Bombers’ Secondary Quietly Impresses in Debut of Randle, Adams

Despite receiving great, turnover-forcing football from a young, patch-work secondary throughout their seven-game winning streak, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers haven’t played a single game in 2016 where both cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Chris Randle are active.

Finally, in their 46-29 win over Dan LeFevour’s Toronto Argonauts, Mike O’Shea’s defensive coaching staff finally witnessed their defensive backfield with both of their star corners in the lineup. Despite the Argonauts scoring four touchdowns in the air and 26 first half points, the early returns of this now-healthy secondary were promising.

The Bombers held another quarterback to under 300 yards passing – LeFevour completed 22 of 34 passes for 276 yards – and recorded another two interceptions, courtesy of Randle and Maurice Leggett. While 445 total yards of offense is too much, it’d be wrong to point the blame at the secondary for those gaudy statistical numbers. A specific group of six starters – Randle, Adams, Kevin Fogg, Maurice Leggett, Taylor Loffler and Bruce Johnson – that the Bombers have been anticipating to see when everyone healed up, this unit, who some were quick to argue struggled in their first game together, played better than it would seem at first-watch or after looking at the final stats.

While it’s fair to say that Randle and Adams didn’t quite live up to all the hype in their first game on the field together, they both showed flashes of why they’re each regarded as elite cornerbacks in the league. Bombers’ fans have debated plentifully which of the two would be moved to field corner upon their return to health, and seeing as they’re each too good to be wasted out wide, the Bombers’ solution was quite intriguing. Rather than having one always align in the short-side and one always align to the wide-side, Randle played 100% of his snaps at left cornerback, and Adams played 100% of his snaps at right cornerback.

This strategy is not seen in today’s Canadian Football League. The standard procedure for teams is to put their best cornerback in the boundary and their worst cover-man at wide-side corner, where he’ll be targeted far less as the throws are tougher to make. The Bombers, however, have two stud cornerbacks, so why not have them each play both positions pending on what side of the field the ball is scrimmaged from?

Coincidentally, both Randle and Adams each played 28 snaps at field-corner and 28 snaps at boundary-corner. Meanwhile, nothing changed for the halfbacks – Fogg (boundary) and Johnson (field) each played all 56 snaps at their regular positions.

Working with a different halfback depending on if they were playing short-side corner or wide-side corner would seem to have been a challenge for Randle and Adams, but there weren’t any visible communication errors. Although it’s unknown if the Bombers will continue to deploy their stud cornerbacks in this fashion going forward, it was a much better first game for this now-healthy unit than some might think.

As expected for this much-anticipated group, the Bombers received solid play across the board from their defensive backs. The outlier, to some degree, was Randle, who the Argos visibly attempted to pick on during his snaps at short-side cornerback, but it wasn’t all bad for the fifth-year veteran. While it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride with Randle, it’s fair to say clear that all six Bomber defensive backs contributed significantly to keeping another passing offense below 300 yard.

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Often isolated in the boundary in man-coverage, Randle had plenty of tough assignments over the course of the game. While he did grade out as the Bombers’ worst defensive back, he wasn’t worse by very much despite allowing more passing yards than the five others combined. Randle was left out to dry on numerous occasions as a result of a bad mixture of missed sacks and poor gap discipline that often allowed LeFevour to escape the pocket and extend plays.

That was the case on Randle’s first touchdown allowed, a 49-yard completion to Kenny Shaw. Randle was isolated to the field-side against Shaw, who, along with having all of the wide-side of the field to work with, also had the advantage of a pre-snap waggle. Randle was forced to cover for an unmanageable amount of time on the play – Jamaal Westerman missed the tackle for a sack on LeFevour, who escaped to the outside – and had no chance. Although Shaw had separation on his original move due to Randle panicking and not staying square in his back-pedal, the damage was caused by a missed tackle on the quarterback.

