Canadian content: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Canadian content is an off-season series I’ve created to look at how each club deployed its starting nationals in 2019 and project how they may do so in 2020. This information can give us an idea of how teams will approach the draft in May.

We’ve already looked at the B.C. Lions, Calgary Stampeders, Edmonton Eskimos, and Saskatchewan Roughriders. Today we will be covering the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

Winnipeg’s national players accounted for 130 starts in 2019, slightly more than the required 126. The team fielded eight Canadians when Jesse Briggs replaced an injured Kyrie Wilson at weak-side linebacker and again when Jonathan Kongbo started a game at defensive end.

Below is a breakdown of how the Blue Bombers fielded their national starters last season. Players who appear at multiple positions have been marked with an asterisk.

Running back

Andrew Harris (16)
Johnny Augustine (2)

Wide receiver

Drew Wolitarsky (17)
Daniel Petermann (1)*

Slotback

Nic Demski (17)
Daniel Petermann (1)*

Guard

Geoff Gray (12)
Drew Desjarlais (10)
Cody Speller (8)
Patrick Neufeld (6)

Centre

Michael Couture (18)

Defensive tackle

Jake Thomas (4)

Defensive end

Jonathan Kongbo (1)

Weak-side linebacker

Jesse Briggs (3)

Safety

Jeff Hecht (14)

The Blue Bombers approached the ratio consistently on the offensive side of the ball last year, starting one national running back, two national receivers, and three national offensive linemen in every game. The club made a change defensively late in the year when Canadian safety Jeff Hecht was benched for American Brandon Alexander and Jake Thomas became a starter to compensate.

The new ratio configuration worked as the team won three postseason games and its first Grey Cup in 29 years. With all seven postseason national starters back for 2020, I’d expect Winnipeg to keep the same starting lineup into this upcoming season.

Andrew Harris remains dominant at the running back position with Johnny Augustine and Brady Oliveira serving as solid depth pieces. Augustine had 334 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on just 45 touches in 2019, while Oliveira will return in 2020 after missing most of last year with a leg injury.

Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky are effective starters, while the club considers backup Daniel Petermann a starting-calibre player. Winnipeg made a somewhat surprising move recently, bringing back veteran Julian Feoli-Gudino following a two-year stint with the Ottawa Redblacks. A lack of selections in this year’s draft means the Bombers may not be able to add a young receiver, which could explain Feoli-Gudino’s re-addition.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

The offensive line is another area of strength where the team has five proven starters — Patrick Neufeld, Michael Couture, Drew Desjarlais, Geoff Gray, and Cody Speller — for just three spots. Tui Eli could factor in if he sheds weight, playing last season a little bit above where he optimally should.

The Blue Bombers have just eight national defensive players under contract, which is approximately half of what teams generally have at this time of year. The club only plans on starting one Canadian on defence, sure, but there are still areas to address.

2019 third-round pick Connor Griffiths will back-up Jake Thomas in 2020, though Winnipeg would be wise to add further depth at the position. Jonathan Kongbo was released in December to pursue an NFL opportunity with the San Francisco 49ers, so plugging him into the lineup at defensive end is no longer an option.

Shane Gauthier leads a solid group of linebackers who contribute regularly on special teams, though this unit could still be enhanced. The 2020 draft class is deep at the linebacker position and the Bombers should take advantage of that.

Winnipeg is thin at defensive back after veterans Jeff Hecht and Derek Jones weren’t retained in free agency. Kerfalla Exumé and Nick Hallett had strong rookie seasons in 2019 but having more options at the position — even just on the practice roster — would be wise.

Summary

The Blue Bombers have three strong national starters at offensive “skill positions” in Andrew Harris, Nic Demski, and Drew Wolitarsky. The team has also cultivated impressive depth along the offensive line with Geoff Gray and Cody Speller — both proven starters — in reserve roles.

Photo courtesy Matt Smith CFL.ca

Winnipeg has just one selection in the draft’s top 35 picks, so they won’t be adding any elite prospects in May. I’d look for the team to target the defensive tackle, linebacker, and defensive back positions as they look to build depth on the defensive side of the ball.

Running back — Andrew Harris (1)
Receiver — Nic Demski, Drew Wolitarsky (2)
Guard — Patrick Neufeld, Drew Desjarlais (2)
Centre — Michael Couture (1)
Defensive tackle — Jake Thomas (1)