Bombers’ Defensive backfield could rival Ottawa in 2016

The Blue Bombers’ defensive backfield has been somewhat of an anomaly in the last two seasons.

Arguably seen as the Bombers’ most talented unit heading into last season, the Bombers still finished sixth in passing defense. It takes the entire defensive unit to stop the pass, however, and the Bombers failed to generate a consistent pass-rush, while the Linebackers often struggled in coverage.

Despite very conservative play-calling, the Bombers’ secondary, with the exception of one player, was no slouch in 2o15. With the release of the most picked-on defensive back in the league, Demond Washington, as well as several potential additions in training camp, the Bombers could develop into the league’s top secondary this season.

Of course, nothing is awarded in the pre-season. The Bombers’ defensive backs will have to play up to their full potential on a weekly basis in order to join the conversation with Ottawa, who easily boasted the league’s top secondary last season.

The Redblacks’ overload of absurd international depth behind star-power within the starters allowed them to dominate each week no matter who was in the lineup. Ottawa released one of the league’s best cover-men, Brandon McDonald, early in the season for taking too many stupid penalties. Abdul Kanneh, who emerged as a top-2 defensive back in the CFL, took over the boundary corner position, while Brandyn Thompson drawed in at the now-vacant boundary halfback spot. Thompson ended up being one of the league’s top halfbacks and a CFL All-Star. Jerrell Gavins, one of the league’s best raw cover-men, had a great sophomore season, while veteran field corner Jovon Johnson turned back the clock in his ninth CFL season, earning All-Star honors.

The Redblacks’s depth went far beyond Thompson’s emergence, though. Ottawa’s nominee for Most Outstanding Rookie, Forrest Hightower, proved he was a great halfback in the many starts he received, while Brandon Sermons made his first-career start in the Grey Cup game at boundary corner, displaying unlimited potential against star pass-catcher Derel Walker. With two rookies starting in the Grey Cup game, Jermaine Robinson provided even more stability as the last line of defense at safety. Although injuries limited him to only two regular season games, Robinson has a long way to go before he’s in the same conversation as the league’s top safeties, but he certainly hasn’t reached his potential, either. Jacques Washington’s play made many forget about the 27-year-old, and we also shouldn’t overlook the contributions of Oregon safety John Boyett in limited action at safety.

Antoine Pruneau, meanwhile, avoided a sophomore slump after an outstanding rookie season at strong-side linebacker. The University of Montreal product was picked on here and there, but didn’t emerge as much of a burden in coverage as expected with the league’s change to the illegal contact on a receiver rule. Ottawa ran far more man-coverage than any team in the league – a direct result of boasting an ultra-talented secondary – and Pruneau got more comfortable as the season wore on.

Winnipeg’s weak-link, Demond Washington, never did figure out how to cover receivers without drawing a flag. The departure of the four-year Bomber, who somehow earned a contract in free agency with Hamilton, truly was addition by subtraction at it’s finest. While not an official stat, Washington would have easily led the CFL in passing yards allowed – and that’s excluding his surely league-leading illegal contact/pass interference penalties against. If it weren’t for Washington’s dependable tacking abilities and his awareness in zone-coverage, he’d have been released at some point during the season. But Mike O’Shea is a man of second chances, and he surely wanted to give Washington every opportunity needed to adjust and adapt to the new zero-tolerance rules – he truly does have all the athleticism in the world to blanket receivers hands-off. Seeing as Washington never could get his game together at all, the Bombers really can’t get any worse with who they play at boundary halfback this year. And if training camp is any indication, the Bombers’ play in Washington’s vacated spot could be night and day compared to last season.

