Blue Bombers’ Positional Roster Grades: Defense and Specialists

The Bombers final cuts have been made as the team prepares for their home-opener on Friday against the Montreal Alouettes. In year-three of the Kyle Walters, Mike O’Shea era, it appears as though Richie Hall’s defense should improve to a top-five unit in the new year, while O’Shea’s specialists could take the league by storm.

Legend:
A or higher = great
B+ or A- = above-average
B = average
C+ or B- = below-average
C or lower:  very poor

DEFENSIVE LINE

Additions: Keith Shologan, Euclid Cummings, Shayon Green, Trent Corney

Starters: Jamaal Westerman (DE), Euclid Cummings (3-T), Keith Shologan (NT), Shayon Green (DE)

Depth: Jake Thomas, Trent Corney, Sam Scott (1-game), Derrell Johnson (reserve)

Practice-roster: Adrian Hubbard, Louie Richardson, Padric Scott

It’s been largely the defensive line that has plagued this defense recently, and this is easily the best unit the Bombers’ have boasted since 2013. Keith Shologan and Euclid Cummings, both added in free agency, are two of the best players at their respective positions, bringing some much needed assistance to the league’s best defensive end, Jamaal Westerman. The club has good depth inside in fourth-year Canadian Jake Thomas, while 9th-overall pick Trent Corney should make an immediate impact as a rotational pass-rusher. Shayon Green brings down the group’s grade, as he was quite underwhelming in preseason action. The Miami product made this team with his athleticism and his motor, but he appears one-dimensional as a pass-rusher and struggles against the run. Look for Corney to really push Green for reps as the seasons wears on if Derrell Johnson doesn’t.

Grade: A-

LINEBACKER

Additions: Shayne Gauthier, Kyle Knox

Starters: Khalil Bass (WIL), Ian Wild (MIKE), Maurice Leggett (SAM)

Depth: Tony Burnett, Sam Hurl, Jesse Briggs, Garrett Waggoner, Teague Sherman

Practice-roster: Shayne Gauthier

Ian Wild will resume his duties as the club’s middle linebacker after the Sam Hurl experiment mostly failed last season, and we know exactly what Wild offers. Meanwhile, the club will be looking for Khalil Bass to take the next steps in his development in year-two, which is his play in pass coverage. Maurice Leggett, who’s likely the league’s top safety, has made the full-time switch to strong-side linebacker, and while he’s a terrific threat as a run defender – he could probably play weak-side linebacker – some of his raw cover skills are not quite up to par. Tony Burnett, who had a tremendous preseason in his sophomore season, could soon move Leggett back to safety, but he’ll have to continue to make a name for himself on special-teams first. The Bombers’ Canadian depth is great, too, as Hurl is a good Canadian backup middle linebacker and an excellent special-teamer, while Garrett Waggonner has a ton of potential that needs to be fulfilled.

Grade: B

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Additions: Macho Harris (FA), Kevin Fogg (INT rookie), Julian Posey (INT rookie), Taylor Loffler (CDN rookie), CJ Roberts (INT rookie)

Starters: Johnny Adams (CB), Kevin Fogg (HB), Macho Harris (FS), Bruce Johnson (HB), Chris Randle (CB)

Depth: Julian Posey, Taylor Loffler, Derek Jones, Brendan Morgan

This is easily the most top-heavy unit on the roster, as Johnny Adams, Chris Randle and Maurice Leggett are bona-fide stars, and Bruce Johnson is one of the top raw press half-backs in the league. Randle, one of the league’s premiere defenders, found himself competing for the field corner position after recovering from a torn ACL, as Leggett is set to stay at SAM linebacker, and Adams emerged as arguably the league’s best corner in 2015. Randle, who’d be playing short-side corner on most teams, easily displaced Matt Bucknor and his passport, giving the Bombers an elite cover-man at field corner. But there some large holes in the secondary at safety and at weak-side halfback, as both Kevin Fogg and Julian Posey left much to be desired in preseason action, while it’s hard to believe that Macho Harris is employed – let alone a starter. An unlikely, but smart scenario would be for Tony Burnett to emerge into a role a SAM, moving Leggett back to safety in place of Harris. And while that would be ideal, I’d be content if even Teague Sherman took over at safety in place of the four-year Rider.

Grade: B+

KICKER/PUNTER

Additions: Justin Medlock (FA)

Starter: Justin Medlock (K/P)

Depth: Sergio Castillo (1-game)

After witnessing Lirim Hajrallahu almost single-handedly cost the team wins, the Bombers went out and signed one of the greatest kickers in CFL history, Justin Medlock. The 32-year-old is easily the league’s top kicker, although his punting has been largely below-average throughout his career. Sergio Castillo had himself a great preseason, solidifying a backup plan should Medlock miss time with an injury.

Grade: A

RETURNER

Additions: Quincy McDuffie

Starter: Quincy McDuffie

Depth: Weston Dressler, Ryan Smith, Tony Burnett

One of the fastest players in the league, McDuffie is a somewhat proven returner in the CFL and won this position in Winnipeg quite handily. He’s a fearless, decisive returner with great vision, short-area quickness and deceptive force. McDuffie, who returned a punt for a touchdown against Winnipeg in 2014, will be an electrifying returner in 2016. Tony Burnett will likely return kickoffs along with the Central Florida product.

Grade: A

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PHIL HOSSACK: THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)

Blue Bombers’ Positional Roster Grades: Offense

The Bombers final cuts have been made as the team prepares for their home-opener on Friday against the Montreal Alouettes. In year three of the Mike O’Shea, Kyle Walters era, look for the offense, under the guidance of Paul Lapolice, to progress into a top-five unit this season.

