On the second day of free agency, the Montreal Alouettes inked Canadian defensive tackle Jabar Westerman to a three-year deal, spelling the end of any hopes of the Winnipeg Football Club landing the younger brother of Bombers’ pass-rushing specialist, Jamaal Westerman.
The Bombers recently released veteran Canadian nose tackle Keith Shologan before free agency, likely due his remarkably expensive salary of $175,000 annually. Having made this transaction without a set replacement in place, the Bombers seriously needed to land Westerman in free agency, as the former BC Lion was the only proven Canadian interior defensive lineman on the market that the Bombers had a chance to afford. Due to other teams raising Westerman’s value, the cap-pressed Bombers were out-bid early in negotiations, and on Wednesday morning, the 27-year-old was an Alouette.
The Bombers face quite the conundrum now that neither Shologan, who was also picked up by Montreal, or Westerman are options. They’re without a seventh Canadian starter, and while the club’s Canadian content is mostly quite strong, the roster is really only structured to start a seventh national at defensive tackle or as a third offensive lineman, where Patrick Neufeld, who proved in 2015 that he’s a serviceable option at right tackle or guard, would disassemble an excellent offensive line in 2016 thanks to three international starters.
Considering the risk the Bombers took in releasing Shologan at the time they did, as well as the fact that they backed out of negotiations with Westerman, it’s clear the club is confident in the abilities of Jake Thomas, a five-year veteran, to possibly step up as the team’s seventh Canadian starter. Although the Bombers will likely take an interior defensive lineman early in the draft – I believe they’ll use the first overall pick to select UCLA NT Eli Ankou – there’s an increasingly solid chance that Thomas will be thrusted into a starting role in 2017.
Walters and O’Shea are playing with fire here. While free agent signee Drake Nevis will start at Shologan’s now-vacated nose tackle position, the team’s quality of play from Canadian interior defensive linemen will likely steeply decline with Thomas at defensive tackle.
While quite over-paid at $175k, Shologan was fairly solid in 2016. As a run-stopper, Shologan was a consistently gap-sound player that flashed a lot of veteran-savvy in his attempt to maintain position in defending his gap. He could anchor against double-teams and, as a defensive lineman in a one-gap system, took advantage of his freedom, if you will, to shoots gaps. He did leave some plays in the backfield due to tackling issues, but it did not appear as though age affected his run-stopping capabilities.
Thomas, meanwhile, struggles in this area. He’d be much better suited as a second-down pass-rusher in a 4-man rotation, but seeing as the Bombers only dressed three interior defensive linemen per game in 2016, Thomas needed to be an every down player.
Thomas lacks a lot of fundamentals in playing the run. Most notably, he struggles with getting his head up and locating the ball-carrier, and lacks some of the fundamental strength to withstand both down-blocks and double-teams. (In a three-man rotation, Thomas also had to play a some nose tackle, which naturally draws more double teams). He’s slow off the line, and is not able to routinely get in a position to stack blockers, locate the ball-carrier, shed the block and make the play. The below GIF is one of many examples of Thomas giving up ground as a run-defender. While it’s LB Khalil Bass who did not fill his gap responsibility – he got stuck on the outside shoulder of the left tackle – the result of Thomas, who’s responsible for the A-gap here, giving up ground widens the B-gap far too much, creating a monster hole for Ottawa RB Mossis Madu to run through for the easy score.
As a pass-rusher, Thomas has one move only: a funny looking, but extremely effective bull-rush. Walking the guard five steps into the backfield, Thomas is routinely able to create interior pressure on the quarterback. While it’s undeniably effective, the process of the making of this bull-rush if, well, unorthodox, to say the least.
Thomas seems to use his slow get-off to his advantage, creating a large distance between he and the guard, almost as a running start. He then closes quickly with short, quick steps. Thomas wins with excellent hand placement and uses tremendous leverage, keeping his feet moving through contact and the strength he does possess to power through. Because he gets out of stance, lowers his head and powers into the offensive lineman on rushes in passing-situations, Thomas doesn’t really see what’s happening in the backfield, which takes away clean-up sack opportunities. Having really only one pass-rush move is, of course, a huge disadvantage, but while the process is odd, Thomas’ bull-rush is, as mentioned, undeniably effective.
While a below-average pass-rushing nose tackle league-wide, Shologan is still better in this regard than Thomas, even if not by much. He can do a couple different things, but typically uses basic power moves to shed blocks in attempt to penetrate. Shologan pushes the pocket decently well, too.
His sack numbers, however, drastically dipped from seven in 2015 to merely two in 2016. This can likely be attributed to Shologan being moved along the line a lot more in Ottawa, whereas in Winnipeg, he only aligned as a three-tech approximately once every 9 snaps. Playing almost exclusively at nose tackle means Shologan rarely drew one-on-one match-ups, either being quickly chipped first or double-teamed altogether.
It’s clear the Bombers wanted less of a robot at nose tackle and more of a play-maker. O’Shea and defensive coordinator Richie Hall are probably willing to sacrifice some technique in the middle for an athlete with a larger pass-rushing repertoire, who’s able to pull off moves like Lions’ Mic’hael Brooks’ club move with some consistency.
The Bombers got their guy in Nevis. Unfortunately, though, while they improved at nose tackle, the quality of Canadian interior defensive line play, which the Bombers have – and likely will continue to – rely on has steeply declined.
In losing Shologan and missing out on Westerman, the Bombers are now forced to choose between to rather unfavorable scenarios in deciding how they’ll meet the required amount of Canadian starters.
O’Shea and Walters have clearly placed a lot of eggs in Jake Thomas’ basket – I’d probably consider it a blind leap of faith – and will need surprising results to avoid criticism for a mid-February move of releasing Keith Shologan.