Randle was also beat for an 11-yard touchdown on a dig-route from Tori Gurley. The Bombers were in press-man in the red-zone, and the 6-foot-4, 230-pound wide-receiver used his big-bodied frame perfectly to box-out Randle and prevent him from making a play on the ball. Randle prevented Gurley from getting separation, but the sophomore receiver simply had the size advantage in the match-up.

While Randle’s not-that-bad-at-all grade (-1.5) might not seem nearly harsh enough considering he allowed 96 yards, he still recorded an interception, two break-ups and a run-stop. In reality, only 50% of his targets were completions, and he was also tasked with fulfilling a lot of tough assignments that Johnny Adams wasn’t simply because of the Argos’ play-calling. We’ve seen much, much better from Randle, who was looking like the league’s best cornerback before injuring himself in the July 21 loss to Calgary, but his return to the lineup wasn’t as horrendous as some of the numbers say.

Adams’ fourth game back from injury was far more quiet, meanwhile. The 2015 All-Star didn’t allow a completion of more than nine yards, and that play should have been a pick-six had he not badly misplayed the ball in the air. After playing 14 of the first 15 snaps at boundary cornerback – which was completely coincidental – Adams spent much of the remaining game at field corner.

It won’t be easy finding a position for newly-acquired defensive back TJ Heath if the Bombers keep playing like this. Bruce Johnson was sound at field halfback, and while he’s been quite inconsistent this season, he played one of his best games of the season on Saturday.

The Bombers’ secondary as a whole played a solid game on Saturday, and it would have seemed much more respectable had the front-seven done a better job keeping LeFevour in the pocket and stopping the Argos’ rushing-attack on the ground.

Randle will bounce back, and although we don’t know if he’ll continue to take all of his snaps at left cornerback while Adams takes all the snaps at right cornerback, it’s all but guaranteed that this now-healthy secondary should continue to build on their quietly solid first game together.

With the soaring Calgary Stampeders next on the schedule, the Blue & Gold secondary needs to live up to the hype against a dynamic aerial attack.

PHOTO CREDIT TO JOHN WOODS OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.
PHOTO CREDIT TO JOHN WOODS OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.

An Explanation for Seven Prospect’s Surprising Falls in the CFL Draft

The CFL Draft is the hardest draft in sports to project, and every year a handful of, at first glance, intriguing prospects plummet down the board when the picks start to to fly by.

Last year, no two players took bigger falls than Simon Fraser’s Lemar Durant and Idaho’s Maxx Forde. Durant, said by some scouts to be the best player of the draft, was taken in with the 18th pick for a lack of special-teams capabilities. Maxx Forde fell to the seventh round, likely as a result of a small body of work, and for being far too much of a ‘tweener between a defensive tackle and defensive end.

There no fall-outs quite like Durant’s, though. None of the falls are really that surprising when you think about it – many I foresaw happening. Regardless, some intriguing names were taken later than expected, but don’t expect many of them to be steals. There’s a reason why each of them were drafted in the spot they were, and here’s your explanation.

1. RG Charles Vaillancourt, Laval – BC Lions (Round 1, pick 5)

Vaillancourt is a pro-ready offensive lineman that will likely start at center for the BC Lions from day one at training camp. So why did this blue-chip prospect, who was expected to be a top-two pick, fall to the Lions? The answer is simple: his lack of quickness. The Laval product has the most refined technique in the class as well as exceptional physical traits, but his lack of quickness could hurt him in the CFL. As was the case a couple times with Laval, it’s easy to see Vaillancourt costing a sack because he was too slow disengaging from a block then using his lateral quickness to step over and pick up a stunting defender or delayed blitzer. He can somewhat compensate for a lack of quickness, but it may put a ceiling on the player he’ll amount to. And while Vaillancourt has the potential to develop into an All-Star, his quickness may always be a lingering issue. As the great coach Bill Walsh said, “You can teach an athlete to be a technician, but you can’t teach a technician to be an athlete.”

