The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were twice scorned in their search for a new quarterback this offseason, but the third time proved to be the charm. After being passed over by both Zach Collaros (who signed with Hamilton) and Henry Burris (who went to Ottawa), Winnipeg managed to nab Drew Willy Thursday. They picked him up in advance of his pending free agency thanks to general manager Kyle Walters swinging a deal with Saskatchewan, sending Canadian receiver Jade Etienne to the Riders for the rights to Willy, then quickly signing Willy to what's reportedly a two-year extension. This works out very well for Saskatchewan, who picked up a talented Canadian player, a Regina native and a former first-round draft pick in Etienne in exchange for a player who likely wasn't coming back once he hit free agency, and it could also work out for the Bombers, as they avoided the perils of potentially missing out yet again and managed to land a starting quarterback. However, a lot depends on how Willy plays in blue and gold; he has substantial upside, but he's much more of an unproven commodity than Winnipeg's previous quarterback targets.
It's easy to see why the Bombers wanted Willy. The team still needed a starting quarterback, as there didn't appear to be much internal faith in last year's season-ending starter Max Hall or the other two quarterbacks currently on the roster (Justin Goltz and Levi Brown), and Willy looked like the best option left on the market. A case can be made for Kevin Glenn, the former Bomber who now appears somewhat expendable in Ottawa following the Redblacks' acquisition of Burris, but Glenn has been more solid than spectacular in recent years, and he's 34; Willy's only 27.
Willy has also shown impressive potential when he has played. He had a solid college career at the University at Buffalo and had several stints in the NFL and UFL before coming to Saskatchewan in 2012, and he's filled in admirably for Darian Durant when asked. His total CFL stats over his two seasons are solid, including a 68.7 per cent completion mark, 1,182 passing yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions and a 99.1 per cent passer rating. With a lot of last season's top backup quarterbacks already gone (Collaros to Hamilton, Glenn to Ottawa, Thomas DeMarco to Ottawa, Bo Levi Mitchell staying in Calgary, Troy Smith staying in Montreal), Willy was one of the most interesting candidates left. Swooping in, acquiring and extending him in advance of free agency to ensure they got their man seems smart by the Bombers, and they didn't give up a ton; while the team took Etienne fourth overall in the 2011 CFL draft, that was under former general manager Joe Mack, and he hasn't figured all that much in their offensive plans thus far.
Despite this trade's benefits for the Bombers, this could be a even better deal for Saskatchewan. It seemed highly unlikely that Willy was coming back to the Riders as a clear backup to Darian Durant, especially if there was a better opportunity for him to start elsewhere, so turning his rights (which only would have been worthwhile for a few more days, as the league's free agency date has changed to Tuesday, Feb. 11) into a 24-year-old non-import receiver who's a former first-round pick is pretty impressive. Yes, Etienne didn't have a great career in Winnipeg, only recording 20 catches in his three seasons with the club, but 19 of those came last season, suggesting he's trending up. He also has a career average of 13.8 yards per catch, making him a decent mid-range to deep threat. Etienne is a Regina native too, and he played CIS football at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon (where he was a first-team All-Canadian in 2010 despite only playing in seven games), so there's an excellent chance he could turn in to yet another hometown success story for the Riders. Thus, although Winnipeg gets the higher-profile player here, Saskatchewan loses next to nothing and could make a nice potential gain if Etienne works out.
Keep in mind that Willy isn't sure to be a success in Winnipeg, either. He has just 147 career passing attempts over his two seasons, which isn't a lot: 13 CFL quarterbacks tossed more passes than that last season alone. Small sample size definitely has to be factored into his numbers to date, and while that doesn't make him a lousy quarterback, it does make him an unproven one. Given how important experience is for CFL quarterbacks, that could be problematic. Moreover, while he played well in relief (against Winnipeg, to boot), he struggled when he did get a chance to start last season. Signing Willy could work out very well for the Bombers, to be sure, and this certainly looks like a risk worth taking given their lack of other solid quarterback options, but it is a gamble. We'll see if it pays off for them.