The Winnipeg Blue Bombers made some noise and became relevant again in 2016. It began with the switch under centre from the shaky Drew Willy to the more reliable Matt Nichols. They went from opening the season 1-4 to winning seven straight and achieving their first postseason berth in four years. Winnipeg ultimately fell to the B.C. Lions in the first round by one point.
So yes, overall it was a great year for the Blue Bombers. But the problem is that they will no longer be overlooked and underestimated by opponents as they seek to continue building on last season’s success. That building starts with signing the right free agents. They made the right move in re-signing quarterback Nichols.
However, in addition to Nichols, other free agent signings should not go overlooked. Everyone knows the big quarterback names in the CFL, but as arguably the most team-oriented sport of all, football requires much more than just one or two big names. Here are some of the players the Blue Bombers have re-signed or brought in who give them the depth they need to build on last year’s success.
Drake Newis, Defensive Tackle
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence was one of the main reasons they were able to turn their season around last year. They led the league in interceptions with 30 and their 25 forced fumbles ranked second.
Their one major defensive problem, though, was their inability to pressure the quarterback consistently. They were in the basement in the league with 35 sacks. Canadian defensive end Jamaal Westerman’s sack total dropped from 17 to eight last season, and new signing Drake Newis will take some stress off of Westerman, while beefing up the line.
The mammoth LSU product was quietly one of the most dominant interior linemen with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last year. In his first year as a consistent starter, he recorded 29 tackles, five sacks, and one pass knockdown in 14 games. Most of the Ticats players, such as All-star Simoni Lawrence, openly expressed their love of playing with him, so don’t be surprised if Newis and the defensive line create havoc for opposing pivots.
The 27-year-old spent four seasons in the NFL after being selected in third round, 87th overall, by the Indianapolis Colts in 2011.
Clarence Denmark and Kenny Stafford, Wide Receivers
Injuries can make or break a season for a franchise. Last year, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were bit by the injury bug at the wide receiver position, which delayed Nichols’ opportunity to build chemistry with his primary weapons, as the only receiver to play more than 14 games for Winnipeg was Canadian Rory Kohlert.
The injuries during the season led the team to bring back an old face who was previously cut. In his return he made the most of the opportunity, which led to him being re-signed this off-season. That player is Clarence Denmark.
The 31-year-old receiver was a missing piece for the Blue Bombers early on in the season, and right when he stepped on the field in Week Seven he made a difference. In his second game back against the Toronto Argonauts, he caught seven balls for 195 yards and two touchdowns.
He finished the season third in receptions (53), second in receiving yards (705) and first in touchdowns (8) on his team. The 2014 West Division All-Star is a very good route runner and has big play potential written all over him.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers also signed International receiver Kenny Stafford. The 6’3″ wideout was released from the Montreal Alouettes at the tail end of last season. What the 26-year-old brings is added depth, height, speed and experience. Many forget that two years ago with the Edmonton Eskimos, he was the third head of the three-headed monster consisting of Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker. He put up 47 grabs for 732 yards and nine scores. That team went on to capture the 103rd Grey Cup.
Last year Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith went down, and the receiving corps was very inexperienced before Denmark was signed. Stafford is a perfect guy to bring to added depth and teach the newer receiver how to adapt to the Canadian game, in addition to making plays.
Dan LeFevour, Quarterback
Heading into the 2017 campaign there is zero competition for the starting quarterback job, as Nichols won it fair and square with his impressive play last year. So now, with no Kevin Glenn or Drew Willy on the depth chart, there is competition for the Bombers back-up job. A name was added to the mix with the depth signing of Dan LeFevour.
The Central Michigan alumni is a prototypical CFL quarterback. He’s athletic, can extend plays on the ground, and has a solid arm. He was signed by the Argos mid-season last year and made a good impression. He threw for 329 yards in a win against the Tiger-Cats in Week 12 to snap a four game skid. The next week against the Blue Bombers, he tossed four majors, piling up 271 yards in the air and 57 yards on the ground in a loss.
The major reason why his development keeps getting delayed is injuries. In 2014, the 29-year-old tore his ACL after being given the starting job in Hamilton. The year after, in his third snap with the Alouettes, he injured his non-throwing shoulder.