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.