Bombers open to starting a Canadian cornerback after additions of Tyrell Ford, Patrice Rene

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers didn’t believe the right value additions would be available on the board when they held the ninth and 18th overall picks in the 2022 CFL Draft, but in splitting the difference they found exactly what they were looking for.

After acquiring the 13th pick and second-year defensive tackle Cameron Lawson via trade, the Bombers used their new selection on University of Waterloo defensive back Tyrell Ford. Having struck the deal anticipating that would be where he might fall, taking the All-Canadian cover-man was the easy choice.

“You just don’t see that type of Canadian athlete come out very often,” general manager Kyle Walters said. “He’s too good not to take, simple as that. It was just the best player on the board at that moment.”

Standing five-foot-ten and 188-pounds, Ford’s measurables are at another level compared to most CFL Draft prospects, highlighted by a 4.42-second forty-yard dash that was the fastest of any player in the class. He impressed as an invitee to the University at Buffalo pro day and the CFL National Combine while receiving a pair of NFL rookie mini-camp invites, but fell to the second round due to concerns over the quality of his game tape.

Though regarded as a lockdown corner at the U Sports level, Ford’s technique was far less polished than many hoped for from a player of his reputation. Walters, however, was not concerned.

“On paper, he’s as athletic as any American DB that we’ll bring in here. It’ll be good for him to compete,” he noted.

“You saw it at the eval camp and sometimes in games, it’s just when you’re that good and teams don’t throw at you, it’s almost like he looks a little bored out there. You saw the competitiveness when he’s going against the top receivers at the eval camp. He stepped up, which was great to see.”

The Bombers expect Ford to contribute early on special teams, both in kick coverage and as a returner, but there is a possibility for a much larger role as a rookie. Throughout much of their back-to-back Grey Cup run, the Bombers have started just one Canadian on defence. Veteran defensive tackle Jake Thomas most often filled that role, but he was complemented by the ability to rotate in Canadian defensive end Jonathan Kongbo.

With Kongbo now gone to the NFL, the Bombers have taken a more traditional approach by loading up with Canadian depth along the defensive interior. Still some feel their best approach would be to start a Canadian defensive back, namely at safety with American starter Brandon Alexander expected to miss much of the year with a major knee injury.

Brothers Nick and Noah Hallett are the incumbent contenders for that role, but Ford could be in contention if he can quickly make the transition to safety. However, another signing has added considerable intrigue, as the Bombers’ inked 2021 third-round pick Patrice Rene following his final NCAA season.

With Rene once having been a highly touted cornerback at the University of North Carolina and Ford’s athletic pedigree, it raises the possibility that Winnipeg could play a Canadian cover-man in their vacant corner spot. Walters insists both will get looks at every position in the secondary rather than be pigeonholed into becoming safeties and are anticipated to be competitive with the team’s American signees.

“It’s always the toughest projection in the draft process with the corners, can you line them up at free safety? You don’t know until you get here,” he said. “Certainly Patrice and Tyrell have the athletic ability to play corner up here. When you just look at the numbers on paper and the length, they’ll be able to compete with the Americans for corner spots — I’m certain of that.”

Few Canadians have emerged as viable starting cornerbacks in the CFL and the narrowing of the league’s hashmarks is likely to make it even more rare, with more action expected for the player to the field side. However, the Bombers have never shied away from rewarding hard-workers with roles, regardless of background.

Walters has emphasized providing ratio flexibility for his team, hinting that they might even play three American offensive linemen and roll with two Canadian defensive starters regardless. He is stockpiling good players for defensive coordinator Richie Hall, knowing all will get a fair shake and that ultimately the ratio will take care of itself.

“I honestly believe that defensive side of the ball does not look at passports. Once those guys are in the room, they don’t care if you are German like Thiadric Hansen or Canadian or American or French — they don’t care,” Walters said.

“If you’re on the dress roster on defence, you get to play in the football game and that’s just their philosophy. That makes everybody feel part of the room, it keeps everybody fresh and there’s a reason the defence is so successful. It’s an entire team effort that they have over there and I’m quite certain that if these guys show that they’re good enough, Richie and those guys will play ’em.”

Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.