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The Winnipeg Blue Bombers made some of the splashiest moves this offseason, particularly in free agency. They made a whole raft of impressive acquisitions there, including import left tackle Stanley Bryant from Calgary, Canadian linebacker Sam Hurl and Canadian centre Dominic Picard from Saskatchewan (in Picard's case, after the Riders cut him) and Canadian defensive end Jamaal Westerman from the NFL. It's easy to explain why the Bombers are making bold moves; they're hosting the 2015 Grey Cup, and that puts extra pressure on them to field a great team this season that could potentially get there. Spending big in free agency doesn't always lead to the desired result, though.
While Winnipeg may have had the best free agency performance, that doesn't mean they have the best roster. The 2014 season saw the Bombers finish with a 7-11 record, fifth in the West and outside of the playoffs. That wasn't a bad debut for rookie head coach Mike O'Shea, and it was a substantial improvement over the 3-15 mark they posted in 2013, but it illustrates they still have a long way to go to compete with the league's elite. These additions should help, but they won't necessarily be enough.
The Bombers' 2014 deficiencies went beyond just the wins and losses. They allowed 481 points, worst in the league, and conceded 338.6 offensive yards per game, second-worst in the CFL. They particularly couldn't stop the run last season, giving up 135.9 yards per game and 152 rushing first downs, both worst in the league, and 5.9 yards per rush, tied for worst in the league. New defensive coordinator Richie Hall may help there, as his units have often been stout against the run, and additions like Westerman and defensive lineman Ivan Brown (from Toronto) may boost them as well. Still, this defence was so bad against the run in particular last season that even moderate improvement may not be enough.
Another key 2014 issue was the protection for quarterback Drew Willy. Winnipeg gave up a league-high 71 sacks, and there were countless further plays where Willy had no time to set his feet and make a good throw thanks to the opposing pass rush. Bryant in particular should help here, as he's been one of the CFL's best linemen for the last few years, and Picard may also be beneficial if he can prove he can still play at a high level. The line will need to be good at establishing the run too, though; Winnipeg only averaged 84.1 rushing yards per game last season, second-worst in the league. Again, these new faces should help, but there's a long way up.
It's also notable that spending heavily on free agents doesn't always work. An approach that focuses on free agents by definition focuses on veterans, and that isn't always a guaranteed success, as discussed in our Roughriders preview. Yes, CFL experience can be beneficial, but it also comes at the expense of youth. Some of these acquisitions, like the 33-year-old Picard and the 30-year-old Westerman, carry risks; if they can prove they can still play at a high level, great, but older players are sometimes more susceptible to injuries. Westerman in particular is an interesting boom-or-bust case; he has great skill, as his five-year NFL career shows, but he's adapting to a new league, a new set of rules and a new position (defensive end instead of linebacker). Maybe he'll wind up shining, or maybe the Bombers will wish they kept a younger and yet more-proven option like Jason Vega.
The April release of Vega and long-time Bomber guard Steve Morley is notable, as it shows one of the potential perils of intensive free agent spending. That money doesn't come from thin air (unless your team was spending dramatically less than the cap in the first place, which Winnipeg may have been); it usually is drawn from what you would have given to other players. If your moves turn out to be upgrades, great, but you've now brought in guys who have to adjust to a new system instead of hanging on to players already familiar with it, and you've likely paid a high price for them (as you're bidding against an open free market). Thus, going big on free agents doesn't always work out.
This Bombers' roster does look somewhat better than last year's, even with the losses, and it's not hard to see this team taking a step forward. If they can offer more protection for Willy, a better ground game and a better run defence in particular, they should put up more wins. It may be a little optimistic to start pencilling them in for a hometown Grey Cup appearance, though, especially in a division with impressive teams like Calgary and Edmonton. Improvement is certainly possible, but improvement of that magnitude doesn't seem like the most probable outcome.
Prediction: 9-9, fourth in West via tiebreaker, crossover to East, win in divisional semifinal, loss in divisional final
Stay tuned for more 55-Yard Line season previews.