...opening Wednesday in Florida. Ted Wyman:
BRADENTON, Fla. — Unable to secure a big-play receiver through free agency, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will have to go the in-house route to fill a void that haunted them last season.
The process of unearthing that potential gem started last year when the Bombers brought in promising but CFL-untested receivers Corey Washington, Kenbrell Thompkins, Charles Nelson and Kenny Lawler.
It continues Wednesday and Thursday, when the Bombers’ scouts, coaches and management will take a look at 15 American receivers at a free-agent camp here at the IMG Academy.
It’s expected about seven of those pass-catchers will move on to the Bombers main camp — assuming the league’s labour impasse is resolved — in May.
“It’s generally a passing thing and that won’t change,” Bombers general manager Kyle Walters said of the mini-camp. “It’s heavily loaded on receivers and defensive backs.
“The goal is to find receivers who can help right away but the track record of the CFL shows that for a rookie receiver to come in and learn the playbook in a two-week training camp, it’s very difficult. When we look at these receivers, it’s less about ‘We think he’s gonna come in and start Day 1,’ it’s ‘We think this guy’s got a chance at some point during the year, once he learns everything and figures out what he’s supposed to do.’”
Of the 38 players invited to the camp, 29 will be either receivers or defensive backs. There will also be two quarterbacks, three running backs and four linebackers.
There will be no linemen or kickers and all of the players in the camp are true American rookies. Some are under contract, others are neg-list players, and still more are free agents who are in on a tryout basis.
The Bombers already have 16 receivers under contract and nine of them were with the team last year. However, only three of those players — Darvin Adams, Drew Wolitarsky and Nic Demski — were season-long starters.
Thompkins saw the most playing time among the others, making 29 catches for 421 yards and one touchdown in 12 games, while Washington got into three games and Nelson got into one. The Bombers also have second-year Canadians Daniel Petermann and Rashaun Simonise in the mix and both should push for more playing time.
In all likelihood, one or two of those players will be starters in 2019, though there is certain to be fierce competition throughout this mini-camp and the full training camp.
“The biggest one for the receivers this year is the guys who we had last year that were all in their first year and ended the year with the team,” Walters said. “Those are the guys I expect to step forward. Guys like Corey Washington, Kenbrell Thompkins, Charles Nelson, Kenny Lawler. Those guys made good impressions on us last year in their first year and we expect them to make the big jump. They were the names last year that jumped out. I think those are the young guys that are going to have the advantage, strictly based on seniority.”
On the other side of the ball, the Bombers have a whopping 21 defensive backs under contract and nine of them are returning. With the departures of Chris Randle (released, signed with Ottawa), Kevin Fogg (signed as free agent with Toronto) and Taylor Loffler (signed as free agent with Montreal), the Bombers have holes to fill, but have a decent base with veterans Brandon Alexander, Marcus Sayles, Anthony Gaitor, Chandler Fenner and Jeff Hecht all returning.
“We hope there are some tough decisions at the end of this because that means we’ve got a lot of good guys and only a few of them are able to make it to training camp,” Walters said.
“We do want to see guys physically taxed for a couple of days. We want to put them through the fitness tests and give them the once-over. A big part of this is to see who can handle the fitness component. If you struggle getting through a couple-day camp, with full training camp just three weeks away … they need to be in good shape and be ready to compete, which will be a big part of the evaluation process.”
This is the first time in five years that the Bombers have held their mini-camp in Florida. For the last few years, the camp has been held at Investors Group Field and has included a mix of American and Canadian rookies, all of the quarterbacks and some veterans.
Because of the contentious collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the CFL and the Players Association, this year’s camp is limited to first-year players.
That means the quarterbacks in mini-camp will be rookie Bryan Schor from James Madison and another pivot that will be added at the last minute.
“They’ll get plenty of work,” Walters said. “I said to (assistant general manager) Danny (McManus) that he might have to chuck the ball around, or (quarterbacks coach) Buck (Pierce). We’ve got some backup arms in house, if needed.”