The Bombers have some extremely intriguing rookies that are living up to their football resumes in camp. It’s nearly impossible to rival Ottawa’s depth from last year, which won’t be nearly as good this year – Brandyn Thompson has all but officially retired; Jovon Johnson signed with Montreal; and Jacques Washington was released, partly influenced by Boyett’s emergence as well as the numbers game – but it’s hard not to envision several of Winnipeg’s rookie DB’s that’ll start the season as starers, designated imports or practice roster players making a large impact in 2016. The Bombers also have exceptional Canadian depth in the secondary, as Taylor Loffler is not far from being pro ready, while Teague Sherman and Derek Jones both have started games.

The Bombers have a couple starting positions available, but it’s not exactly clear where those positions are. Chris Randle, one of the league’s most underrated cover-men during his time as a corner, could slot in at boundary halfback or field-side corner depending on if the Bombers choose to roll with an All-American secondary. The safety position is not quite set in stone, as perhaps one of Winnipeg’s most exciting prospects, Johnny Patrick, could take Macho Harris’ starting spot, which is welcomed. A former third-round pick of the New Orleans Saints, Patrick had 27 NFL games under his belt before concussions forced him out of football.

Patrick’s ability to switch from corner to safety has certainly caught the attention of the coaching staff, but it’s been Kevin Fogg that has been earning more praise than any rookie defensive back at Blue Bombers training camp. With interceptions in both of the first two practices, the Liberty product, who seems to resemble Bruce Johnson with his outstanding change of direction skills, has received reps with the first-team unit at boundary halfback. Seeing as he’s earned those reps over some extremely talented football players in Julian Posey, Donald Celiscar and veteran defender Chris Randle, it’s not hard to envision Fogg bursting onto the scene and becoming Winnipeg’s 2016 version of Johnny Adams.

Fogg, of course, needs to have an outstanding rookie season before anyone even considers comparing his rookie year to Adams’ last year, as the University of Michigan State product completed his inaugural CFL season as a top-2 defensive back in the CFL with Ottawa’s Kanneh. Whereas Kanneh is an athlete, Adams is more of a technician, and his abilities gave the Bombers faith to run cover-6 coverage with Adams alone on the boundary using press-man techniques despite having deep-third responsibilities.

Adams’ abilities to take on more coverage responsibilities than perhaps any other defensive back in the league will only make the job’s of Bruce Johnson and Maurice Leggett even easier. The Bombers truly have an All-Canadian, elite trio in Adams, Johnson and Maurice Leggett – it’s true, a large majority of the DB’s I’d consider elite play in either Winnipeg or Ottawa. Johnson is one of the league’s most unappreciated players – his lack of interceptions has him flying under the radar – but he is certainly a top-3 player at the halfback position. Maurice Leggett, meanwhile, was the league’s best safety in 2014 before switching over to strong-side linebacker last year, where the coverage duties are nearly identical to that of a safety, but with slightly more man-coverage. Leggett should continue to be an elite player with the position change, as he showed many glimpses of even being a more physical upgrade over Chris Randle.

Randle, of course, moved from corner to SAM linebacker last season before tearing his ACL in the Labour Day Classic. Despite showing vast improvement as the weeks went by, it was clear that Randle wasn’t the same player when he had a receiver running full-steam ahead towards him before the ball was even snapped. One season removed from being the team’s coverage ace at boundary corner, the Bombers now insist on playing a rookie at Washington’s halfback spot instead of Randle – and it’s somewhat understandable with the level of talent the International scouting department has brought in.

Randle will instead compete at field-side corner with veteran Canadian incumbent Matt Bucknor. Randle’s more comfortable at corner, and having the former Utah State alum at field corner would simply be unfair to offenses – a player that good shouldn’t be playing field corner. While it’s possible Randle is a casualty of the ratio – despite very good Canadian talent, it would slightly complicate things elsewhere for the Bombers to have a designated import at defensive back without a Canadian starter at field corner – it will be an interesting battle to watch in training camp. Bucknor’s passport gives him the advantage, but the fifth-year Bomber has nonetheless had a great camp so far.

