TORONTO — Dalton Schoen has a tough act to follow this season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The six-foot-one, 218-pound receiver took the CFL by storm in 2022. The 26-year-old American immediately clicked with Bombers starter Zach Collaros, emerging as the league's leading receiver (70 catches, 1,441 yards and 16 TDs) en route to being named its top rookie.
Collaros followed suit, being named the CFL's outstanding player for a second straight season.
The only blemish on their stellar seasons, though, was Winnipeg losing 24-23 to the Toronto Argonauts in the Grey Cup game. However both return as the Bombers chase a fourth straight championship berth and third victory.
Opposing defences will certainly be very well aware of where Schoen is on the field this season however he won't be their lone concern. Winnipeg native Nic Demski registered career highs in catches (64), yards (772) and TDs (10) and running back Brady Oliveira, also of Winnipeg, ran for over 1,000 yards.
An already potent Bombers offence will be bolstered by the return of receiver Kenny Lawler, who helped Winnipeg win consecutive Grey Cups (2019, '21) before spending last season with the Edmonton Elks. However, Lawler starts the season on the suspended list pending resolution of matters related to a 2021 off-field incident, the team announced.
Here's a look at other players — excluding quarterbacks — worth watching this season. They include:
— Eugene Lewis, Edmonton. The Elks made a huge splash in free agency, signing the all-star receiver to a two-year deal reportedly worth $320,000 annually, which would make Lewis the league’s highest-paid non-quarterback. The six-foot-one, 208-pound Lewis earned CFL all-star honours last season after registering 91 catches for 1,303 yards and 10 TDs while being named the East Division’s top player. Lewis spent his first five CFL seasons with Montreal, recording 276 catches for 4,347 yards and 28 TDs in 68 regular-season contests.
— Dominique Rhymes, B.C. The six-foot-four, 215-pound Rhymes was the CFL's second-leading receiver last year with 85 catches for 1,401 yards and 11 TDs, all of which were career highs. Canadian Nathan Rourke (Jacksonville, NFL) might be gone but Rhymes did get playing time with current Lions starter Vernon Adams Jr. last year when Rourke was injured. The Lions' offence will also be missing offensive tackle Joel Figueroa and running back James Butler (both Hamilton, free agent) and receiver Bryan Burnham (retired).
— Sergio Castillo, Winnipeg. The American kicker re-signed with the Bombers after spending last season with Edmonton, hitting 37-of-44 field-goal attempts and 26-of-29 conversions. In 2021, Winnipeg acquired Castillo before the trade deadline and he scored 18 points in the club's 33-25 overtime win over Hamilton in the Grey Cup. Over his CFL career — which also includes stops with Hamilton, B.C. and Ottawa — Castillo has made 85.5 per cent of his field goals and 90.4 per cent of his converts.
— Jonathan Kongbo, Hamilton. It's been quite the return to the CFL for the Canadian defensive lineman. The Ticats acquired the six-foot-five, 266-pound Kongbo from B.C. just over two weeks after he first signed with the Lions. Kongbo spent last season with the NFL's Denver Broncos. He began his Canadian career with Winnipeg (2019, '21) and was part of two Grey Cup-winning teams. Kongbo, 26, who played collegiately at Tennessee, has 30 tackles and five sacks in 26 career CFL regular-season games.
— Anthony Lanier II, Saskatchewan. The Riders re-signed the six-foot-six, 285-pound defensive lineman to a one-year, $250,000 guaranteed extension that made Lanier the league's highest-paid American defensive player. Lanier, 30, had eight sacks, 19 tackles and two forced fumbles in 11 regular-season games in 2022 and has 32 tackles, nine sacks and two forced fumbles in 21 regular-season contests with the Roughriders.
— Lorenzo Mauldin IV, Ottawa. The six-foot-four, 259-pound defensive lineman was the CFL's top defensive player last year after registering a CFL-high 17 sacks. He became the first Ottawa player to lead the league in sacks since Angelo Snipes (20 in '92) and was one of the few bright spots for the Redblacks (4-14). He had 43 tackles and two forced fumbles, both career highs. And those stats all stand out because over his first two CFL seasons with Hamilton, Mauldin registered a combined 13 tackles and four sacks in 17 games.
— Simoni Lawrence, Hamilton. Injuries limited the veteran linebacker to a career-low nine regular-season games last year and Lawrence's 41 tackles were his fewest since joining the Ticats in 2013. Before last season, the gregarious six-foot-one, 231-pound Lawrence had missed just five games and since 2015 he's been the East Division's outstanding defensive player three times. The 34-year-old American has also been named a CFL all-star on three occasions.
— William Stanback, Montreal. A fractured ankle limited the six-foot, 233-pound Stanback to just 153 rushing yards on 34 carries over five regular-season games last year. In 2021, he led the CFL with 1,176 rushing yards and three TDs on 193 carries (6.1-yard average) in 12 regular-season games. In 2019, he had 1,048 yards (6.2-yard average) and five touchdowns in 14 regular-season appearances. A healthy Stanback would be good news for new Montreal quarterback Cody Fajardo and an offence missing big-play receiver Lewis.
— Andrew Harris, Toronto. The 36-year-old Winnipeg native expects this to be the final season of his Hall of Fame career. The five-foot-10, 216-pound Harris is the CFL's top-rushing Canadian (10,101 yards, 5.3-yard average with 51 TDs) and has finished the last three seasons celebrating a Grey Cup victory (2019 and '21 with Winnipeg, last year with Toronto). Harris ran for 490 yards on 114 carries (4.3-yard average) over eight games before suffering a torn pectoral muscle. Harris returned in time for the East Division final.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press