Over the course of the next few days, as the rookies and veterans report for camp, we’ll be previewing each positional group heading into the upcoming season. We start with the team’s most crucial position, as proved last year: Quarterback.
While not adding a single quarterback in the off-season – Quentin Williams was released shortly after he signed – the Bombers are likely better at the game’s most important position now than they were in training camp last season.
Out of all four quarterbacks under contact, only Drew Willy was a member of the Blue & Gold in training camp last year. Matt Nichols, Dominique Davis and Bryan Bennett were slowly brought onto the roster as the coaching staff’s faith slowly diminished in Josh Portis, Robert Marve and Brian Brohm – all of whom proved that, while displaying varying levels of potential, were inadequate for immediate results on the football field.
The failure of three Blue quarterbacks opened the door up for Matt Nichols, who was acquired in a September 2nd trade with the Edmonton Eskimos. Just 10 days following the trade, the six-year veteran signal-caller started his first game in the Bombers’ 22-7 victory over Saskatchewan in the Banjo Bowl. Having earned the trust of Mike O’Shea, Nichols went on to start the next six games – winning one, but playing good enough in spurts to win about two more.
Although he’ll enter camp as the unquestioned no. 2 quarterback, it’s difficult to be convinced that Nichols is the Bombers’ absolute solution as QB insurance. An extremely frustrating talent, Nichols is one of the hardest players in all of sports to understand.
At first glance, Nichols brings valuable experience and an understanding of CFL defensive concepts. And while that’s not at all false, Nichols still makes rookie mistakes quite often, and still doesn’t seem comfortable holding onto the ball past his first read. Nichols has poor arm strength and spotty accuracy, but will at times make an exceptional, tight-window throw that’s especially surprising. Nichols struggles mightily to protect the football – his fumble issues are largely due to his poor pocket presence – and a lot needs to go right for a Nichols-led team to win. He’s a fiery competitor, but Nichols undoubtedly hangs his head after interceptions and has been known to blame others.
Nichols reached his full potential a long time ago, and with how great – and equally horrible – he can be, it’s clear that one word will always hang over his head: inconsistent.
As long as the defense and special-teams play well, Nichols does, sometimes, give his team a chance to win. He kept the Bombers in the hunt for the playoffs all the way until their fate was sealed in week 19, opening the door for first-year player Dominique Davis to get his first-career start in the season finale against Toronto.
A sub-par performance – but one with no mistakes – in his first start, coupled with his play in the pre-season with the Stampeders, leads me to believe that Davis has a firm grip as the third-string quarterback heading into camp. And although he may not get the chance, Davis could become Nichols’ Winnipeg-version of James Franklin should Willy go down once more.
I like Davis quite a bit. With excellent size at six-foot-three and 210-lbs, Davis is a threat to run with his legs at all times. Similarly to Robert Marve, Davis throws a beautiful ball, and does a better job than the aforementioned at keeping his eyes downfield while under duress.
Competing with Davis for the third-string position in training camp will be Eastern Washington signal-caller Bryan Bennett. The former Oregon Duck transferred to Southeastern Louisiana University after losing the starting job to Marcus Mariota prior to the 2013 season. Bennett signed a priority free agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts last year, but despite significant game reps, failed to convince the Colts’ staff that he was good enough to warrant carrying a third quarterback.
Bennett is carved out to be the next Robert Marve in Winnipeg – without the chronic knee issues, that is. Having rushed for 1,715 yards and 31 touchdowns with Southeastern Louisiana, as well as 365 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns with Oregon, he’s a legitimate dual-threat quarterback. Bennett possesses the same rocket arm as Marve, too, as he clocked the hardest throw of any QB at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine at 60 miles per hour. He even seems to play like Marve, as NFL.com’s Lance Zierlan says that Bennett “plays the game with too much arm and not enough eyes at this stage. Doesn’t appear to have the awareness or football intelligence teams typically look for in quarterbacks and his accuracy and decision making can be big issues at times.” Sounds like a carbon copy of Marve to me.
While Bennett and Davis battle out for the no. 3 role, Drew Willy will be firmly entrenched as the team’s starter. This season truly is the deciding year for Willy, who’ll be operating a new system under Paul Lapolice while being surrounded with better talent than ever.
It’s exciting to see what Willy can do with the likes of Andrew Harris, Ryan Smith and Weston Dressler around him. He was already having a great 2015 season before suffering a season-ending injury in week seven. When protected, Willy distributes the ball well to his play-makers, displaying a high level of football knowledge and understanding of ball placement. He’s not the most athletic or accurate quarterback, but Willy is more than capable of being a field-general – he has seven career 300-yard passing games in the Blue & Gold.
The calm, cool signal-caller isn’t always calm and cool while under duress, however. Willy can freeze while under pressure, occasionally even peaking down at the pass-rush instead of keeping his eyes downfield. He’ll probably always be a difficult quarterback to protect, but there’s several ways that Lapolice can compensate for this with his play-calling (spoiler alert: Andrew Harris is key).
The duress and pressure will always be there at some point in a game, and Willy needs to stay away from as many unnecessary hits this year as possible. Seeing as this is a critical year for the Buffalo product, the last thing the Bombers need is another injury-prone quarterback making big money. Lapolice’s usage of Harris on flat, swing, wheel and screen passes as both a running back and slot-back will be huge.
Regardless, Willy’s job as completely secured. Training camp will be huge for the 28-year-old in developing a strong rapport with his receivers while gaining comfort in Lapolice’s system. Matt Nichols’ job is also secure, leaving the third-string battle between Dominique Davis and Bryan Bennett the lone competition at the quarterback position.
Some stability at the game’s most important position will be huge for the Bombers, and while the QB depth is far from night and day compared to last year as many pundits say, it’s hard to argue that having the likes of Nichols isn’t slightly more assuring. Even with Nichols, Davis and Bennett, though, the team’s fate rests in the hands of Willy more than any other player.