WINNIPEG — Kyle Walters doesn’t need a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas.
The newly extended Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager told reporters Wednesday he expects a challenging off-season putting the pieces together for next year’s CFL roster.
He also admitted there’s an unknown right now when it comes to keeping offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce.
Reports this week have pointed to Pierce and Toronto defensive co-ordinator Corey Mace as the final candidates interviewing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ head-coaching vacancy.
“We’re a year older now and I think this will be a more-challenging off-season than in years past because of the transition and the potential loss of Buck,” said Walters, who signed a two-year extension this week.
“If Buck ends up leaving, that’s another piece that needs to be added and getting familiar with whoever that may be if Buck leaves.”
He’s crossing his fingers an answer is around the corner.
"Hopefully sooner rather than later that Saskatchewan can make their decision and get rolling because the domino effect, one layer or another, will have to follow up with those decisions," Walters said.
Walters has been Winnipeg's GM since being promoted from assistant coach and assistant GM in November 2013.
He said assistant GM and director of U.S. scouting Danny McManus and senior assistant GM and director of player personnel Ted Goveia also signed extensions through 2025, when Winnipeg hosts the Grey Cup.
The trio has crafted teams that have appeared in the past four Grey Cup games. Winnipeg won in 2019 and 2021, but lost 24-23 to Toronto in 2022 and 28-24 to the Montreal Alouettes on Nov. 19.
That group, along with head coach Mike O’Shea and his assistant coaches, will soon meet and map out a roster plan that takes into account various factors.
“You study the performance of a player and you have to assume, try to predict how they’re going to be next year,” Walters said. “You speak with your medical staff at length about guys.
“And salaries have a lot to do with it, too. Generally, the older guys, rightfully so, are making more money. … It’s an individual-by-individual basis. That will be interesting discussions over the next few weeks.”
The CFL salary cap is increasing next season to $5.525 million from $5.45 million per team. That’s an extra $75,000 Walters has to play with, which he described as “fairly minuscule.”
Players will look for raises, particularly pending free agent Brady Oliveira. The running back led the CFL in rushing with 1,534 yards and was the league’s top Canadian and finalist for most outstanding player.
Oliveira said at the end of the season his agent will seek tryouts with NFL teams, but he’d return to his hometown team if the core group is back and he earns what he deserves.
Star receiver Dalton Schoen may try again to connect with an NFL club, but would be a coveted CFL free agent.
Walters will be ready to make his pitches whenever the time comes.
“You put a plan together with what you think is a fair offer and every time the agents think vastly differently,” Walters said. “So, it’s quite a process, particularly with the high-end guys who deserve to explore the market value and they’ve earned the right to capitalize financially on their success.”
Winnipeg’s entire starting offensive line are pending free agents and range in age from 29 to 37-year-old perennial all-star tackle Stanley Bryant.
The men in the trenches will be a priority, Walters said.
“We kind of pride ourselves on starting with the offensive line, so I’m sure that will be the first point,” he said. “We’ll make sure we’ve got a good group. We’d like to bring them back and we’ll start that process, too. “
O’Shea told reporters earlier this week that a couple players are considering retirement, but didn’t point to anyone in particular.
Walters is willing to wait a bit and find out.
“The loss (to Montreal) was so emotional that I think a lot of guys talked and were upset and made some statements or let it be known that (retirement) could potentially be an option,” he said.
“I think the best thing is to let things settle down for a month, take a deep breath and revisit guys with what’s their plan and what are we thinking for next year.”
Although he only got his contract extension this week, Walters doesn’t think the delay has had an impact.
“Once we get going and put a plan in place together in regards to who’s coming back, who we can afford, what the coaches’ input is, we’ll get her rolling and just keep going.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023.