Assessing the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ post-free agency depth chart

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

CFL free agency has come and gone, leaving the Winnipeg Blue Bombers with a number of holes to fill ahead of the 2024 regular season when the club will look to reach the Grey Cup for a fifth straight season.

Brady Oliveira, Dalton Schoen, Patrick Neufeld, Willie Jefferson, and Deatrick Nichols were among the key players Winnipeg was able to retain, though the club lost a few others to retirement or salary cap restraints.

How does the (unofficial) depth chart currently look? Who might step up to take on starting roles? These are questions we’ve sought to answer in the analysis below.

Screenshot: John Hodge/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Zach Collaros and Chris Streveler give Winnipeg arguably the CFL’s best one-two punch at the quarterback position, though fans are eager to find out which young passer(s) the club might develop after losing Dru Brown to the Ottawa Redblacks.

Terry Wilson Jr. was productive over a transient collegiate career but the most intriguing newcomer under centre is Eric Barriere, who won the Walter Payton Award as the top player in FCS football in 2021 at Eastern Washington University, a program that has produced CFL starters such as Matt Nichols, Bo Levi Mitchell, and Vernon Adams Jr.

Plenty of high-level college quarterbacks have fizzled out in the CFL but there are plenty of reasons for optimism regarding Barriere’s potential. The six-foot-one, 210-pound passer threw for 13,809 yards, 121 touchdowns, and 29 interceptions with the Eagles and rushed for 1,585 yards and 22 scores. He’ll be one of the most interesting players to watch come the preseason, assuming he sees the field.

Brady Oliveira is the obvious starter at running back, while Johnny Augustine has returned for a sixth season in a depth role. Jonathan Rosery, a seventh-round pick in last year’s draft out of the University of Alberta, is listed as a running back, though he also played slotback as a member of the Golden Bears.

Chris Smith, an undersized standout from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, and Ronnie Brown, a Division II All-American from Shepherd University, are both on the roster as American running backs, though it seems unlikely that either will make the final roster barring an injury to Oliveira, which would likely lead to a ratio change. Brown was also productive as a receiver and returner with the Rams, so he appears to be a candidate to fill Greg McCrae’s utility role on offence and special teams.

Fullback is an obvious area of need for the Blue Bombers considering there aren’t any on the roster. Damien Jackson, a rare American who played the position, was cut earlier this month and Konner Burtenshaw, an eighth-round pick in the 2022 CFL Draft, was released when the expansion of the team’s practice roster elapsed in October.

There will be two fullbacks at the CFL Combine in Winnipeg next month — Paul-Antoine Ouellette out of the Université de Montréal and Brad Hladik out of the University of British Columbia — and local fans would be wise to keep an eye on both. Michael Chris-Ike out of Delaware State could also be an option for the Blue Bombers as he’s a six-foot-two, 225-pound running back with experience on special teams.

The receiving corps remains mostly unchanged from last year with the lone exception being the departure of Rasheed Bailey at boundary slotback. Ravi Alston, who dressed for one game last season, currently appears to be the front-runner for the spot given his size and experience, though the club has brought in plenty of challengers.

K.J. Hill, who signed with the team on Monday, is arguably the most intriguing newcomer given his collegiate and NFL experience. The six-foot, 196-pound target made 201 receptions for 2,332 yards and 20 touchdowns over 50 career games at Ohio State University, setting a new school record for career receptions. He also played meaningful games in the NFL after being drafted by the Los Angeles Chargers, making 10 receptions for 103 yards over 21 career regular season contests.

Along the offensive line, all eyes will be on the right tackle spot vacated by three-time West Division all-star and fan favourite Jermarcus Hardrick. Eric Lofton, who started 14 games for the Saskatchewan Roughriders last season, probably has the inside track, but there’s a reason the Riders made Hardrick the highest-paid American offensive lineman in the CFL instead of retaining their existing tackles.

Kendall Randolph is a fascinating player to keep an eye on as he made only two starts along the offensive line during his collegiate career at the University of Alabama after converting from tight end. Nick Saban raved about his work ethic and, though Randolph will have a long way to go before he’s ready to start in the CFL, there is precedent for college tight ends becoming high-level offensive tackles at the professional level.

