The back-to-back Grey Cup champions officially opened training camp on Thursday following the CFLPA’s first strike in almost 50 years.
Winnipeg lost some key players this past off-season — Andrew Harris is in Toronto, Kenny Lawler is in Edmonton, and Drew Desjarlais and DeAundre Alford are in the NFL — but the club is still expected to finish at or near the top of the West Division.
Training camp is a time to assess fresh talent and install new systems in all three phases of the game. Here are five questions the club needs to answer in training camp and their two preseason games (May 27 vs. Edmonton and May 31 at Saskatchewan) before the regular season gets underway.
Who will handle the kicking duties?
Tyler Crapigna, Marc Liegghio, and Ali Mourtada shared Winnipeg’s kicking duties for most of the 2021 season before Sergio Castillo was brought in ahead of the team’s Grey Cup run. Castillo has since departed for Edmonton, leaving the Blue Bombers without a proven option.
Liegghio is back after going five-for-eight on field goals and ranking seventh league-wide in punting with a 35.6-yard net average in 2021. Mourtada has also returned after going eight-of-fifteen on field goals, though his 66.7-yard average on kickoffs was second-best in the league behind only Boris Bede.
Winnipeg selected Australian punter Tom Hackett with their first selection in the 2022 CFL Global Draft. The 29-year-old won the Ray Guy award as the best punter in college football and signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2016 but has been out of football for the past five years.
It’s also worth noting that two-time East Division all-star Lirim Hajrullahu is currently a free agent following NFL stints with the Los Angeles Rams, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, and Washington Commanders. The 32-year-old is perfectly capable of handling all three kicking duties and should be high on Winnipeg’s wish list if he elects to return north of the border.
Can Greg Ellingson end the curse of the big-name receiver?
The Blue Bombers have signed a big-name free agent receiver in each of the past five seasons and the additions have worked out so poorly that I’m beginning to wonder if the position is cursed.
Ryan Smith (2016), Kenny Stafford (2017), Adarius Bowman (2018), Chris Matthews (2019), and Bryant Mitchell (2021) made a combined total of 74 catches for 763 yards and two touchdowns over 23 games in Winnipeg. Smith retired after one season with the club, Stafford was cut in training camp, Bowman and Matthews were traded, and Mitchell retired before ever reporting to the team.
Ellingson had five consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons (2015-19) and was on pace for another this past year in Edmonton, though the campaign was shortened to 14 games. It’s tough to imagine him not excelling in Winnipeg’s offence but I would have said the same thing about many of the receivers listed above.
The Blue Bombers have successfully recruited and developed impactful receivers over the past few years — Lawler led the league in receiving yards last year, while Rasheed Bailey’s become a solid starter — but it would be nice to see the club hit on a big-name free agent.
Who’s the safety net?
Brandon Alexander has established himself as the best safety in the CFL but is expected to miss the start of the regular season due to an ACL tear he sustained late last year. This leaves the starting job wide open with Canadian veterans Nick Hallett, Redha Kramdi, and Malcolm Thompson all possibly vying for the job.
Noah Hallett, Nick’s younger brother, may miss all of training camp due to an injury he sustained late last season. His status remains unclear but it seems likely that he will miss the start of the year alongside Alexander.
It’s possible that Winnipeg could start an American at safety while Alexander continues his recovery, though they stocked up on Canadian defensive backs in the draft with the additions of Tyrell Ford, Chris Ciguineau, and Cedric Lavigne.
The club also recently signed Patrice Rene, a third-round pick in the 2021 CFL Draft, who had a standout junior season at the University of North Carolina.
Who’s on the corner?
Winston Rose rejoined Winnipeg for their Grey Cup run late last season following a two-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. He is expected to secure the boundary-side cornerback spot this season but DeAundre Alford’s departure to the Atlanta Falcons has left a big hole on the opposite side of the field.
The CFL narrowed its hashmarks during the off-season, which should mean that more throws are directed to the wide-side of the field. In the past, teams could start an unproven rookie out at field-side cornerback without the risk of giving up too many big plays but that’s no longer the case.
Tyquwan Glass should be the front-runner to start at field-side cornerback after coming over from Montreal in free agency. Demerio Houston should also receive serious consideration after starting two games at field-side halfback in 2021.
The club also has almost a dozen rookie defensive backs in training camp, though it’s far too early to determine which ones have the best odds of competing for a starting role.
Is Jalen Saunders still Jalen Saunders?
Jalen Saunders was one of the most electrifying players in the CFL over two seasons in Hamilton (2017-18) during which he made 121 receptions for 1,909 yards and six touchdowns over just 25 games.
The issue is that it’s been a long time since we last saw him in action. Saunders missed the 2019 season due to a torn ACL, the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2021 season due to a serious car accident. If he dresses for Winnipeg’s regular season-opener against Ottawa, it will be his first meaningful contest in 1,377 days. That’s a long time.
Saunders inked a two-year contract with the Blue Bombers in April and remains just 29 years of age. His signing felt like a coup for the club at the time but we’ll have to wait and see what he’s able to do on the field.