They lost out on the Henry Burris sweepstakes but the Winnipeg Blue Bombers didn’t wait long to land another quarterback, acquiring Drew Willy Thursday from the Grey Cup-champion Saskatchewan Roughriders for Canadian receiver and Regina native Jade Etienne.
Winnipeg also signed Willy to an extension, reportedly for two years. He was scheduled to become a free agent next week and will be unveiled by the Blue Bombers on Friday at Investors Group Field.
“Drew is a quarterback we have always thought had very high potential in this league,” said Winnipeg GM Kyle Walters. “He immediately upgrades us at this position and we really look forward to him being a part of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers moving forward.”
But is he a starter who can win regularly, something a team that finished with a league-worst 3-15 record last season so desperately needs?
Playing behind Darian Durant, Willy doesn’t have a lot of experience. He posted a 2-2 record in his two seasons with the Roughriders and, at least on paper right now, is competing for the starter’s job with Max Hall and Justin Goltz.
The six-foot-three, 215-pound Willy was 32-of-52 passing last season for 474 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. He saw more action in 2012, completing 69-of-95 passes for 709 yards, five TDs and four interceptions.
Riders coach Corey Chamblin, named the CFL’s coach of the year Wednesday after leading Saskatchewan to a their fourth Grey Cup title, has praised Willy for his composure.
Willy wasn’t Winnipeg’s first choice. He joins the Blue Bombers after they lost out to the expansion Ottawa Redblacks for the services of free-agent Burris, the CFL’s passing leader last season who was released by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Hall became Winnipeg’s starter last year as the Bombers struggled through a series of quarterbacks and traded veteran Buck Pierce to the B.C. Lions. Goltz, who had been considered by many to be the team’s future, failed to measure up when he finally got his shot.
Willy, 27, is a native of Randolph, N.J., who spent some time in the NFL on practice squads in Indianapolis, Baltimore, San Diego, and New York and played in the UFL with Las Vegas in 2010.
“I am really excited to join the Blue Bomber organization,” he said in a statement. “The support the team gets from the province of Manitoba is remarkable.
“With such a deep history, the fans, the new stadium, and the direction the team wants to go, it’s going to be a great place to play. The people within the organization have shown genuine interest in me, and as a player, you can’t ask for anything more.”
He started two games in 2013, going 1-1. He earned his first CFL win as a rookie in a come-from behind victory at Winnipeg in the Banjo Bowl, where he completed 17-of-23 for 188 yards and a touchdown and ran for another.
Willy played at the University of Buffalo, where he was the most prolific passer in school history, setting records for completions (849), attempts (1,322), yards (8,748), touchdowns (52), total offence (8,639), and completion percentage (64.2).
“He is a quarterback with great promise in our league,” said Danny McManus, himself a Canadian Football Hall of Fame quarterback and Winnipeg’s new assistant general manager and director of U.S. scouting. “Drew has the attitude and determination you look for at the quarterback position.
“He is physically and mentally tough, and can endure the challenges a quarterback faces, day in, and day out.”
Etienne, 24, was an off-the-board first round pick of the Blue Bombers in the 2011 draft and after three CFL seasons had 20 receptions for 276 yards and two TDs.
But he didn’t see a lot of action until 2013 when he had 19 catches for 265 yards and the two touchdowns. Like Willy, Etienne was set to become a free agent next week.