international player along the offensive line would be starting a third national in the receiving corps. Second-year players Daniel Petermann and Rashaun Simonise would have the inside track to earning that job, joining incumbents Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky in the starting line-up.
The Bombers have brought more than a half-dozen rookie American receivers to training camp along with projected starters Darvin Adams and Chris Matthews. Corey Washington, Kenbrell Thompkins, Kenny Lawler, and Charles Nelson were all with the club last year as well.
It’s clear the team is trying to improve its international receiving talent, which is good. I’m interested to see if the Bombers can find an impact rookie pass-catcher… and find a way to get them into the starting line-up.
The best part about training camp is watching players compete for starting jobs. Most of the Bombers’ starting jobs are filled but a few key spots remain wide open.
Here they are.
The departure of Jovan Santos-Knox in free agency leaves a hole in Winnipeg’s linebacking corps beside Adam Bighill. Kyrie Wilson, Nick Temple, and Dale Warren are expected to compete for the starting job.
Wilson has spent the past two years with the club, albeit mostly on the practice roster. He has seven special teams tackles in seven career CFL contests and is quick on film. Look for the Fresno State product to have the inside track early in camp.
Temple was with the Bombers briefly in 2016 and recently recorded 21 tackles in seven games with the San Antonio Commanders in the AAF. Warren, a recent graduate of Chattanooga, supposedly runs a 4.45 forty-yard dash at 225 pounds.
Three-time CFL all-star Taylor Loffler is no longer manning the Bombers’ back-end after signing a contract with the Montreal Alouettes in February.
Five-year veteran Derek Jones (26) is the most likely candidate to start at safety, though he missed most of last year due to injury. Jones is a converted cornerback — he has good speed, legit cover skills, and a slight frame at six-foot-one and 195 pounds.
Jeff Hecht (33) will also get an opportunity to earn the starting job. Though he’s much smaller than Loffler at five-foot-nine and 205 pounds, Hecht plays a similar style of game. The Saint Mary’s product impressed last year as a mid-season addition, taking reps at safety, strong-side linebacker, and on special teams.
Veteran Dexter Janke, Queen’s product Jacob Firlotte, and 2019 draftees Nick Hallett and Kerfalla Emmanuel Exumé will look to make the team in a special teams-oriented depth role.
Sukh Chungh signed a high-priced three-year contract with the B.C. Lions in free agency, leaving a sizeable hole along the Bombers’ offensive line.
2017 first-round pick Geoff Gray is the top candidate to earn the job should Winnipeg start three national offensive linemen this season. Fourth-year man Manase Foketi will be the front-runner if the team looks to fill the spot with an international player.
2019 first-round pick Drew Desjarlais will also be in the mix at guard, while Cody Speller, Matthew Ouellet De Carlo and Ben Koczwara should compete for depth roles.
Asotui Eli is also an intriguing name along the offensive. More on him in a moment.
Virtually every international defensive back spot
Veterans Chris Randle and Maurice Leggett were let go by the Bombers this off-season, creating a pair of jobs in the club’s secondary. Winnipeg will look to fill the void with a mix of veterans and youth.
Marcus Sayles, Anthony Gaitor, and Brandon Alexander are incumbent starters who should win jobs again in 2019. Chandler Fenner will look to fill the strong-side linebacker spot after spending most of last year contributing on special teams.
Newcomer Winston Rose has the inside track to start at field-side cornerback, a spot in which he looked comfortable with the B.C. Lions last season.
Tyneil Cooper and Chris Humes spent most of last season on the practice roster, while the rest of the club’s American defensive backs have little professional experience. The club will hope to uncover a diamond in the rough again this year after discovering a pair of starters in Alexander (2017) and Sayles (2018) over the past two seasons.
Newcomers to watch
Willie Jefferson, defensive end
The last time Willie-J was in Winnipeg he was lollygagging his way to a 97-yard pick-six during the Banjo Bowl.
Jefferson is now a member of the Blue Bombers after signing a free agent contract with the club in February.
The six-foot-six, 245-pound pass rusher was named a CFL all-star in each of the last two seasons, recording 18 sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles in 36 games with Saskatchewan.
Incumbent defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Craig Roh are solid starters but Jefferson is on another level. He’s going to be a fun player to watch all year long.
Chris Matthews, receiver
Winnipeg has dipped into the free agent receiver market numerous times over the past three seasons with little success. Ryan Smith (2016) was underwhelming, Kenny Stafford (2017) was a bust, and Adarius Bowman (2018) looked well past his prime.
The Bombers are hoping Matthews can break the pattern with a big year as a much-needed big-bodied slotback with the ability to make plays over the middle.
The CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie from 2012 has appeared in just nine regular season CFL games since he last suited up for the Bombers in 2013, though he looked sharp with Calgary down the stretch late last season.
Lucky Whitehead, return specialist
The former Dallas Cowboy has 30 NFL games and over 2,000 return yards on his resume. Whitehead has legit 4.40 speed and is still just 26 years of age.
The Bombers rotated through a number of return specialists last season that included Kevin Fogg, Nic Demski, Ryan Lankford, Rashaun Simonise, and Charles Nelson. Though Nelson remains with the team, the job is wide open.
Whitehead generated a fair bit of buzz at Winnipeg’s recent mini-camp in Florida. Let’s see if he lives up to the hype.
Asotui Eli, centre
Once considered one of the best centres in the NCAA, Eli is returning to the field after briefly quitting football amid an ACL tear suffered in 2018.
The six-foot-four, 315-pound native of Richmond, B.C. will look to make an impact in the preseason, potentially becoming the club’s sixth offensive lineman.
The Bombers’ depth has taken a hit up front following the departure of Sukh Chungh and the retirements of Matthias Goossen and Arnaud Gendron-Dumouchel. Eli being ready to contribute — along with first-round pick Drew Desjarlais — would go a long way to ensuring the club can stay tough along the offensive line.
Following a report that teams will be required to carry one ‘global’ player as part of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, I really like Winnipeg’s addition of Thiadric Hansen.
I thought Hansen was the best European player at this year’s national combine. The German-born linebacker has enough size (six-foot-two, 240 pounds), speed, and strength to contribute at the professional level.
Every team needs more special teams contributors. Look for Hansen to make the team accordingly, filling a role similar to that of most national linebackers around the league.
Training camp will bring about some number changes on the roster. Look for more changes to take place as cuts occur over the next three to four weeks.
Marcus Sayles will wear 14 instead of 36 and Charles Nelson has swapped from 12 to 3. Chris Matthews, who wore 13 during his first stint with the club (2012-2013), will wear 80 in his return to the blue and gold.