Stock Market Report: Alouettes at Bombers

The Bombers came out flat in the season opener, falling to the Montreal Alouettes by a score of 22-14. The loss displayed some concerning flaws within this football team that would prevent them from progressing. For a third consecutive season, the question remains the same: Can these flaws be fixed?

It’s that thought that is explored in the first regular season edition of the Bombers’ Stock Market Report.

BLUE-CHIP STOCKS

Photo via Johany Jutras (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)
Photo via Johany Jutras (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)

Chris Randle: Not enough can be said about how good Randle has been in three games (two preseason) since returning to the corner from strong-side linebacker. Albeit in the preseason, he likely had the best half of football of his career in the Ottawa game, and he’s now also won both of his match-ups against Duron Carter in 2016. Randle only allowed one catch from Carter – a quick slant when he was giving a large cushion – and knocked down two go-routes despite being isolated in the boundary versus Carter, who was waggling to the line of scrimmage. Randle also knocked down a 10-yard out from SJ Green, and had an interception near the goal line while jumping Kevin Glenn’s slightly inaccurate throw behind Sam Giguere’s out-route. Given how good the 28-year-old has played in 2016, I almost hope that he remains posted at short-side corner-back when Johnny Adams, one of the league’s top defensive backs in 2015, returns to the lineup. (It’s an entirely new position, but Adams could excel at strong-side linebacker or halfback).

Darvin Adams: I can’t help but notice that Adams’ route-running looks far more refined in his second-season in the Blue & Gold. It’s also clear that’s developed a very strong rapport with Drew Willy, and his role in the offense won’t diminish despite the additions of Weston Dressler, Ryan Smith and Jace Davis. The Auburn product had a terrible second-down drop in the third quarter when his team needed the 1st-down the most, but he still managed to finish with five catches for 105 yards and a touchdown on the night. Adams virtually exposed rookie corner Ethan Davis with countless 12-yard curls that turned the defender around, setting him up for a beautiful, 63-yard touchdown reception inside the three-minute warning. With Adams appearing to be taking the next steps in his progression, the Bombers’ receiving corps is looking extremely promising – it’s just a matter of Drew Willy getting them the ball.

Andrew Harris: Harris proved to be worth every penny in his debut, averaging 6.2 yards-per-carry on 13 carries for 80 yards. Harris’ vision was outstanding, and he also contributed as a receiver, adding six receptions for 40 yards on the night. It’s very clear that Harris is undoubtedly the X-Factor of the offense, as the offense only gained one first-down in the first half (the rest were via penalties) on three carries for Harris. In the second half, however, Harris received 10 carries and the offense got moving, gaining 13 first-downs and scoring 14 points. Harris could be the best running back in the CFL; if he’s productive, the offense will be successful.

SOLID INVESTMENTS:

Patrick Neufeld: Whether it’s John Bowman or Gabriel Knapton lining up in front of them, offensive tackles will have a tough match-up every snap against the Alouettes. But the Bombers’ offensive line had a solid game against a fearsome front-seven, and Neufeld really did hold his own. This was, however, a good match-up for Neufeld, as Bowman and Knapton are both power-rushing technicians, and Neufeld has the technique and the punch to contain the dynamic duo. The real test for Neufeld will come against Saskatchewan, who boast two of best speed-rushers in the league with Justin Capicciotti and Shawn Lemon.

Jace Davis: After a no-catch preseason game in Ottawa, the rookie pass-catcher came as advertised in his first regular season game. While Davis’ five catches for 82 yards in his debut was impressive, he also appeared to do a lot of the little things right. He seemed to recognize the blitz very well, and offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice also had him come into the backfield and pass protect on a couple occasions. Davis’ 36-yard catch on a deep corner route in the fourth quarter was a phenomenal play by the rookie, giving the Bombers’ the late-game spark that they desperately needed.

Quincy McDuffie: Averaging 12.2 yards per punt return, McDuffie certainly did his job on special-teams. Although he wasn’t flawless catching the ball in the air, McDuffie continues to run north-south, keeping his legs moving through contact. The former Ti-Cat broke a 29-yard return in the second quarter that, had it not been for a shoe-string tackle, McDuffie would have brought to the end-zone for six points. That return, coupled with his others on the night, showed the Bombers that they have a legit returner back there in McDuffie.

