Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mid-February Roster Analysis: Winnipeg Blue Bombers Running Backs and Receivers

This is the 2nd post in our 6 part series analyzing the Blue Bombers roster as of mid-February.  Our focus in this post, running backs and receivers.

Players under Contract (as of February 18, 2014):

59 (24 non-imports, 35 imports)
16 open roster spots (75 max in off-season, 68 plus non-counters can be brought to training camp).

2014 Draft Picks:

Round          Overall
1                   2
3                   20
3                   26
4                   29
6                   47
6                   48
7                   56

Running Backs:

Not much to discuss here...might have to revisit this one.

Currently the Bombers have 3 non-imports under contract.

Carl Volny (5'10 210 26) is heading into his 4th season as a Blue Bomber, and is the only tailback currently under contract.  He has seen limited action on offence in his career, 37 carries for 160 yards (4.3 average) and 6 receptions for 40 yards.  Volny is a depth player, and not a special teams demon.  Depending on what happens in training camp and how coach Mike O'Shea deploys his DI spots, Volny could find himself on the outside looking in on the 42 man game roster.  Volny is a steady zone runner, gets upfield but is unlikely to break loose for big gains, he's a good pass blocker and has good hands out of the backfield.  He has a tendency to be a little loose when it comes to carrying the ball.  For those of you dreaming of a ratio-breaking NI tailback...keep dreaming.  Volny's upside is Calvin McCarty...but he needs to stay healthy and get an opportunity to fill that role.

Michel-Pierre Pontbriand (6'1 235 31) is also heading into his 4th season as a Blue Bomber.  He has proven to be a useful blocker from both the fullback and tight end positions, and shown some hands when given the opportunity to be a receiver from the backfield (see 2:22). Pontbriand is a special teams captain, and likely to make fast friends with coach O'Shea given his outstanding special teams play.  He's as much of lock for the roster as anyone can be in the middle of February.

Carl Fitzgerald (6'5 240 24) is heading into his second season as a Blue Bomber after being selected by the Blue Bombers in the 3rd round 20th overall in the 2013 CFL Draft.  Fitzgerald caught one pass last season, and made two tackles on interception/fumble returns.  Kind of summarizes the 2013 Blue Bomber season, doesn't it?  Fitzgerald played wide receiver at St. Mary's and is early into his conversion to being a CFL tight end.  We anticipate that he will continue to grow and be a fixture on the Blue Bomber 42 man game roster in 2014, mostly because there aren't many threats to him available in the upcoming draft, and the REDBLACKS are hoarding all the good tight ends (jab #2).


The Incumbents-

Clarence Denmark (5'10 190 28) is heading into his 4th season as a Blue Bomber.  Denmark made the team in 2011, spent one game inactive, got on the active roster due to a Greg Carr injury and has been a fixture for the Blue Bombers ever since.  From there, both the Blue Bomber offence and Denmark have been inconsistent.  Gary Crowton complained that Denmark did not understand how to use the waggle to create separation and stuck Denmark out at field wide receiver.  

In the first half of 2013, Denmark averaged 2 catches for 30 yards per game, mirroring the end of the 2012 season when Crowton took full control of the offence following the firing of Paul Lapolice.  In Denmark's career games not called by Crowton (GNCBC, our first advanced stat?!?), Denmark has averaged 4 catches for 51 yards, which equals a season of 72 catches for 922 yards.  

Those numbers are an accurate representation of Denmark's abilities to this point in his career in my opinion.  He has proven that he is a solid third option in a CFL offence, and an effective tendency breaker with the odd end around/screen pass.  Denmark has highlight-reel hands (literally, but so does Brock Ralph), is effective throughout the route tree and in multiple positions, he can produce from anywhere except from a spot starting 30 yards away from his weak-armed QB (:( Crowton).  

In the 2nd half of 2013 primarily as a slotback, Denmark posted numbers that would project to 81 catches 1242 yards over 18 games as a primary target in Marcel Bellefeuille's offence.  Can Denmark sustain that kind of production as a 2nd option to Nick Moore in 2014?

Cory Watson (6'3 215 30) enters his 5th season as a Blue Bomber after being selected in the 2nd round 9th overall of the 2010 CFL Draft. Watson had a rough start to his career, struggling to find a role in the offence and struggling with his hands.  He was immediately a special teams standout, and although he was doubted by some intelligent people (yours truly ;), Watson has firmly established himself as a top non-import receiver in the CFL.  

