Seven position battles to watch in Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ training camp

Photo: Neil Noonan/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will wrap up rookie camp on Friday afternoon with training camp officially set to get underway on Sunday, May 12.

Though the four-time defending West Division champions still have a veteran-laden roster, the club experienced more turnover this past off-season than they have in a while. There are three starting jobs up for grabs on offence, three on defence, and a key role on special teams that’s also available.

The team’s brass will have just under three weeks to formulate this year’s roster, which will require some tough decisions. In the meantime, here’s a look at where the Blue Bombers will be making their assessments during training camp and their two preseason games.

Receiver

Rasheed Bailey wasn’t retained in free agency, leaving a vacancy at boundary slotback. The four-year veteran didn’t post eye-popping numbers last season — he caught 46 passes for 508 yards and six touchdowns — but was a skilled blocker who brought physicality to a receiving corps that’s a little undersized.

The Blue Bombers didn’t add any receivers with CFL experience during the off-season, so it appears they’re prepared to start a rookie alongside Kenny Lawler, Dalton Schoen, Nic Demski, and Drew Wolitarsky. Greg McCrae, who started four games at slotback, is no longer with the team, leaving Ravi Alston and Jeremy Murphy as the only holdovers from last year, neither of whom made a catch in 2023.

Winnipeg is bringing 17 new receivers to training camp, so it’s clear they’re casting a wide net. Some notable additions include converted quarterbacks Braxton Burmeister and Keytaon Thompson, former NFL draft picks Isaiah Coulter and K.J. Hill, former Tulsa star Josh Johnson, speedster Kody Case, and Florida State standout Ontaria Wilson.

Kevens Clercius, the club’s first pick in the 2024 CFL Draft, has a similar skill set to Bailey as a physical receiver but will likely need time to get acclimated to the league before being seriously considered for a starting job.

Photo: Neil Noonan/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Left guard

Geoff Gray is no longer with the team, leaving a hole along the offensive line between Stanley Bryant and Chris Kolankowski. Winnipeg selected Gabe Wallace out of the University at Buffalo in the second round of the 2024 CFL Draft and, though he’ll surely make the team in a depth role, it seems safe to assume the club will turn to veterans Liam Dobson or Tui Eli to fill the starting job at left guard.

Dobson, a former first-round pick out of Texas State, has a lot to prove in 2024 as he’s entering the final year of his rookie deal. He started the only game Gray missed in 2023, a 28-14 victory over the Edmonton Elks, which could be an indication he’s the favourite to win the full-time job. Guard is his natural position, he’s athletic for his size, and brings the physical edge Winnipeg covets in the run game.

Eli also made one start in 2023, however, filling in for Patrick Neufeld at right guard in Winnipeg’s 34-26 overtime victory over the B.C. Lions. The Hawai’i product is a natural centre but has shown he can excel at guard, starting four games in 2021 before sitting out the entire 2022 season as he was unable to travel due to restrictions that were in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Right tackle

Jermarcus Hardrick left a gaping hole on the right side of Winnipeg’s offensive line when he signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, becoming the highest-paid American offensive lineman in the CFL. Hardrick was a mainstay along the club’s offensive line for seven seasons, earning two league all-star selections. Needless to say, whoever wins the starting job at right tackle has big shoes to fill.

Five-year veteran Eric Lofton, who made 14 starts at tackle with the Riders this past season, should be considered the front-runner given his experience, though he’s never found a long-term home in the CFL. The Blue Bombers already know him well as he spent the 2022 season on the team’s practice roster and was elevated to make one start.

The team has five young offensive tackles to compete with Lofton, including Chris Ivy, who spent a portion of last season on the practice roster. Kendall Randolph is a player to watch as he drew rave reviews from then-head coach Nick Saban over four seasons at the University of Alabama. Khalil Keith out of Baylor fits Hardrick’s mould as a mauler in the run game, while former NFL draft pick Larnel Coleman is more of a pure pass blocker.