JUNK BONDS

Photo via Johany Jutras (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)
Photo via Johany Jutras (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)

Drew Willy: Despite a porous defensive showing, this game would have easily been won if Willy was even mediocre – Montreal did everything in their power to keep Winnipeg in the game. Instead Willy was, simply put, garbage. The third-year starting passer had no poise in the pocket, playing with happy feet and not stepping into his throws despite solid pass protection against a stout Montreal front-four. Willy seemed to panic once he caught the snap, staring down his receivers and causing holding penalties for dancing outside of the pocket. Willy was at fault for three or four sacks allowed, and missed big throws to wide open receivers on four occasions as a result of his lack of comfort in the pocket, including a wide open Darvin Adams down the sidelines in the second quarter, which would have went for a touchdown. He’d panic if his first read wasn’t there, checking the ball down in desperation to Andrew Harris. While I do think the Bombers should force-feed Harris the ball in the passing game, it shouldn’t be because Willy won’t go through his progression. The Bomber pivot started to move the offense in the fourth quarter, but many of the same issues were still present down the stretch. Regardless, the Bombers must hope that whatever confidence he gained in the fourth quarter carries over to the Calgary game.

Bruce Johnson: The additions of defensive backs Travis Hawkins and Terrence Frederick speaks volumes to the play the Bombers have received out of their American halfbacks – and it starts with Johnson. Moved to boundary halfback as a result of the departure of Demond Washington, Johnson couldn’t cover air on Friday night. The third-year defensive back struggled mightily against Montreal in the preseason, and those struggles carried over to week one. Kenny Stafford beat Johnson across the middle twice on deep in-routes, while SJ Green beat him twice on fade-routes in the third quarter, with one coming in the end-zone for Kevin Glenn’s lone passing touchdown on the day. Johnson appeared to be the cause of at least one blown coverage, too. Although it’s a tough task for any defensive back to cover against the league’s best receiving corps, Johnson needs to get his game back on track and avoid being 2016’s Demond Washington.

Shayon Green: Green was once again exposed as a run-defender against the Alouettes. He allowed the Alouettes’ ball-carriers to get outside countless times, while also failing to get any pressure as a one-dimensional, athletic pass-rusher. Although Jamaal Westerman also failed to record a sack, he still won his match-ups and disrupted the passer. It was the result of Kevin Glenn getting rid of the ball extremely fast that prevented Westerman from actually sacking Glenn, but his presence was still felt. Green, meanwhile, was too often washed out on his speed rushes. The Bombers, evidently, still have a hole at defensive end; Adrian Hubbard, who’s currently on the practice roster, will get his shot soon.


BUY: The offensive line is coming along. The Bombers’ young offensive line seems to have taken steps forward in their first season together. Stanley Bryant Jr. continues to be quietly solid – costing the team some real estate on a holding and an illegal procedure wasn’t good, though – while Patrick Neufeld seems serviceable at right tackle. Third-year Canadian center Mathias Goossen appears to be the weakest link on the offensive line – he looked at lot like Dominic Picard in pass protection against Montreal – but it’s only his first season as a full-time starter, and his run blocking is certainly developing. The Alouettes have one of the best front-sevens in the league, however the Bombers’ offensive line was still only at fault for two sacks. They could also be one of few teams to have success running the ball against the Birds of Prey.

SELL: Paul Lapolice is a poor offensive coordinator. His game-management needs work – Andrew Harris only received three carries in the first half – but, after a closer look, I really liked what I saw from Lapo’s system in week one. While, as a result of Willy’s disastrous play, it’s hard to criticize Lapolice for the offense mostly failing to attack the Als’ two rookie defensive backs and their veteran, Jovon Johnson, playing out of position at halfback, he called a lot of plays that should’ve helped Willy. Lapolice moved the pocket twice for Willy on half-rolls, and also called back-to-back hitch screens to Dressler and Smith on the second drive of the game. It’s also clear that he understands how to diversify the rushing attack for Andrew Harris to be successful. Lapolice included a healthy balance of the read-option, inside zone, inside split zone, counter and toss plays to give Harris the ball in space. Lapolice must continue to prove himself as a game-planner and a game-manager, but don’t be surprised if he becomes a praised man once Willy gets going.

BUY: The Alouettes are a lethal offense. The Als’ won the game despite throwing a red-zone interception, fumbling near the goal-line and having a touchdown pass to Duron Carter called back. Kevin Glenn and Co. operated like a well-oiled machine in week one, torching the Bombers’ D for 431 yards of offense. While the Bombers’ defense certainly deserves their share of criticism, the Alouettes are going to do that to a lot of other teams this season.

