Free agency, an early headache for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last season, could cost them again in 2013, but at least some key players coach Tim Burke wants back seem inclined to say yes.
The Canadian talent pool and defensive and offensive lines suffered last season with the loss of Don Oramasionwu to Edmonton and Brendon LaBatte to Saskatchewan.
Now, seven members of Winnipeg’s defence are poised to hit the market Feb. 15, unless they sign again with the Bombers.
They are defensive backs Jonathan Hefney, Deon Beasley and Johnny Sears, linemen Jason Vega, Bryant Turner and Fernand Kashama, plus linebacker Marcellus Bowman. Only Beasley isn’t a starter.
Sears is on Burke’s list of speedy backs who can hit that he would like to retain. He has his eye on him for the strong-side linebacker spot, also know as SAM, that was hard to fill this season.
“I really liked the way Johnny Sears played there, I hope we get him back,” Burke said.
Sears, with a team-high three interceptions in 2012 and sixth in tackles, fits the mould that Burke sees as a recipe for success on defence.
The feeling is mutual.
“The locker-room here is great,” Sears said on the weekend.
“It won’t be hard for me to come back and try to keep things going and make that push for the Grey Cup next year.”
He didn’t rule out taking a look at the NFL, but he also has to wait to see if a knee injured late in the season might need surgery.
“That’s one of my dreams [the NFL], from when I was a little kid, but at the same time I’ve got to be smart about my decision.”
He’s okay with playing SAM, although it might not be his first choice, and suggested he wouldn’t wait until Feb. 15, the date when he would become a free agent, to make his decision.
Burke knows they might not hold everyone. Hefney, who led the Bombers with his 74 tackles in 2012, has already said he wants to see if there’s any interest from the NFL.
After a breakout 2009 rookie season in Winnipeg, he was signed by the Detroit Lions. But after a preseason appearance and two weeks on their practice roster in 2010, he was back with the Bombers.
“It’s not a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination,” Burke says of the odds he’ll get everyone he wants back. “There might be one or two that slip away but, certainly, we’re going to make an effort.”
Vega, with five quarterback sacks this season, 40 tackles and a forced fumble, suggests he wants to stay with the Bombers.
“I’ve grown to love the community and the support that we’ve had and the familiarity we’ve had with the coaches,” he said as he cleaned out his locker on the weekend.
“We obviously need to bring in a defensive co-ordinator, hammer out some coaching situations and see what’s best for me and what’s best for the team.”
But he doesn’t think that is going to an impediment.
“I’d like to think I can work with a lot of people.”
Burke was defensive co-ordinator until he was thrust into the head coaching job mid-season, after Paul LaPolice paid the price for Winnipeg’s stumbling start.
He was confirmed as the head coach for 2013 on Nov. 1 and is looking for a replacement that shares his philosophy that speed is what counts on defence.
Casey Creehan’s name has been bandied about but he’s locked to the Ticats unless they cut him loose. He spent a couple of seasons in Winnipeg as linebackers coach before going to Hamilton.
Receiver Clarence Denmark, quarterback Justin Goltz and running backs Chris Garrett and Carl Volney are the free agents on offence.
An Achilles tendon injury in practice snuffed Garrett’s plans to return as Winnipeg’s starting tailback in 2012 and he watched as rookie Chad Simpson racked up 1,039 yards.
Now he’s just waiting another couple of months until he finishes rehab and is anxious for next year’s training camp, so he can challenge Simpson and “show everybody that I’m the same player I was before, maybe better.”