2. DB Taylor Loffler, UBC – Winnipeg (round 3, pick 21)

After a dominant first season with the Thunderbirds that was given an exclamation point with an exceptional Combine performance, Loffler was seen as a possible first-round pick. But from looking at his college history with Boise State, it’s easy to see why Loffler fell all the way into the third-round, where the Bombers were more than willing to scoop him up. Loffler’s knees could be a time-bomb waiting to go off, with two knee surgeries already underwent. He’s also had surgery twice to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. A Vanier Cup champion, Loffler’s injuries could be a thing of the past after a clean bill of health last year, but it’s easy to see why teams were skeptical.

3. RG Dillon Guy, Buffalo – BC Lions (round 4, pick 30)

Guy is ahead of schedule on his rehab from a torn ACL and was a four-year starter at the University of Buffalo, but was still available when the Lions were on the clock in the fourth round. While Guy has a ton of experience under his belt against high competition, he wasn’t necessarily a stand-out player with the Bulls. But still, Northern Illinois receiver Juwan Brescacin hardly produced against high competition – similarly to Guy – yet he was taken in the second-round. See, with Dillon Guy, his flaws – largely from a technical stand-point, but also athletically – cannot be overlooked by the level of competition he played. My seventh ranked offensive linemen going into the draft, Guy has poor hand-placement, lowers his head when initiating contact and will sometimes initiate contact with his body instead of his hands. He’s also slow out of his stance, and lacks agility as well as balance. Guy has ideal size at 6-foot-4 and 317-lbs, but left college after four years of starting with a surprising amount of flaws.

4. NT Rupert Butcher, Western – Winnipeg (round 6, pick 46)

We may never see another player dominate the CFL Combine’s OL/DL one-on-ones quite like Rupert Butcher did in March 2016. He moved amazingly well at 6-foot-5, 327-lbs, displaying good quickness and hands, as well as a fearsome bull-rush. That took a lot of people by surprise, as his game-film with Western was underwhelming. Butcher was hardly a dominant player, and lacked consistency and motor, as per Kyle Walters. Defensive lineman have a huge advantage in Combine one-on-ones; they’re blocked one-on-one with no help; they know if it’s a pass or run; and they have a lot of time (and space) to operate with. It’s not a good way to make a full evaluation of a defensive lineman’s game, and it certainly didn’t make up for Butcher’s game-footage at Western.

5. SB Doug Corby, Queens – Edmonton (round 6, pick 53)

There’s very little separating this mediocre group of pass-catchers that could produce very few, if only one or two, effective starters. Simply put, what does Corby bring to the table that no other receiver in this mediocre class did? Juwan Brescacin offers unique contested catch-ability at 6’4″, 230-lbs. Llevi Noel was a dominant, versatile special-teams player at the amateur level. Brett Blaszko offers a unique blend of size and speed at 6-foot-4 with a 4.55-second 40-yard dash time, which could translate well on special-teams. Mike Jones is a blazing speedster that has the best chance of any receiver to develop into a starter, but with limited – if any – abilities on special-teams, he was a third-rounder. Doug Corby, meanwhile, has no physical traits that separate him from the rest. With a 4.505-second 40-yard dash, he has the straight-line speed to return kicks in a role like Anthony Parker, but he hasn’t proven that it’s in his repertoire.

6. NT Quinn Horton, Simon Fraser – Calgary (round 8, pick 68)

Quinn Horton has a major flaw: pad-level. The Simon Fraser product plays with zero knee-bend, and as a nose tackle in the CFL, he’ll get swallowed by double-teams if this isn’t fixed. Like any prospect, he has other flaws as well that make him no slam-dunk player even if he fixed his pad-level, but his lack of knee-bend was almost enough to make him go undrafted. Horton was the second-best interior defensive lineman in the combine drills, but was able to his deceptive quickness and good hands to win match-ups. Standing straight up right off the snap, the native of Winnipeg often failed to generate a bull-rush, and was sometimes stonewalled with pure power by an offensive lineman while using his speed. Horton has a lot of skills – and not a long list of flaws – that projected him as a third-to-fourth round player, but his pad-level was an issue that teams could not overlook.