The challenge for Watson has been staying healthy enough to capitalize on his abilities and contribute to team success.  As a receiver, Watson can do it all.  He's a big target, the type who can haul down a 40 yard prayer in tight coverage, take a screen pass and do this, go over the middle and make a catch in a tight spot for a first down like this.  His ability to get YAC yards and play a physical game (including run and pass blocking) is his most useful asset, he is the guy who can turn a 4 yard catch into a first down on 2nd and 10.  It could also be his downfall, as Watson has taken more than his share of brutal hits at a stationary target for terrible QB's while standing prone in the middle of the field.  

Watson is a lock as one of Drew Willy's top targets, can he finally play a full season and be a 1000 yard receiver for the Blue Bombers in 2014?

Rory Kohlert (6'2 215 26) is entering his 3rd season as a Blue Bomber and CFLer.  Kohlert has proven himself as an excellent route runner with solid hands.  He's the type who thrives on finding the soft spot in the coverage or running underneath a clearing route, making the grab and moving the chains.  He's not going to wow you with anything but consistency and reliability.  Kohlert took a huge step forward in 2013 and basically stole his spot on the field from two first round picks who were moved to other Western division clubs in 2014.  

The only questions on Kohlert are, where will he line up in our offence in 2014?  And, will Kohlert continue to evolve beyond being an excellent 3rd/4th option in the offence?

Mike Sims-Walker (6'2 215 29) is entering (?) his 2nd season as a Blue Bomber.  Struggled to get on the roster after arriving in a 2013 mid-season airlift, finally got a shot, had an amazing game (8 catches 137 yards) and showed what he can do as a deep threat at WR, re-injured his knee, done for the season.  It has been reported by Kirk Penton of the Winnipeg Sun that Sims-Walker is likely done as a professional football player, although he is still under contract to the Blue Bombers.

Aaron Kelly (6'5 195 28) is entering his 2nd season as a Blue Bomber, 4th in the CFL.  In 3 CFL seasons, Kelly has played in 24 games.  He's a lanky guy with good hands.  Coaches see that, they daydream for a couple seconds, wipe up some drool, see the guy against live competition, and are disappointed.  Kelly is a pure deep threat, an inconsistent one-trick pony.  He's not going to make a big impact running routes into the field because he struggles to get leverage in traffic and his hands are average, but he'll make a big play every couple games on a deep toss to the sideline.  Quite frankly, Kelly should be in no CFL team's plans outside of Ottawa (offer him to Desjardins for the 1st overall pick? ;) as more than an injury replacement.

The New Guys-

Nick Moore (6'2 195 28) is the Bombers prized free agent signing of 2014.  Moore has spent the past 3 seasons with the BC Lions joining their practice roster in October 2010 after spending the 2009 season and part of the 2010 season on the practice rosters of the Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams.  Moore dressed for 5 games in 2011, 8 in 2012, becoming a key target for Travis Lulay down the stretch in 2012.  Moore expanded his role in 2013 with the departure of Geroy Simon, primarily played in the slot and was the Lions leading receiver.  

Nick Moore is a receiver more than an athlete, by that I mean that he excels at route running, how to get the separation he needs through his own route or by settling underneath clearing routes run by his teammates, something he'll do a lot as the Blue Bombers top target. When you watch BC's games from 2013, you see Nick Moore wide-open a lot, not because BC's other receivers were so dangerous that everyone was ignoring Nick Moore, but because Nick Moore is a very good receiver.  Another strength of Moore's game is his effective use of his body in tight coverage to shield the defender from the ball and make the play.  Moore has excellent hands, the body awareness to go up and get passes, as well as hit the turf to grab passes and make grabs while tight-roping the sideline.  While he makes the spectacular grab, he has also shown a tendency as a Lion to make the spectacular drop on routine plays.   

Where will Moore line up as a Blue Bomber?  Will he play slot, or will he play the boundary wide receiver spot vacated by Chris Matthews?

Jordan Brescacin (6'3 185 25) was the leading receiver in CIS football in 2012, posting 68 catches 979 yards and 8 touchdowns in 8 games, showing a more well-rounded game as opposed to his early CIS years as primarily a deep threat.  He broke Andy Fantuz single season and career records for receptions in the OUA...yet he went undrafted in 2012 behind the likes of Ismael Bamba, Johnny Aprile and/or Giovanni Aprile, whichever one was the receiver.  As we've seen recently with undrafted guys like Kohlert vs high draft picks like Etienne and Poblah, that doesn't matter a whole lot when it comes to being a productive CFL player.  

