Winnipeg entered last season fresh off three straight below-.500 years looking for modest improvements. Then Swaggerville happened and the Blue Bombers’ goals changed. Winnipeg’s self-proclaimed Swaggerville defence created a league-wide buzz in 2011, leading the Bombers to a first-place finish in the East Division and all the way to the Grey Cup Final before ultimately falling to the B.C. Lions.
|Last year's Mayor of Swaggerville tied for the league lead in sacks last year with 13.
The Blue Bombers’ used the off-season to determine the core players they wanted to move forward with, before locking up as many of them as possible.
On the flip side, Winnipeg also settled on which players whose impact they felt could be replaced by others on the roster, and moved on without them. Most notable among that group were RB Fred Reid and DE Odell Willis.
Reid was coming off a 2010 season where he led the league in rushing with 1,396 yards, but an ACL injury suffered late in the season opened the door for backup Chris Garrett to prove he could handle the job, leading to the release of the newly expendable Reid.
Much like when Reid replaced Bombers great Charles Roberts five years ago, Garrett was supposed to replace the five-year veteran who ends his Bomber career with 4,505 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. But Garrett went down with a season-ending achilles injury so the ball may be in the hands of Bloi-Dei Dorzon.
The self-proclaimed Mayor of Swaggerville, Odell Willis was a team-leader and tied for the league lead in sacks with 13 last year. But as the season wore on, DEs Kenny Mainor and Jason Vega emerged as more integral parts to Winnipeg’s defence – and Winnipeg felt comfortable trading Willis to Saskatchewan for a package of draft picks.
Winnipeg also lost a group of players they surely would have liked to have back this season, among them OL Brandon LaBatte and DT Doug Brown.
LaBatte spent the first four years of his career anchoring the offensive line in Winnipeg, but the Weyburn, Saskatchewan native decided to head home and sign with the Roughriders as a free agent.
Brown retired after 11 seasons as a fixture on the Bombers’ defensive line. The non-import fan favourite retired as a seven-time CFL All-Star, and the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian in 2001. Brown was also named runner-up as CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2008.
Other notable departures include OL Obby Khan (retired), LB Joe Lobendahn (released), WR Greg Carr (free agent), and DT Donald Oramasionwu (free agent).
The Blue Bombers had a surprising second year under head coach Paul LaPolice that saw the gold and blue climb to the top of the East Division powered primarily by their ferocious defensive unit.
And no matter what moniker – if any – they decide to give themselves this year, Winnipeg’s defence should return a top unit.
|Last year's Most Outstanding Defensive Player, Johnson returns in 2012 with a new contract.
After some tense back-and-forth between player and team this off-season, as outlined on Jovon Johnson’s Twitter timeline, last year’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player signed a contract extension in late March ensuring the DB shows up happy and ready to lead one of the league’s top units once again in 2012.
Up front on defence, it would appear the Bombers lost some punch – at least on paper with the trade of Willis and Brown’s retirement – but Winnipeg has players that seem set to emerge as new impact performers on the defensive line.
Mainor and Vega will need to continue their upward trajectory to ensure the Bombers’ defence doesn’t miss a beat. The duo combined for 15 sacks as rookies last season and looked to have gotten stronger as the year went on – six of Vega’s seven sacks came after Labour Day.
But while Swaggerville was one of the top units in the league last year, Winnipeg’s offensive numbers were in the bottom half of league rankings. The Blue Bombers were fifth in league scoring, averaging 24 points per game, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the blue and gold offence last year.
Buck Pierce used last season to cement himself as the quarterback in Winnipeg. Pierce didn’t have the stats to match the top QBs in the league, but the veteran always seemed to find a way to win, with his gutsy play endearing himself to Bomber fans.
Injury is always a concern with Pierce however; a big reason why Winnipeg made it a priority to lock up competent backups Alex Brink and Joey Elliott before free agency, should they be needed to fill in.
In the running game, Garrett is now the unquestioned man and after acing his late-season tryout a year ago, there’s optimism in Winnipeg over what he can do over the course of 18 games.
Terrence Edwards was another of the Bombers’ core players locked up long-term in the off-season. The seven-year CFL veteran was named an East Division All-Star as Pierce’s favourite target in 2011.
What’s clear is Winnipeg is content sticking with their original plan moving forward. The Bombers made it a priority to lock up as much of their homegrown talent as possible in the off-season, rather than find new pieces on the open market.
A further sign that things are likely to stay the same in Winnipeg: both LaPolice and GM Joe Mack received extensions to continue building the team in their vision.
Winnipeg’s strength lies in its defence, but this year the focus should be on getting more output from the offence, taking pressure off the D. If the defence can maintain a similar level of high play, and the offence can stay healthy and grow on positive signs gleaned from last year’s campaign, the Bombers have a formula for another successful season.
||OL Tyson Pencer
||WR Johnny Aprile
||DL Christo Bilukidi
||LB Rene Stephan
||DL Jake Thomas
Winnipeg traded for the third-overall pick prior to the draft, but when their first target – Jabar Westerman - came off the board one pick before, they contently settled on Plan B.
The Bombers were looking to get bigger across the offensive line this off-season and with that in mind, selected hulking OL Tyson Pencer from Washington State.
The 6'8 330-pound Pencer falls into the high risk, high reward category after missing last season at Washington State for academic reasons. Pencer will start out as a guard, but the Bombers think he could one day move outside to tackle.
The trade left the Bombers without another pick until the third round, when they took Queen's WR Johnny Aprile and Georgia State DE Christo Bilukidi, who was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the NFL Draft weeks before.