While a better tackler than coverage player, Bucknor still had a really solid 2o15 campaign. He’s going to get burned once in awhile – ask Kenny Stafford or Terance Toliver – but makes the needed plays when he can rely on his technique and not raw speed.

The Bombers have a plethora of options in the secondary, and with three elite players as well as Chris Randle to build around, the Bombers defensive backfield could reach new heights that perhaps not even Ottawa will see in 2016 if a couple of these young defenders – be it Fogg, Patrick or Posey – are as good as advertised.

And at the very least, with no Demond Washington, there’s no way this secondary can get worse. It’s only up from here, and from how the team is situated on paper, the sky truly is the limit for this group in 2016.

Bombers Final Roster Projection – Version 1.0

Like every front-office, the Winnipeg Football Club will have to make some very tough decisions in regards to their final roster.

Every team has a plethora of talented Americans that will be casualties of the ratio, and the Bombers are no different. But a more unique issue on the club’s hands is handling the excess of proven/serviceable Canadians under contract – not preaching quantity over quality, that is – which will only make decisions even harder for Kyle Walters and Mike O’Shea when they sit down to finalize the roster at the end of training camp, which is set to begin on Sunday. It’s a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. The passport of two or three Canadians that have been roster players for the Blue & Gold in previous seasons may not be enough to save their roster spots – the Bombers need to cut down to 22 or so Canadians, and it won’t be easy.

The Bombers only really have four or five spots available for new Americans in camp to compete for – and maybe less if Walters wants to keep as many Canadian roster players as possible, sacrificing import talent. There are quite a few first-year Americans that are quite intriguing, but with the team’s large quantity of Canadians as well as the rules and regulations of rosters in the CFL, many of these players don’t really have a chance to make the lineup right out of camp. It sounds harsh, but it’s the reality in the Canadian Football League.

The Bombers make a few eye-opening cuts (and maybe a trade) in my first roster projection, but still boast an impressive looking team on paper. Canadian talent is one of two major keys in the CFL; Winnipeg’s has never looked better in a very, very long time.

Screenshot 2016-05-28 09.50.45

The Bombers cut three experienced Canadians in my projection – SB Kris Bastien, RB Pascal Lochard and DB Brendan Morgan. Bastien, who failed to produce in plenty of opportunities last season, is no longer needed with the Bombers only starting one Canadian receiver this year. Only recently acquired in free agency, Pascal Lochard is a valuable special-teamer, but with Sam Hurl available to play special-teams as well as the recently-drafted Shayne Gauthier, his services aren’t needed. With only three career carries, Lochard doesn’t inspire much confidence as Andrew Harris’ backup. The Bombers will also be carrying two fullbacks – one of which is capable, if not better, ball-carrier Chris Normand – which eliminates the possibility of carrying both Carlos Anderson and Pascal Lochard as Harris’ backup.

Anderson, as you may remember, likely earned a job on the Bombers’ roster last year before tearing his ACL in the second pre-season game. His return skills also give him some leverage over the competition, as the Bombers would struggle – or find it impossible – to find a roster spot for a backup American player elsewhere who’s able to return kicks. The Bombers will be forced to sub in a Canadian receiver for an American receiver when Anderson the game, which won’t be often with the do-it-all Andrew Harris, but that’s the way it goes with starting Canadian running backs.

I have Canadian defensive back Brendan Morgan, who was a frequent roster player for the Bombers in his rookie season. on the practice roster. Winnipeg’s second-round pick last year, Morgan struggled mightily on special-teams duty in his rookie campaign. Although it must be considered that he’s only one year into his young career, there’s no room on the roster for the Queen’s product when everyone’s healthy, as Taylor Loffler will be the Bombers’ fourth Canadian defensive back.

The Bombers would likely prefer to start five Americans in the secondary, with a rookie import slotting in at field-side corner. But the Bombers, who have already cut three Canadians in this mock, must start 8 Canadians to comply with the needed four designated imports if they wish to keep 22 Canadians on the roster. It’s possible that they cut another Canadian – likely Derek Jones – to allow an import to start at field-side corner, but that player is going to have to make an outstanding impressing in camp to make the Bombers cut (or trade) another Canadian roster player.