Legend:
A or higher = great
B+ or A- = above-average
B = average
C+ or B- = below-average
C or lower:  very poor

QUARTERBACK

Additions: None

Starter: Drew Willy

Depth: Matt Nichols, Dominique Davis, Brian Bennett

Practice-Roster: None

Drew Willy enters his third-season as a starting quarterback with something to prove, whether he admits it or not. It’s clear that he’s starting quarterback material – two years is enough to prove that. What could be Willy’s ceiling, however, remains to be seen; can the 29-year-old develop into an elite quarterback in a division filled with elite quarterbacks? As talented a passer as he is, I think his ceiling tops off as a solid starter with a high floor. He’s a hard quarterback to protect, struggling to make throws while under duress. But a change in philosophy, as well as the upgrades around the Buffalo product, will somewhat compensate for his flaw. For Matt Nichols, however, it takes much more to go right for him to have success. Acquired for a seventh-round pick, Nichols seemed to be a bottom-tier second-string when has brought in from Edmonton. While he’s the best backup quarterback the Bombers have had in years, he’s no Drew Tate or Travis Lulay.

Grade: B-

RUNNING-BACK

Additions: Andrew Harris (FA), Pascal Lochard (FA), Timothy Flanders (INT rookie)

Starter: Andrew Harris

Depth: Pascal Lochard

Practice roster: Timothy Flanders

Andrew Harris’ value to this team cannot be emphasized enough. If the Bombers are going to become a top-3 offense, it’s only possible if Andrew Harris does not miss an extended period of time. His abilities as a pass-blocker and as a receiver is what this club has desperately needed for the past two seasons, as neither Paris Cotton, Nic Grigsby or Cam Marshall were adequate in both areas. Tim Flanders will likely come off of the practice roster to be the starter should Harris miss a start, but it’ll be Pascal Lochard subbing in while Harris is healthy – and that is concerning. Harris, 29, is expected to lead the league in rushing yards and in yards-from-scrimmage, but considering how valuable the running back position is with Willy and Nichols as quarterback, it’s difficult to be content with the depth the Bombers have behind their hometown product.

Grade: B+

FULLBACK

Additions: none

Starter: Chris Normand

Depth: Pascal Lochard

Practice roster: Tim Cronk

One of the few roster transactions the Bombers made on cut-down day that I disagreed with, the Blue & Gold are set to roll with second-year Laval product Chris Normand, with veteran Tim Cronk on the practice. While it’s evident that Paul Lapolice doesn’t intend on using his fullbacks often on offense, I’m just not convinced that Normand is ready to displace Cronk, who was solid in 2015. The move to only roll with one fullback, however, is welcomed; the Bombers have talented Canadians elsewhere that need a spot on roster in a more valuable position. The lone fullback should be Cronk, though.

Grade: C

RECEIVER

Additions: Weston Dressler (FA), Ryan Smith (FA), Jace Davis (INT rookie), Quincy McDuffie (FA), Thomas Mayo (INT rookie), Gerrard Shephard (INT rookie), Kris Adams (INT rookie)

Starters: Weston Dressler (WR), Ryan Smith (SB), Darvin Adams (SB), Jace Davis (SB), Rory Kohlert (SB)

Depth: Quincy McDuffie, Julian Feoli-Gudino, Kris Bastien, Addison Richards (6-game), Kris Adams (1-game)

Practice-roster: Thomas Mayo, Gerrard Shephard

The Bombers completely revamped this unit, signing prized free agents Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith in replacement of Nick Moore and Clarence Denmark. Dressler is still an elite receiver in the league, while Smith should enter that category with another successful season under his belt. Darvin Adams, a solid complimentary receiver, and Jace Davis bring size to the group, while Rory Kohlert is an adequate Canadian pass-catcher at field-side wideout. Davis is an intriguing product, as although he failed to register a catch in his lone preseason game, he seemed to get good separation, and has dominated in practice. For a number of reasons, the Bombers’ pass-catchers have let Willy down since he arrived in Winnipeg, but this group seems poised to fix that.

Grade: A-

OFFENSIVE LINE

Additions: Travis Bond (INT rookie), Jamarcus Hardrick (FA), Manase Foketi (INT rookie), Michael Couture (CDN rookie), Jeff Keeping (FA)

Starters: Stanley Bryant Jr. (LT), Jamarcus Hardrick (LG), Mathias Goossen (C), Sukh Chungh (RG), Patrick Neufeld (RT)

Depth: Jeff Keeping (6-game), Michael Couture, Travis Bond (1-game)

Practice Roster: Manase Foketi

The center, left guard and right tackle positions were two huge burdens on Winnipeg’s offense last year; Sukh Chungh, as expected as a rookie starting in all 18 games, was a below-average right guard; Patrick Neufeld took over in the final third off the season at right tackle, and while he’s still a slightly below-average right tackle in the league, he was easily the club’s best option last year. Goossen, meanwhile, must continue to develop, and he should be an above-average center by years end. The biggest questions surrounds Chungh: he has the potential to become the CFL’s best offensive lineman, but how much of a jump will he take in year two? Playing the hardest position on the line, Chungh’s next step is to become more consistent in year two while continuing to refine his overall game. Stanley Bryant, at left tackle, provides the group with consistently solid play, while Jamarcus Hardrick appears to be a significant upgrade over the Bombers’ recent left guards. Travis Bond should be the starter – he was the best player, both offensively and defensively, on the field against Montreal – but it appears he’ll start on the 1-game injured list while Michael Couture, who’s not nearly ready for this role, will serve as the sixth offensive lineman in Jeff Keeping’s absence.

Grade: B-

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THE CANADIAN PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS IMAGE)