While there are no guarantees the Bombers will find stars or even starters through this camp, these kinds of players have become vital to CFL teams in dealing with the salary cap.
“You’re gonna see around the league, I think, with the escalating salaries, that something’s got to go,” Walters said. “Teams are gonna be relying on a lot of these young guys to come in and contribute. We’re no different. We’ve had young guys in the secondary come in and play, linebackers, D-linemen.
“From the American side, you have to be able to rely on your scouting department. With the way we’re operating the salary cap, even with guys getting certain raises on our team, then something’s got to give. You need to rely on some young guys, I call them first-contract players, to come in and contribute.”
The job of finding the best first-contract players available falls to McManus, who is director of U.S. scouting, director of player personnel Ted Goveia and director of college scouting Ryan Rigmaiden.
Now they have a chance to see how the players move in person, how they show the athletic ability that was previously seen on tape. Some of these players haven’t been playing football since they got cut from an NFL camp. They’ve been training and but now it’s about getting back into the mould of playing football. Are they able to do some of the basic things that the coaches ask them to do? Follow directions? Line up where they are supposed to? Do their job?
“This is the slowest it will ever get during the season as far as your instruction,” McManus said. “You’re gonna have some nice one-on-one instruction with the coaches. Once you get into rookie camp, the speed picks up a little bit more. Once main camp starts, things go 100 miles an hour. If you’re not on top of it as a young player right now at this camp, you’ll be lost by the time we get to the middle of May and the veterans come in.”
The scouts have had a challenging year, with the creation and demise of the Alliance of American Football and plans for a re-boot of the XFL adding to an already packed scouting season.
The AAF training camp and season may have actually helped the scouts identify some potential CFL players and Walters expects a few players from the now suspended league to be at mini-camp.
“Ted and Danny and Ryan, they’ve done the legwork on these guys,” Walters said. “Now it’s a chance for them to see them in person. The scouting has been going on for a couple of years with some of these guys and we are finally getting them in. We haven’t seen them play a lot recently, so it will be a good chance for those guys to see them.
“‘Here’s what these players have done in the past and maybe they don’t look 100% in game shape, but you saw glimmers of what we saw. This guy has a huge upside, he’s just out of shape or he’s rusty.’
“It’s an interesting process to not just go with the top five guys. It’s the top five guys that might be lifting the Grey Cup — helping us win the Grey Cup — not just winning the free agent camp.”
BLUE BOMBERS MINI-CAMP ROSTER
At Bradenton, Fla., April 24-25
Player Pos Ht Wt Age College
Malik Boynton DB 6-0 190 22 Austin Peay
Terrance Baldwin DB 5-10 180 22 West Liberty
Malik Reaves DB 6-2 200 23 Villanova
Christian Boutte DB 5-10 190 23 Nicholls State
Joe Este DB 5-11 200 24 Tennessee Martin
Eric Patterson DB 5-11 195 26 Ball State
Mykkele Thompson DB 6-1 195 25 Texas
Jimmy Pruitt DB 6-0 205 26 San Jose State
Amari Coleman DB 5-11 188 22 Central Michigan
Chinedu Okparaku LB 6-1 210 22 Fairmont State
Dale Warren LB 6-0 225 23 Chatanooga
Otha Peters LB 6-0 235 25 Louisiana-Lafayette
Jarnor Jones LB 6-3 210 24 Iowa State
Bryan Schor QB 6-2 215 24 James Madison
Jalen Simmons RB 5-8 205 27 South Carolina State
Larry Rose RB 5-11 195 23 New Mexico State
Marquell Cartwright RB 5-8 203 NA North Carolina A&T
Dom Williams WR 6-2 200 26 Washington State
Garrett Johnson WR 5-11 175 23 Kentucky
Rasheed Bailey WR 6-2 200 25 Delaware Valley State
Evan Clark WR 5-10 190 23 St. John’s
Tim Wilson WR 5-9 170 25 East Stroudsburg
Kenny Walker WR 5-9 188 25 UCLA
Dennis Parks WR 6-0 200 24 Rice
*At least 16 more players to be added Wednesday