That import at corner could be Louisville product Johnny Patrick, a New Orleans Saints 2011 third-round pick with five starts under his belt. Concussions ultimately derailed Patrick’s career, as he was only pronounced fully medically clear earlier this year. Could Patrick be this year’s Johnny Adams on an already loaded secondary?

Donald Celiscar, who recorded 217 tackles, 10 interceptions and 45 pass defenses at Western Michigan, as well as former Detroit Lions 2012 sixth-round pick Jonte Green, will threaten for jobs in the secondary, but with Adrian Hubbard and Nate Collins expected to win spots on defense, there’s no room for a backup international defensive back on the roster.

Hubbard’s battle for Greg Peach’s former position at defensive end against the likes of the University of Miami’s Shayon Green and second-year Bomber Justin Cole could be the competition to watch at camp. Although I really like Green’s athleticism with his large build – the Steelers once envisioned Green as an outside linebacker instead of a 3-4 defensive end – it’s the two-year starter at Alabama, Adrian Hubbard, who I expect to finish camp with a starting gig. The six-foot-six, 255-pound pass-rusher was Alabama’s most productive defensive lineman before foregoing his senior year to enter the NFL draft, registering 47 tackles, 10 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Hubbard spent all of 2014 on Green Bay’s practice roster before being a final cut in training camp 2015. He was immediately picked up by Miami and spent all of last season on their practice roster.

Also earning a spot on the defensive line, second-year Bomber Nate Collins should rotate in after Euclid Cummings as a three-technique. Collins (6’2″, 294-lbs) recorded 8 tackles and a sack in five games last year while continuously posing a pass-rushing threat, as three-techs should.

The Bombers’ final addition to the nineteen international players I expect them to dress is Julian Talley, a six-foot-one receiver who bounced on and off the New York Giants’ practice roster for four seasons from 2012-2015 – it’s quite the story. The University of Massachusetts alum’s primary competition should be Jace Davis, Justin Veltung, Soloman Patton and Quincy McDuffie. The final three on that list are all also returners, which gives them quite the advantage – and makes me hope one of them wins the starting job – with the Bombers lacking a second returner opposite Carlos Anderson. Regardless, the club seems to be high on Talley and Davis. And although I have Talley winning the job at field wide receiver, don’t take my word for it; the previous four players I had penciled in as the favorites to start at the remaining receiver position either retired (Tevin Smith, Jerrell Jernigan) or were cut (Larry Pinkard, Ricky Collins).

It’s not easy to predict which American rookies will be legitimate CFL roster players with no game film available, but the Bombers’ roster, fortunately, does not have a lot of open spots available, which is somewhat indicative of the team’s now-impressive Canadian talent. Should the Bombers only start seven Canadians this year, there’s not as many roster options available. And if Matt Bucknor does hold down his field-corner spot, or Sam Hurl remains in the middle – well, that’s an entirely different story.

The picture will become clearer very soon as training camp opens.

Blue Review: Day Two of Mini-Camp

A sunny afternoon session at Investors Group Field concluded day two of the Blue Bombers’ offensive mini-camp. Here are some thoughts from section 129.

1. It was another efficient morning for the Lapolice Academy. As per usual with Lapolice, the Bombers started with some light work, getting the footwork of the quarterbacks and timing of the receivers’ motion down with their reverse/ghost motion inside zone runs. Although they’re only barely scratching the surface of the offensive playbook, it seems as though Lapolice’s offense will be very, very full of misdirection.

2. Jeff Keeping – yes, that Jeff Keeping – was on the receiving end of two passes in the flats today. The Bombers began installing their short-yardage set, which already has a play-action pass to a lineman built in.

