Kyle Walters has no doubts the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will have their offensive leader back when they open training camp.
The Winnipeg GM was in Florida on a recent family vacation and visited with quarterback Drew Willy, who missed most of last season with a right knee injury. Walters said he watched the Bombers' starter work out effectively without a knee brace.
"He's healthy and ready to take this organization to the next level," Walters said Thursday during a telephone interview. "Which for us is he's going to get us into the playoffs and fight for Grey Cups."
Winnipeg was 3-3 when Willy fractured his shinbone and partially tore the posterior cruciate ligament in a 38-8 loss to Hamilton on Aug. 9. Losing Willy was catastrophic to the Blue Bombers, who dropped 10 of their final 12 games to miss the CFL playoffs.
A silver lining to Willy's injury was Walters' acquisition of veteran Matt Nichols from Edmonton. Nichols went 2-5 as the Bombers' starter, completing 61.2 per cent of his passes with 10 TDs and seven interceptions before re-signing this off-season.
Having Willy and Nichols in tow is a definite boost for the Bombers but it's a healthy Willy who gives them their best chance for success. And time is of the essence for Walters and head coach Mike O'Shea, who are both in the final year of their contracts.
"We're comfortable going into this year having two guys we think can win football games," Walters said. "But Drew Willy has led us to victories and when he's played we've certainly won our fair share.
"It's important keeping him healthy and upright and playing 18 games if we want to have a chance to win."
Winnipeg had trouble protecting the quarterback last season, allowing 59 sacks, second only to Saskatchewan (65). Walters signed veteran Canadian centre Jeff Keeping in free agency but plans to use the CFL draft (May 10) as well free-agent and mini-camps to find other capable offensive linemen.
"We'll have 12, 13, 14 (offensive linemen) in training camp . . . and see how it sorts itself out," Walters said.
Two players who won't be competing for jobs in Winnipeg are receiver Clarence Denmark and defensive lineman Bryant Turner. The five-year veterans were released Wednesday, both casualties of the CFL's $5.1-million salary cap.
Walters was active in free agency last month signing Keeping, defensive linemen Keith Shologan and Euclid Cummings, running backs Andrew Harris and Pascal Lochard, receiver Ryan Smith and kicker/punter Justin Medlock. Prior to the free-agent deadline, Walters added veteran receiver Weston Dressler after he was released by Saskatchewan.
In a salary-cap world, Walters said the harsh reality is when players are added, others must go to maintain financial balance.
"Unfortunately, that's the brutal reality of our line of work," he said. "When you're not winning football games the guys with high price tags, particularly Americans, are the ones scrutinized from a salary-cap standpoint."
Walters said he tried to trade Denmark and Turner but couldn't finalize deals for either. Walters added compounding matters was both were due bonuses prior to the start of training camp, making it financially challenging to allow them to return and compete for their jobs.
"There's a fine line between doing right by the player and trying to do right by the organization," Walters said. "Their contract structure made it impossible to bring them to training camp.
"There wasn't going to be a trade done today, tomorrow, a month from now or two months from now so it seemed the best thing for those guys was to give them a shot to get a contract in place."
One player Walters isn't banking on this year is linebacker Andy Mulumba. Winnipeg selected the former Montreal resident No. 2 in the 2013 draft before he cracked the Green Bay Packers' lineup as an undrafted rookie.
The six-foot-three, 260-pound Mulumba is currently a free agent after Green Bay decided against tendering him a contract. But Walters said Mulumba wants to exhaust all of his NFL options before considering the CFL.
"I think if you don't see him signing before training camp they (Mulumba's camp) are going to see it through the whole year to see if an injury comes up," Walters said. "They're in no rush to come here."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press