Chris Ivy spent part of last season on Winnipeg’s practice roster, while Micah Vanterpool played mostly at guard during his collegiate career at the University of Hawaii. It’s possible that one of these prospects wins the job and runs with it, but it seems safe to suggest that the club’s production at right tackle will regress in 2024.

As for the interior of the offensive line, Liam Dobson and Tui Eli will battle for the starting job at left guard vacated by Geoff Gray, who remains a free agent. It’s clear the team will need to address the position through the draft with Kyle Hergel, Theo Benedet, Gabe Wallace, Christy Nkanu, and George Una as potential options depending on which players garner serious NFL interest and how the first round shakes out.

Screenshot: John Hodge/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Winnipeg’s defensive line will look very different in 2024 following the retirement of Jackson Jeffcoat and the departure of Ricky Walker, who backed out of a verbal agreement with the Calgary Stampeders due to personal reasons. Celestin Haba, who made eight tackles and four sacks as a rookie, appears to have the inside track to replace Jeffcoat, though Nate Givhan and TyJuan Garbutt had a stint on the club’s practice roster in 2023.

Ali Fayad, who played for the Toronto Argonauts briefly in 2022, should also get a look to replace Jeffcoat. The six-foot-two, 250-pound edge rusher was named the Mid-America Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2021 and was a starter for the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL this past season.

Jordan Lewis won the Buck Buchanan Award in 2021 as the top defensive player in the FCS, though he’s undersized coming off the edge at only 223 pounds. John Waggoner, who had a productive career at defensive end with the University of Iowa, could be a prime candidate to move inside to better suit his 267-pound frame.

As for the interior, Miles Fox should be the front-runner to replace Walker after he spent all year with the Blue Bombers in 2023, recording three tackles and one sack over two games with one start. Kenneth Randall spent last season with the New Jersey Generals of the USFL, while Jamal Woods was a rotational player at the University of Illinois.

The linebacking corps remains almost identical from last year with all three starters returning alongside a number of key depth players. One name to keep an eye on is Max Charbonneau, a former eighth-round pick who was named the top stand-up defensive player in the OUA after returning to the University of Ottawa in 2023. Following the retirement of Jesse Briggs, there’s an opening for him to flourish on special teams.

Deatrick Nichols and Evan Holm are all-star-calibre halfbacks but the rest of the secondary is a question mark. Brandon Alexander is an excellent leader and field general, though some have speculated that he may have lost a step over the last year or two. Regardless, it would make sense for the Blue Bombers to turn safety into a Canadian spot in the not-too-distant future given how heavily they’ve invested draft picks at the position. Look for Jake Kelly, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, to take a big step in year two.

Jamal Parker and Tyrell Ford could be the two starters at cornerback, though they have only 11 career starts between them. Tyrique McGhee might have the inside track to a starting role given that he’s previously been a member of Winnipeg’s practice squad, while Raleigh Texada, who shouldn’t be confused with former CFL defensive back Ranthony Texada, has also been on the club’s practice roster in the past, though he spent the 2023 season in the XFL.

Others who will compete for a starting job include Marcus Hillman, an FCS standout from Elon University, Travon Fuller, who was a rotational player in the XFL this past year, Marquise Bridges, a standout from the Indoor Football League, and Anthony Blue, who played in the USFL after a decorated Division II collegiate career. For a team looking to replace an all-star in Demerio Houston, the Blue Bombers will surely hope that one of them steps up in a big way come training camp.

Sergio Castillo, Jamieson Sheahan, and Mike Benson have all returned to their roles on special teams, though star returner Janarion Grant remains a free agent. Aron Cruickshank, a newcomer out of Grant’s alma mater of Rutgers University, likely has the inside track to the job after returning 107 kickoffs for 2,564 yards and four touchdowns and 21 punts for 210 yards and one touchdown in college.

Please remember this is only a snapshot of the club’s current roster. Players will inevitably be added or cut loose over the next few months as training camp approaches. In the meantime, stay tuned to 3DownNation for all the latest movement in Winnipeg and around the CFL.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article indicated that Jamal Parker and Tyrell Ford combined for four career starts. This was inaccurate: Parker has 10 and Ford has one.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.