SELL: Drew Willy has permanently regressed. Willy had the worst game of his career. There’s no denying that. But his issues in that game – a lack of poise in the pocket, slow reads and poor accuracy – can be attributed to a lack of confidence. He’s always had some other, deepened flaws, but it’s been proven in the past that those flaws can be compensated for by offensive game-planning and surrounding talent. Some of the issues shown in the Montreal game aren’t permanent, though, as he’s excelled in those areas before. However, I’m not convinced he’s a fit in Paul Lapolice’s system, and it’s hard not to think that the Bombers are over-stressing the idea of hitting his check-downs to avoid hits. Willy must be permitted to be himself.


OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: RB Andrew Harris
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: CB Chris Randle


 

The Bombers are back in action on Friday, July 1st at McMahon Stadium against the Calgary Stampeders.

 

Blue Review: Preseason Holds True as Bombers Fall Flat in Hope-Opener

The Bombers needed this win. It’s only week one, but this was a crucial loss for a Blue Bomber team that has missed the playoffs for four straight seasons.

With an extremely tough schedule ahead, it would have be huge for the Blue & Gold to start the season off right with a win at home before travelling around the country to take on some of the league’s top teams.

Instead the Bombers fell flat on their faces in their home-opener to the tune of 22-14.

1. Legendary former Bomber Doug Brown said it best: Friday night could have been the first time in football history that the preseason was entirely accurate. The Bombers starters were badly outplayed in both preseason games, largely displaying the same inabilities in week one as in both preseason games. Preseason results are typically dismissed because of the usual, but completely valid excuse that the coordinators are rolling out extremely vanilla play-calls in hopes of not showing their cards for when the regular season kicks off. While it’s a legitimate excuse, it does not seemed to have mattered in the case of the Bombers. The Blue & Gold were once again dissected on defense against the pass, while Drew Willy looked uncomfortable in the pocket and Paul Lapolice’s play-calling was, at times, uninspiring.

2. The Montreal Alouettes are under no means as bad of a football team as many think, but they gave the Bombers every chance to stay in this game with costly penalties. But the Bombers really have nothing to show for it except a misleading final score.

2. Despite several huge additions to the team, there are several legitimate concerns to be had with this football club. But I must remind you that it is, indeed, only week one, and the CFL season is terribly long. It would be ridiculous to compare the Bombers to the 2015 Edmonton Eskimos, but Chris Jones’ former team also laid an egg in the first game of their quest to the Grey Cup. The Bombers experienced plenty of turnover in the off-season, and it’s a lengthy process for the coaching staff to assess what they have and manage the game accordingly. So while it’s undeniable that this team appears to have some underlying flaws, it’s not too late to uncover the issues and adjust accordingly.

3. With that being said, Drew Willy needs to rebound in a huge way from now three consecutive poor showings. The third-year passer seems to be regressing in his development as a starting quarterback despite being in the phase where he should be peaking. I almost didn’t even recognize the 29-year-old out there last night. For the first time in his career, I genuinely thought Drew Willy looked scared in the pocket – and I’d usually never say such a thing about a professional football player. He repeatedly stared down his first read and panicked when it wasn’t there. Willy hesitatingly double-clutched several throws, as alarms seemed to be going off in his head the moment he touched the ball. Struggling to throw against pressure is nothing knew to Willy, though. But it was entirely surprising to see him miss so many throws. Willy over-threw three Bomber receivers deep in this game, and all three likely would have went for touchdowns. His wide-open over-throw on Ryan Smith’s corner route late in the fourth quarter would’ve made it a one-score game. (Willy did, fortunately, hit Darvin Adams deep on the next play to cut the deficit to 8 points). Knowing of what Willy is capable of from previous performances, it’s crucial that he re-gains his confidence, a mental element that was evidently lacking in this game and surely affected his accuracy. There’s absolutely still hope for the 29-year-old passer, but it won’t get any easier against the upcoming stout defenses he’s set to face.

4. Both Kevin Glenn and Henry Burris picked apart the Bombers’ starting defense in the preseason. It was no different in the regular season, with Bruce Johnson, Julian Posey and all three of the Bombers’ linebackers suffering in pass coverage. Specifically, Ian Wild and Khalil Bass need to be much better than how they’ve covered in three games so far. Glenn once again attacked the underneath of Winnipeg’s coverage, with Bass and Wild consistently slow at reading and reacting. Bruce Johnson, meanwhile, continues to get beat across his face by Montreal’s receivers, struggling to make plays on the ball in the air. Johnson emerged as one of the league’s top halfbacks in 2015, but SJ Green has certainly had his number in 2016.