7. DE Denzel Philip, Eastern New Mexico (undrafted)

Philip was dubbed a “sleeper pick” and an “underrated prospect” by several draft pundits in the league, and I was not buying it. Very skeptical even before the draft, I was especially not sold on any of the hype after his combine performance. Similarly to Maxx Forde last year, Philip was seen as a ‘tweener – someone who’s too slow and stiff to play defensive end, but too small to be a pass-rushing defensive tackle in the 4 or 5-tech positions. Philip arrived at the combine at a far-too-light-weight at 225-lbs, likely as an attempt to improve his quickness and be seen as a defensive end. Regardless, Philip was the same player – explosive but slow, with no bend around on the corner and no hands. Philip didn’t change even at 225-lbs, making it clear to coaches that he could not play defensive end at the proper weight, 255-lbs.

Bonus:

LB DJ Lalama, Manitoba – Edmonton (round 8 pick 70)

This one baffles me, and I have no explanation. It was shocking to see DJ Lalama as Mr. Irrelevant, as his abilities should project to be an effective special-teams player in this league. While also a dominant linebacker, Lalama was predominantly an anchor on special-teams with the Bisons. He performed well at the Combine, and can also long-snap. The Eskimos could be getting a steal with the final pick in the draft.

An In-Depth Look at the Bombers’ Impressive Haul of Draft Picks

Kyle Walters just sat back – probably didn’t relax – and let the chips fall where they may in the 2016 CFL draft. In the end, he came away with an outright ridiculous haul of players.

The first round of the CFL Draft was nothing short of crazy, and for Walters and Mike O’Shea, who remained quiet across the league back in Winnipeg, the outcome was nothing short of ideal. An early-run on offensive lineman – aided by the Eskimos foolishly selecting Tevaun Smith at eighth overall – meant Virginia pass-rusher Trent Corney slipped through the cracks in the opening round and into the hands of a thrilled Kyle Walters. A shake-up regarding the elite tier of offensive lineman saw Michael Couture also still on the board when Winnipeg was on the clock, and the war-room likely had no objections before calling in the pick.

Those two picks were already quite satisfying, but no one – not even the Bombers, but perhaps Justin Dunk – knew how graciously the draft would continue to unfold for the Bombers as the rounds passed by.

It’s all the more impressive when you consider the fact that Garrett Waggoner, a blue-chip, tremendous prospect, was technically selected with a 2016 draft pick. This class has the potential to be the defining moment of Kyle Walter’s career in Winnipeg, and it’s amazing what can unfold when a team is able to have freedom with their draft choices as a result of a solid corps of Canadians under-contract. Walters has brought the Bombers’ Canadian content a long way since he took over the skeleton-like depth chart from the Joe Mack era, and he took another large step forward with the first three players drafted by the Blue & Gold this year.

Round 2, pick 9 – DE Trent Corney, Virginia

This selection was more than ideal for the Bombers; not only does Corney fill a positional need, but he was easily the best player available as well. An ultra-athletic player, Corney was one of the most athletic defensive lineman available in the NFL draft, and many people were stunned when he not only went undrafted, but wasn’t even offered a priority free agent contract.

Corney had an excellent senior season – his first season as a starter. His first career start came against UCLA, where Corney battled a 1st-round (and 2016 top-10 pick) NFL offensive tackle, Ronnie Stanley. Notching six tackles and a tackle-for-loss, Corney ended up being Stanley’s toughest match-up of the season.

Although he has a very good chance of developing into a starter, he’ll start his career as Jamaal Westerman’s backup. With his ridiculous athleticism – the 6-foot-3, 251-pounder clocked a 4.52-second 40-yard dash, recorded a 38-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot broad jump – and hard-nosed style, he’ll make an immediate impact on special-teams.

Round 2, pick 2 – C Michael Couture, Simon Fraser

Another athletic player, Couture was a slam-dunk pick for Bombers at 10th overall in terms of value. With Charles Vaillancourt tumbling into the hands of the BC Lions at fifth overall, all plans drafting the local product went out the door in BC, so Couture fell into the hands of the Bombers. It was no secret the Bombers were going to draft an offensive lineman at any costs with back-to-back picks to open the second round, as the club only had four Canadian offensive linemen under contract until the draft.