3. Receiver groupings were the same on day two. Former Baylor pass-catcher Ernest Smith, who brings great size to the receiving corps at 6’5″, 210-lbs, remained at the Y-position with the “starters”. The second-team remained the same, with Spencer Davis on the boundary, Quincy McDuffie, Ricky Collins and Julian Talley in the slot, and Kris Bastien at field-side wide receiver. And although non of these groupings really mean anything, there were no changes on the third team, with Larry Pinkard (boundary) and Justin Veltung (field) at wide receiver, and Soloman Patton, Julian Feoli-Gudino and Jhomo Gordon in the slot. Former UTEP pass-catcher Kris Adams, meanwhile, rotated in where ever he could. Take all this with a grain of salt, however, as groupings in mini-camp really mean nothing heading into main camp. Everyone has an equal opportunity to crack the lineup.

4. Big Travis Bond (6’6″, 329-lbs), who took the second-team reps at left tackle yesterday, worked with the starters today at left guard. Lawrence Martin, who took took the starting reps at left guard yesterday, was on the second-team, while Manase Foketi replaced Bond at left tackle on group two. Expect Jamarcus Hardrick, currently playing right guard on group-two, to get the starting reps at left guard tomorrow as the Bombers look to get all the candidates some reps with the starters to develop some chemistry ahead of training camp.

5. It’s hard – and rather pointless – to try and evaluate the talent of the players at this mini-camp without pads or a defense, but Andrew Harris is looking very explosive. I know, that’s a fairly pointless statement since everyone looks good/explosive with no defense, but Harris is demonstrating deceptive speed and smooth, natural looking cuts – it’s a sight to behold. Harris has been very vocal so far, demonstrating his experience while communicating with the offensive line at the line of scrimmage. Unlike several CFL teams, the Bombers are going to heavily include their running backs as much as possible, and I really do believe that Andrew Harris has a big season ahead of him – if he can stay healthy, that is.

6. Another player that could be in for a big season is Rory Kohlert. The CFL’s best offenses in the East Division include their field-side wide receivers in the offense, and seeing as how Paul Lapolice seems to be taking a lot of pages out Marcus Brady’s play-book out in Toronto, an individual season like 2014 could be ahead for the University of Saskatchewan alum. Bomber quarterbacks were reading the wide-side first on multiple route combinations, where the coverage responsibilities of one defender could mean Kohlert is getting a target.

7. It’s hard – and rather pointless – to try and diversify the players at mini-camp with no defense out there, so you can expect all the players at mini-camp to be at training camp. Although every rep will be evaluated, don’t expect the coaches to put much stock – if any – into anything seen at this mini-camp except attitude and the ability to learn the system. There really aren’t any players standing out simply because everyone looks good, for the most part, against air. The real evaluating will be done when main camp opens in June.

Blue Review: Day One of Mini-Camp

Football is back, baby!

The Bombers hit the field for the first time in 2016 for their offensive mini-camp. Here are some observations after our first look at the new-and-improved 2016 Blue Bombers.

1. The first thing that stuck out to me was just how animated newly-hired offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice was. Everyone in the stadium could hear him coaching loud and clear, as Lapolice, who’s clearly excited to be back coaching after three seasons, was vocal, animated and full of enthusiasm. Lapolice, still young at 45-years-old, was even demonstrating drills himself – he doubles as receivers coach – and I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended up losing his voice after two hour-long practices today. The Bombers were up-tempo all practice, maximizing the short amount of practice time.

2. The Bombers had installed a handful of basic plays – no more than seven – which they ran through today as a unit after some quick individual work. It was all three-step, short route combinations, for the most part, as well as some reverse and ghost-motion misdirection runs, and basic zone runs. The quarterbacks and receivers worked a lot on bubble screens in individual time as well as in team, which Lapolice could be rely on this season, similarly to the Eskimos in 2015. The quarterbacks were getting the ball out their hands early today with a lot of quick throws being called.