Defensive end

Jackson Jeffcoat spent the past six seasons holding down one edge of Winnipeg’s defensive line but elected to retire this off-season when it became clear that he and the team weren’t going to be able to agree on a contract extension. Willie Jefferson is still holding down the other edge but suddenly the Blue Bombers need to find a full-time starter to help pressure opposing quarterbacks consistently.

Celestin Haba made four starts as a rookie when Jeffcoat was hurt last season and played well, recording 12 tackles, four sacks, and one forced fumble. His experience will probably give him the inside track to earning the starting job, though the club’s brass has brought in five other American pass-rushers to compete for the role.

One of those players is Ali Fayad, who played four games with the Toronto Argonauts in 2022 before a stint in the USFL in 2023. Another is Tyjuan Garbutt, who spent time on Winnipeg’s practice roster last season and dressed for the club’s meaningless regular-season finale against Calgary. The other three have never previously played in Canada.

Defensive tackle

Miles Fox appears to be the front-runner to replace Ricky Walker Jr., who is currently a free agent after backing out of a contract agreement with Calgary for personal reasons. Fox spent most of last season on the practice roster but started the lone game Walker missed, recording three tackles and one sack.

Head coach Mike O’Shea has previously been complimentary of the six-foot-one, 297-pound defender’s high motor, which seems like a good sign for his chances of earning a starting job. Other rookie defensive tackles the club is bringing to camp include Rick D’Abreu, David Green, Kenneth Randall, and Jamal Woods.

It’s also possible that Winnipeg will lean on their homegrown talent more this year as the ageless Jake Thomas was retained despite Cameron Lawson, his eventual heir apparent, being made one of the highest-paid Canadian defensive tackles in the CFL. The club also has Tanner Schmekel on the roster, who dressed for five games last season as a rookie last year, along with Manitoba product Collin Kornelson and 2024 draft pick Kyle Samson.

Photo: David Mahussier/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Cornerback

Demerio Houston was named a CFL all-star at boundary cornerback last season after leading the league with seven interceptions but left the team to join the Calgary Stampeders in free agency. The Blue Bombers have arguably the CFL’s best duo at halfback in Deatrick Nichols and Evan Holm, though they’re currently thin at cornerback.

Jamal Parker took over the starting job at field-side cornerback from Winston Rose, who wasn’t retained in free agency, late last season but struggled at times in the Grey Cup. Tyrell Ford could be a candidate for either cornerback spot, though the young Canadian isn’t a proven starter. He started one game as a rookie in 2022 but didn’t see any regular season action last year after participating in training camp with the Green Bay Packers.

Winnipeg has brought 16 defensive backs in to compete in training camp, giving them plenty of options at cornerback. Tyrique McGhee and Raleigh Texada spent parts of last season on the practice roster, which could give them a leg up.

Returner

Janarion Grant wasn’t retained in free agency, leaving a huge hole on special teams. The 30-year-old native of Fort Trilby, Fla. was limited to eight games due to injury last year but was as effective as ever, scoring arguably the greatest punt return touchdown in CFL history in a lopsided win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Greg McCrae and Jamal Parker mostly handled the return duties while Grant was out of the lineup but averaged only 8.8 yards and 8.7 yards on punt returns, respectively. McCrae averaged 19.2 yards on kickoff returns and Parker averaged 13.2 yards, neither of which were particularly strong numbers.

The team has brought over a half-dozen candidates to compete for the job, including Ronnie Blackmon, who played multiple positions during a nomadic collegiate career that included stints at Colorado, Toledo, and West Georgia. Aaron Cruickshank is also a notable addition as he hails from Rutgers University, the same program where Janarion Grant rewrote the record book just a few years earlier.

Tyrell Ford also deserves a mention as he was dominant in the return game in limited action at the University of Waterloo. If he doesn’t end up starting at cornerback, the return game could be the perfect way to get him on the field.

Winnipeg’s training camp will get underway on Sunday, May 12 with the club’s two preseason games set for Monday, May 20 in Regina and Friday, May 31 against Calgary. It will conclude on June 1.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.