The sky is the limit for Couture, as he played all of left guard, centre and right tackle with the Clan, while lining up at all five offensive line positions at the combine – and dominating. Couture has quick, nimble feet and excellent, refined technique – don’t rule out the ability of him developing into a starting right tackle down the road. In the meantime, he brings some much needed depth and versatility to the Bombers’ unit. He needs time to develop, but Couture has a bright future.

Round 3, pick 2 – S Taylor Loffler, UBC

Four surgeries in five years was enough to scare away enough clubs from Loffler until Walters pulled the trigger in the third round on the consensus top safety in the draft. While not directly a positional need with Garrett Waggoner young and on the roster, the former Boise State recruit was simply too good of a player for the Bombers to pass. Loffler is a a top-15 talent, and a clean bill of health during his first and only season with the UBC Thunderbirds could mean his health issues are in the past.

Loffler, similarly to Corney, is one of the more pro-ready players in the draft. He’ll contribute on special-teams and as a depth safety this year, but in perhaps one-to-two seasons, the Bombers could be starting Loffler at strong-side linebacker and Garrett Waggoner at weak-side linebacker – both of whom were technically acquired with 2016 draft picks.

Round 4, pick 28 – LB Shayne Gauthier, Laval

The Bombers were wise to invest in a player who projects purely as a special-teams anchor this early in the draft. Albeit only 5’10” and 220-pounds, Gauthier is a tough, throwback linebacker who plays off physicality and natural instincts. With deceptive downhill speed – he ran a 4.66-second 40-yard dash – the Laval product should be able to make an immediate impact on special-teams.

Round 5, pick 2 – RG Zach Intzandt, McMaster

The Bombers needed to add at least two offensive linemen in the draft, and Intzandt happens to be one of the best developmental prospects eligible. He looks the part at 6-foot-4 and 304-pounds, but 2015 was Intzandt’s first year starting along the offensive line after converting from the defensive side in 2013. Nonetheless, his tape at McMaster was solid, however a rough Combine performance may have showed scouts that the London, ON. native was more of a project than perhaps originally thought. It’s slightly worrisome that this technique is already decently refined – you can teach technique, but you can’t teach physical abilities – but I don’t doubt the coaching abilities of Bob Wylie.

Round 6, pick 2 – NT Rupert Butcher, Western

Displaying one of the best Combine one-on-one performances in history, Butcher could be one of the steals of the draft. But it wasn’t completely surprisingly to see the Western product fall into the six-round. Butcher was never a consistently dominant player with the Mustangs – Walters pointed to his lack of motor – and only showed flashes. His motor was sure running at the combine, of course, as Butcher dominated every offensive lineman that crossed his face in a number of different ways, displaying shiftiness, good hands, pad-level and a fearsome bull-rush. Butcher must lose some weight – he’s a behemoth at 6-foot-5, 327-lbs – and will fit in behind Keith Shologan and Jake Thomas at the nose tackle position, likely making the practice roster this season.

Round 7, pick 2 – SB Alex Vitt, Manitoba

The Bombers passed on a handful of local products before picking up Vitt with the 55th pick the draft. While not flashy, Vitt is a physical, blue-collar pass-catcher who was a consistent contributor with the Bisons, notching 728 yards and 4 TDs in 2015. A player who won’t catch anyone’s attention with his testing numbers, Vitt didn’t have his best day running routes at the Edmonton Regional Combine and found his name uncalled when the list of participants moving on to the National event were named. A 6-foot-2 receiver with good hands and a willingness to block, Vitt will be an interesting name to watch in training camp.

Round 8, pick 2 – LB Frank Renuad, Windsor

It was disappointing to see the club pass on another local product who plays the same position, DJ Lalama, but I can’t say anything bad about Renaud. He didn’t have the opportunity of a fourth-season to improve his draft-stock, tearing his ACL at the East-West Bowl. The Bombers’ Canadian talent evaluates obviously liked what they saw at the event, but we’ll have to wait and see if the Bombers get any value out of a player who wouldn’t have been drafted without the new, additional eighth round.