3. Back under center after recovering from a season-ending knee injury, Drew Willy didn’t have his best day throwing the football, at least in the second session. His accuracy was relatively erratic at some points, and the ball hung in the air on a couple deep throws – there was a breeze, though. Of course, this is nothing to be worried about. Willy’s knee is 100% healed up, and it’s exciting to see no. 5 back at the controls.

4. Even though arm strength/accuracy is only one piece of the puzzle, it’s always interesting – but totally pointless – to compare the quarterback’s arms to each other. Last training camp, it was Robert Marve clearly dominated this power ranking, followed by Jordan Yantz, Josh Portis, Willy and then Brian Brohm. Who throws the best ball out of this year’s signal-callers? To me, it’s unquestionably Dominique Davis, followed by a close tie between Brian Bennett and Drew Willy, and then Matt Nichols.

5. Former Baylor receiver Ernest Smith, who was signed last week, worked with the “starters” today at the Y-position, formerly occupied by Julian Feoli-Gudino. Smith has been out of football for a long time, but at six-foot-five and 210-lbs, he brings some much-needed size to the Bombers’ aerial attack.

6. It’s quite possible that Smith was moved into a role with group one as a result of Jerrell Jernigan being a no-show. According to Ed Tait, Jernigan (5’9″, 189-lbs) did touch down in Winnipeg but had to return home for family reasons. Here’s to hoping the Troy alum, who spent four seasons with the New York Giants after being drafted in the third round, shows up to main camp, as he’s certainly is a promising player. In 2013, Jernigan recorded 19 catches in 3 games while Victor Cruz sat out with an injury.

7. Weston Dressler received the majority of his snaps at boundary wide-receiver, as Darvin Adams moved into Clarence Denmark’s vacated slot-back position. Ryan Smith was in Nick Moore’s boundary slot-back position – looking explosive there, too – and Rory Kohlert was at his regular position at field-side wide receiver. Second-year player Spencer Davis lined up at boundary slot-back on the second-team, with Quincy McDuffie, Ricky Collins and Julian Talley in the slot, and Kris Bastien out wide. On the third team, Larry Pinkard manned the boundary at wideout, while Julian Feoli-Gudino, Jhomo Gordon and Soloman Patton worked the slot, with Justin Veltung out a field-side wide receiver. Take all this with a grain of salt, as it’s only the first day of mini-camp, and there’ll be many changes to the groupings by as early as tomorrow.

8. The club seems serious about starting Patrick Neufeld at right tackle this season. And while I feel as though the club should exhaust all their options with American rookies at right tackle, I am not against the idea of Neufeld playing there. Although he’s about a middle-tier right tackle at his best – and a below-average player at guard – that is a significant upgrade over Jace Daniels and Selvish Capers. Daniels, who is still recovering from off-season ankle surgery, will compete at left guard should Neufeld remain a book-end. Lawrence Martin took the first-team reps at left guard today, while Manase Foketi worked with the two’s.

9. The favorite to win that job at left guard in training camp might just be Jamarcus Hardrick, however. Hardrick, who spent 2015 with Saskatchewan, is a natural right tackle, but he’s a mauler in the run-game. A powerful technician, I always thought his footwork was too questionable to play tackle, and unsurprisingly, the Bombers had him taking second-team reps at right guard behind Sukh Chungh today. It could only be a matter of time before he sees reps at the vacated left guard position.

10. The updated helmets with the royal blue face-masks are still as sharp as ever, and are now full-time. The team still practiced with the old Reebok practice jerseys, but we can expect that to change in time for training camp when the club’s new digs are unveiled.

11. It was simply mind-blowing to see Weston Dressler, Ryan Smith and Andrew Harris in the Blue & Gold, which, let me add, looks much better on them than any other color combination.

12. Practice tomorrow is once again scheduled for 10:30am and 12:30pm at Investors Group Field.

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Ruth Bonneville/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS