Having a football team chock-full of savvy veterans is a good thing — until it’s not.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have quickly whittled down their free agent since the Grey Cup, signing veteran starters Patrick Neufeld, Willie Jefferson, and Adam Bighill to contract extensions. All three players were named West Division all-stars this past year, though they are also all over the age of 30.
The team’s core group of players is elite but there’s no denying that it’s starting to grow a little, uh, old? There are more polite ways to describe the roster — experienced, veteran-laden, mature — but there’s no denying it’s long in the tooth. Winnipeg has 13 players over the age of 30 on its roster, 10 of whom are starters. That’s almost half of the team’s first-string players.
“We’re getting there and that’s something you certainly need to look at and address,” general manager Kyle Walters told the media last week. “We’ve got a really good group, we were 15-3 this year, go to a third Grey Cup, we were close to winning three in a row, yet you do have to consciously decide here or there what veteran do you potentially move on from, replace him with a younger guy.”
Logically, it would stand to reason that the veteran(s) who won’t be back next year are pending free agents over the age of 30. Zach Collaros, Neufeld, Jefferson, and Bighill were clearly the top priorities to re-sign, as were Jermarcus Hardrick and Jackson Jeffcoat, who have already agreed to contract extensions, per source.
Using the league’s recently-released free agent list, we can generate a pool of candidates from whom the club could potentially move on next season. These players include receiver Greg Ellingson, future Hall of Fame offensive lineman Stanley Bryant, defensive tackle Jake Thomas, linebacker Jesse Briggs, defensive back Nick Taylor, special teams ace Mike Miller, and long snapper Mike Benson.
Ellingson, Bryant, Thomas, and Taylor are the four starters in this group. Ellingson, 33, missed ten games due to injury this past season but averaged 4.8 receptions for 74.8 yards per start when healthy. Thomas, 31, was as consistent as ever in the middle with 15 tackles, four sacks, and one forced fumble. Taylor, 34, suffered an Achilles injury in September and was replaced admirably by rookie Jamal Parker.
Bryant is the oldest of the bunch as he will turn 37 by the time next season rolls around. I spoke with him during Grey Cup week and he described his future as a “year-to-year thing” that depends on his mind, body, and family situation. Though he wasn’t as dominant as he was in past years, he was named the league’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman for a record fourth time this past season.
If Winnipeg decides to move on from Bryant, replacing a franchise left tackle is a lot easier said than done. Drew Richmond, who missed this past season due to injury, would probably be the most likely internal candidate to take over the starting role, though he has started only one career CFL game.
“I still believe we’re in that mode of winning championships with our core group, but it is something that needs to be monitored and addressed,” said Walters. “Make sure that you kind of gradually work some younger guys in without gutting five, six, seven guys each year. You try to do it gradually, I guess, would be the way we’re looking at this.”
The club moved on from two offensive starters over the age of 30 last off-season in running back Andrew Harris and receiver Darvin Adams. Both players had respectable seasons with their new teams, though neither was particularly missed in Bomberland with young talent stepping up to replace them.
One of the Winnipeg’s challenges is the number of young players they’ve lost to the NFL in recent years. Offensive lineman Drew Desjarlais, defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo, and defensive back DeAundre Alford all stuck with NFL teams this fall, leaving holes in Winnipeg’s roster. Desjarlais and Kongbo were particularly big losses as they carry Canadian passports.
“It’s very peculiar where you lose two Canadian draft picks that are young guys to the NFL and all that happening,” said Walters. “It’s impossible to replace that type of high-end Canadian talent that you’re able to draft and have. It’s a tough challenge, you can’t do it. You just try to stay the course and keep trying to draft properly, and having draft picks, young guys and developing them.”
The Blue Bombers face the possibility of losing receiver Dalton Schoen to the NFL this off-season, though no teams had requested permission to work him out as of last week. The 26-year-old was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie after making 70 receptions for a league-leading 1,441 yards and 16 touchdowns this past season.
Football is a young man’s game and it always will be. Having a strong group of veteran players can help a team be successful but holding onto them for too long can prove disastrous. Winnipeg’s brass clearly has some tough decisions ahead.