CFL.ca presents ‘Off-Season Depth Chart’, a series of articles examining each team’s depth chart to date. Note that these are not official team published depth charts, but projections based on league information and analysis.
WINNIPEG – If you look at the roster of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers who played in the 107th Gray Cup and compare it to the starters planned before the 2021 season, you’d be hard pressed to see many differences.
Is it really surprising, however? Of course, GM Kyle Walters wanted to keep most of his champion squad intact. If you were able to make it to the last game of the season and win the coveted trophy, why shake things up? Especially since the team hopes to return this year.
The Bombers were road warriors to end the 2019 campaign, beating the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium in the Western Semi-Final and the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic in the Western Final.
And then they defeated the league’s top team, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, at the Gray Cup in Calgary.
The quarterback who started that game, Zach Collaros, has full control of the reigns leading up to this campaign – especially as down-threatening QB Chris Streveler has moved to the NFL. Collaros has won every game he played with the Bleu et Or in 2019, including the regular season final against the Stamps, both playoff games and the Gray Cup. In those four games, the 32-year-old threw four touchdowns and one interception for 851 yards.
Lucky for him, he’ll have all the receivers he’s been looking for in the Gray Cup back in action this season; Darvin Adams, Rasheed Bailey, Kenny Lawler, Nic Demski, and Drew Wolitarsky are all expected to start.
Adams, the veteran of the receiving corps, was Collaros’ favorite target in the final stretch of the season – he had 105 yards and a touchdown in the Western semifinals against Calgary and 93 against the Riders in the West final. He posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2017 and 2018 and will look to return in 2021.
Andrew Harris will once again patrol as running back for Winnipeg. The 34-year-old has just completed another sensational season running for 1,380 yards and four touchdowns to accompany 529 yards and four majors out of the backfield. The double threat was also named Gray Cup’s Most Valuable Player and Canadian Most Valuable Player.
Protecting Collaros and creating holes for Harris is critical to success, and the Bombers’ offensive line that helped the team win the Gray Cup is almost entirely intact. Guards Drew Desjarlais and Patrick Neufeld and tackles Jermarcus Hardrick and Stanley Bryant will adjust to the same places they did last season. That O-line helped Harris become the regular-season running rushing leader and put Streveler in sixth with 726 yards and tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (12).
Starting center Cody Speller was traded to the Argos this offseason, leaving room for Micheal Couture to likely reclaim that spot.
Without star kicker Justin Medlock, it looks like the Bombers will go with a new pigskin foot this year. 2020 CFL Draft pick Marc Liegghio looks like who will take on the kicking and punt duties for Winnipeg, while Janarion Grant is expected to take on the majority of returns and Mike Benson is expected to be the long snapper for Winnipeg. departure.
When it comes to defense, the top seven remain almost completely unchanged from the team that lifted the Gray Cup in November 2019.
Jackson Jeffcoat, Jake Thomas and Willie Jefferson will line up in their usual positions on the defensive line, but with Drake Nevis bringing his talents to the Toronto Argonauts, there will be a new face in the defensive tackle. Casey Sayles may be a viable option to take over at this location, but expect a battle at camp to see who starts at the post in the opening week of the season.
Expect Jefferson to have another monster year to build on 2019 where he won the MVP after collecting 12 quarterback sacks, two fumble recoveries and six forced fumbles, a high in the league. His 16 knockdowns also led the league and set a record for defensive linemen.
Behind Jefferson and co., Adam Bighill must continue to patrol the middle while Kyrie Wilson remains at WILL and Mercy Mason will likely start as the SAM linebacker.
Things in high school look a little different without interception leader Winston Rose (NFL) and Marcus Sayles (BC Lions). Josh Johnson, who had a trio of interceptions against the Alouettes as a member of Edmonton in the 2019 Eastern semifinal, could reclaim Rose’s former spot for the corner while the running back position. de Sayles will likely be a battle at camp over who is set up to start there.
Brandon Alexander is expected to start safe, as he did in his limited action in 2019 due to injury, while Nick Taylor is expected to line up at half-back and Mike Jones at the corner.
With the pieces in place that helped the Bombers end their championship drought, head coach Mike O’Shea and co. hope to rehearse in December in Hamilton.