Brescacin posted a 4.67 40 with an good 10 yard split of 1.60, so he's not slow off the line.  His vertical was 34.5' which shows that he isn't a great athlete, but he has some explosion from his core and lower body. His shuttle was 4.20, average for a receiver (4.10 under is good), his cone time was 4.88, again low average, each of these drills test agility. So...compared to pro receivers, Brescacin tests low athletically, can he transfer some of that CIS production to the pros and be a useful player for the Bombers? 

Julian Feoli-Gudino (6'1 205 27) is entering his 3rd CFL season, first as a Blue Bomber.  JFG was a 5 year starter at Laval, 2nd all-time in CIS history with 238 catches, two-time All-Canadian.  Can't tell you a whole lot about his qualities as a pro receiver, because he has rarely seen the field on offence with the Argos, he has 2 CFL catches, and outside of the CIS bowl games and Vanier Cup, I only see the odd QUFC on Radio-Canada here in Winnipeg.  JFG suffered a career-threatening broken leg and did not participate in the combine in 2011 and was unable to play football in 2012, yet was still drafted by the Argos in 2011, making one think that he put some things CFL personnel guys like on tape with Laval.  He mostly played special teams for the Argos, stuck for 2 seasons and landed with his former special teams coach in Winnipeg for the 2014 season.  Is JFG in the mix for the Bombers as a non-import receiver, or is he here to play special teams?

Taylor Renaud (6'2 200 26) is entering his 1st CFL season.  He attended training camp with the Bombers in 2013.  Renaud was the top AUS receiver in his last two seasons with Acadia, following an impressive high school career at St. Paul's in Winnipeg.  He participated in the Quebec City regional combine in 2013, posting a 4.83 40, 4.20 shuttle and 34" vertical, all below average among CFL receivers.  Renaud has above average hands and is quick enough to play in the CFL.  His ceiling is not very high, likely a field wideout and special teamer.  

Import Prospects-

Quentin Sims (6'3 210 23) broke Ephraim Hill's Ohio Valley Conference single-season TD record as a senior with 16 touchdowns for the University of Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks.  Transferred from Georgia Tech.  Caught two TD passes from Tim Tebow in the final week of the NFL preseason 2013.  4.62 40, profiles as a big target, deep threat, fade, back shoulder route type likely to compete for the boundary WR spot. Video

Antonio Robinson (6'1 195 28) has bounced around pro football for much of the 2010's.  Couple years on the Packers practice squad, few games in Omaha (with Bomber OC Marcel Bellefeuille), few games with New Orleans in Arena ball.  Another guy who profiles as a deep threat, led FCS (NCAA D1-AA) in yards per catch in 2008 (25.1 ypc), kick returner 19.6 yards per return.  Posted a 4.52 40 at his pro day (2010) and a 4.26 shuttle, which suggests he's got straightaway speed with average agility.

Current Depth Chart-

RB- ?..., VOLNY

WR boundary- *Moore, Sims
SB- *Denmark 
WR field- Kelly, Robinson, RENAUD

*Guys who could play inside or outside

Looking Ahead-

Clearly the Bombers will be adding 3-4 import tailbacks to the training camp roster.  We'll discuss those guys when they sign.  Will Ford remains a possibility to re-sign and compete for the job if he gets his salary expectations into the reasonable range.  Don't see Chad Simpson returning to Winnipeg, we'll be nice like Kyle Walters and say due to injury.

The two WR spots are huge question marks.  We have good slot receivers of both nationalities.  Kohlert, Denmark and Moore have also played WR in the CFL.  I could see a scenario where Denmark and Moore sort of platoon between the boundary WR and a slot position as two of the top three targets for Bomber QB's.  My personal preference is to have that big target, fight for the ball down the flank type of boundary wide-out who can still run a hard dig or slant and make plays coming into the field as well as being a deep threat, like a Derick Armstrong, Greg Carr (when he wanted to), Chris Matthews (to a lesser extent).  Sims looks like that type of prospect.  To me, Kelly has already proven he's not up to the gig.

We currently have 4 NI receivers under contract, we're likely to start 2 (Watson, Kohlert).  That means we'll dress at least 3 NI receivers with Pontbriand/Fitzgerald substituting for a NI receiver when they enter the game on offence.  There is a golden opportunity here for guys like Feoli-Gudino, Brescacin and Renaud to earn a roster spot, based on their play as both receivers and special teamers.

I expect Kyle Walters will add 4-5 more receivers between import prospects and the draft/NI's before training camp, a couple of the imports being boundary WR types.

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