5. The Bombers’ secondary was unacceptably burnt twice on blown coverages, first allowing SJ Green wide open behind the coverage for a 39-yard gain, and then allowing Duron Carter to walk into the end-zone in the second half. Although the latter of which was called back due to a holding penalty, this secondary needs to figure it out fast. Thankfully, Johnny Adams presence could seriously impact this defensive backfield once he returns from a lower-body injury.

6. Perhaps the lone bright spot on the Bombers’ defense was, once again, corner-back Chris Randle. I’ve been raving about Randle’s play all through the preseason, and he warranted even more praise with his week one performance. Randle recorded at least three knockdowns on the short-side corner position, also recording a huge interception on a Kevin Glenn pass at the goal line in the first quarter. Randle might be the only defensive back in the league that has Duron Carter’s number, winning both match-ups against the stout pass-catcher in 2016.

7. Rookie defensive end Shayon Green, who controversy won the opening job at defensive end in training camp, was completely exposed as a run defender by Montreal. The Alouettes managed 15.6 yards on three sweep plays to Duron Carter, challenging Green on each one. Green struggled mightily at setting the edge, an absolutely crucial job for defensive ends in the CFL against zone run-clocking schemes. Currently on the practice roster, Adrian Hubbard, meanwhile, it’s best known for his run defense, and it could already be time for the Bombers to make the switch and see what the Alabama product can do.

8. All things considered, the Blue Bombers’ rough offensive line does not deserve much of the criticism that they will receive in the loss. Although the Bombers surrendered five sacks, really only Gabriel Knapton’s third quarter sack was at the fault of the offensive line. The remaining four can be attributed to Willy holding onto the ball for far too long, failing to recognize a halfback blitz from Jovon Johnson, and the fumbled snap late in the fourth quarter – the ultimate salt in the wound.

9. The offensive line also managed to open up some decent holes for Andrew Harris to run through. The Bombers’ outside-zone play was really effective for stretches of the game, and Harris was the Bombers best skill-position play all game long. Despite registering 13 carries and 6 receptions for 120 total yards, he needs to see the ball more going forward. The Bombers running attack registered 6.2 yards-per-carry against an elite Montreal front-7; Harris needs more than two 1st-half carries going forward.

10. Although Paul Lapolice needs to do a better job of balancing Harris’ workload, his play-calling really was a breath of fresh air in many ways. The Bombers’ rushing offense featured a slew of counters, tosses and otherwise well-executed misdirection. They tried to get the sweep play going to Ryan Smith, and also gave Willy a couple of easy completions in the 1st quarter on back-to-back hitch screens to Smith and Weston Dressler – both of which picked up respectable yardage. With that being said, the Bombers failed to take advantage of a patchy Alouettes secondary that featured two rookies and Jovon Johnson at halfback. While Lapolice breathed some life into this unit, it’s undeniable that he left a lot to be desired.

11. With Dressler possibly out for an extending period of time after absorbing a scary head-shot early in the 1st quarter, expect rookie Jace Davis’ work-load to increase tremendously. While Ryan Smith is struggling to find his groove, Davis came as advertised after failing to register a reception in the lone preseason game he played in. Registering five catches on six targets for 82 yards, Davis tracked the ball well in the air and looked smooth in his route-running.

12. With Darvin Adams, Ryan Smith and Jace Davis in the receiving corps, the absence of Weston Dressler cannot be an excuse for Willy in the coming weeks should the Bombers struggle. Although no. 7 is easily the club’s top receiver, the aforementioned international receivers – plus the addition of Thomas Mayo into the starting lineup – is more than a serviceable corps of pass-catchers.

13. Bruce Johnson, who I’ve said a lot of great things about in the off-season, has had an inexcusable start to the 2016 season, both in the preseason and in last night’s game. Whereas Julian Posey and Kevin Fogg were relatively sound in coverage, Kevin Glenn went to work on the third-year field-side halfback. And with Travis Hawkins signed to the practice squad earlier in the week, Johnson needs to feel the pressure to improve.

14. With Chris Randle continuing to impress mightily at boundary corner, could Mike O’Shea and Richie Hall consider moving Johnny Adams to strong-side linebacker once he returns from the 1-game injured list? We’ve yet to seen how Adams performs when his receiver is running full-speed before even crossing the line of scrimmage, but this move would allow Randle to remain relevant at short-side corner and Maurice Leggett to move back to safety, taking Macho Harris out of the picture. This scenario is likely a stretch, but with Travis Hawkins taking over at boundary half-back, the Bombers’ lone rookie in the secondary would be at wide-side corner.