Where Would Garrett Waggoner fit into the 2016 Draft Class?

When Kyle Walters decided to forfeit his 2016 1st-round draft selection to pick up Dartmouth safety Garrett Waggoner in last year’s supplemental draft, there’s no doubt the Bombers’ GM didn’t anticipate his club missing the playoffs once again in 2015, earning the second-overall pick in this month’s draft.

Waggoner is now essentially the club’s 2016 first-round pick at second-overall. And while, if actually picking second overall this year, the Bombers would be selecting an offensive lineman, Walters should not necessarily regret forfeiting that pick to get Waggoner in the supplemental draft, as the 25-year-old would’ve been ranked quite well in this year’s class of draft-eligible players, too.

Last year, scouts said Waggoner would’ve been the best defensive player available in the draft had he qualified as a national earlier. And while last year’s draft class was much deeper than that of this year, there wasn’t quite the elite level of blue-chip defensive prospects that this year’s class possesses.

Hindsight is 20/20, and Walters should be content knowing the Bombers landed a really talented, young football in Waggoner. Sure, he wouldn’t have warranted a top-two pick, and he wouldn’t have even quite been the top linebacker this year – Montana State’s Alex Singleton is that guy – but there’s no point coming to any final conclusions about a player who’s only year into his career, and who has incredible potential, himself.

Although he’s not the top linebacker in the 2016 class, Waggoner would’ve been the top safety. It’s a strong class of safeties headlined by UBC’s Taylor Loffler and Southern Illinois’ Anthony Thompson, but Waggoner would’ve topped them all.

Waggoner is an athletic freak, clocking a 4.51 40-yard dash, 4.15 shuttle time, and recording a 43-inch vertical jump and 10’3″ broad jump at his Pro Day. He’s an exceptional player on film, and what really separates Waggoner from the pack is his quick, fluid hips, his exceptional football I.Q., his ability to play in the box as well as in the role of a center-fielder, and his tremendous, fearsome tackling skills. He has the size to weak-side linebacker, yet is more or less just as fast as Anthony Thompson, who’s 20-pounds lighter.

Take the best skills of both Thompson and Loffler and put them in the body of a linebacker, and you get Garrett Waggoner. As shown in my report below, Waggoner projects more as a weak-side linebacker than safety, but with his insane athleticism, he could probably play either position.
Screenshot 2016-05-06 17.09.24Waggoner, of course, already has a year of CFL experience under his belt, and I do believe he had a really good rookie campaign. Suiting up in all 18 games, Waggoner was one of the Bombers’ top special-teamers, playing several different roles, including many of the most important on coverage units.

For a player who the team gave up a first-round pick for, many fans were disappointing in Waggoner’s impact – or lack thereof – on defense in his rookie season. As expected, Waggoner saw very little snaps – which is completely normal for Canadian rookies – as the Bombers were loaded on Canadian linebackers – Sam Hurl, Jesse Briggs and Graig Newman were already established with the club. Regardless, as a result of Waggoner playing in all 18 games, as well as his stout play on special-teams, he was still probably the third-most productive Canadian in year one out of the 2015 draft behind Winnipeg’s Sukh Chungh and Saskatchewan’s Nic Demski.

Waggoner is still likely a first-round pick in the 2016 draft, and although he’d be a reach at second-overall, the Bombers still have the back-to-back picks to open up the second round.

The Bombers’ front-office shouldn’t – and doesn’t – regret forfeiting their 2016 first-rounder to pick up Waggoner. Very few really expected to Bombers to take a step back in the win/loss column from 2014 to be picking at second-overall, and the Sarasota, Florida native has the potential to develop into a starting linebacker, anyway. The Bombers still got, what would have been, one of the blue-chip prospects in the 2016 draft, and he’s only scratched the surface so far in his young career.

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