15. It was good to see Darvin Adams pick up right where he left off last season. Although he had a brutal drop late in the third quarter on a second-down play, he once again continued to play noticeable aggressively, fighting off defensive backs in both his route-running and while tracking the ball in the air. His 63-yard touchdown reception just after the three-minute warning was one play that perfectly exemplified the receiver Adams is, something we first truly say last season in week 19 against Ottawa.

16. Mike O’Shea’s special-teams were the best unit today. Quincy McDuffie was undeniably effective as a returner, while the cover-teams did an excellent job at containing one of the best returners in the league, Stefan Logan. Justin Medlock wasn’t great – he missed a 47-yard field goal, had a kickoff go out of bounds, and his punting was not great – but his 58-yarder was something special.

17. Where was Jamaal Westerman tonight? The league’s best Canadian player had an incredibly favorable match-up against second-year left tackle Jacob Ruby, who’s lunch he ate in the preseason, but Westerman was completely invisible. I’d be interesting to see how the Bombers deployed their defensive ends in their game-plan, as the pass-rush  off the edge was non-existent.

18. The Bombers play their next six games against Calgary, Hamilton and Edmonton. This team needs to figure themselves out fast, or the season will be lost before we know it. If the Bombers can reach the Toronto game at 3-4, they’re in good shape for the rest of the season. But that’s a tough task.

Week One CFL Picks: Ti-Cats Ground Argos on Home Turf at BMO Field

Season record: 0-0
Last week: 0-0

Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Toronto Argonauts
Thursday, June 23: 8:00 PM ET

With the arch-rival Ti-Cats in town to open BMO Field in the opening game of the 2016 season, this game has all the makings of an emotional, high-scoring classic. While taking Jeremiah Masoli on the road over Ricky Ray could be breaking the archaic code of Canadian football, Toronto’s defensive backfield is, once again, very inexperienced. Three starters in the secondary from last season won’t be in the lineup, as AJ Jefferson is injured, Devin Smith retired and Travis Hawkins was released. I can’t see that secondary being aided from the defense line, either, as while the Argos spent money in free agency to upgrade their pass-rush, I can imagine a scenario where those signings disappoint. Chad Owens, making his return to Toronto in his first game with the Black & Gold, could have a huge day, as Jeremiah Masoli will hold his own at quarterback with an impressive supporting cast.

Pick: Hamilton

Montreal Alouettes at Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Thursday, June 24: 8:30 PM ET

The Bombers have simply had the Als’ number in recent years. Both secondaries will have two rookies in the starting lineup, while both defenses boast solid front-sevens. The lack of continuity in Montreal’s offense presents a great opportunity for Winnipeg’s starting offense to gain some traction after a shaky season. The Bombers should be able to force Kevin Glenn into some turnovers, too, as Jamaal Westerman and Euclid Cumming should have big days pass-rushing against two young, Canadian offensive lineman – Jacob Ruby at LT and rookie RG Philippe Gagnon. Expect a low-scoring affair that sees Paul Lapolice utilize Andrew Harris heavily as a pass-catcher.

Pick: Winnipeg

Ottawa Redblacks at Edmonton Eskimos
Saturday, June 25: 7:00 PM ET

The Eskimos have underwent some major roster turnover defensively, losing Dexter McCoil, Willie Jefferson and Aaron Grymes to the NFL. Field-side corner John Ojo, meanwhile, suffered a season-ending achilles injury. Mike Reilly will surely have a strong performance, but I’m taking Henry Burris and Co. against a rebuilding Edmonton defense sans Chris Jones in the Grey Cup rematch. The Eskimos’ defense simply won’t be the same unit this season.

Pick: Ottawa

Calgary Stampeders at BC Lions
Saturday, June 25: 10:00 PM ET

The Lions have a good opportunity in week one to make a statement game at home. Second-year quarterback Jon Jennings is expected to continue on his upwards trajectory in his development, potentially asserting himself as a top CFL passer in year two. While I think the Lions will surprise a lot of people this year, it won’t start early against the experienced Stampeders. While undergoing a lot of changes, the Stamps’ had succession plans in place for most of the veteran starters they moved away from – and that includes the transition from Jon Hufnagel at head coach to Dave Dickenson.

Pick: Calgary

AARON LYNETT / THE CANADIAN PRESS
AARON LYNETT / THE CANADIAN PRESS

2016 CFL East Division Preview: East Offenses Poised for Dominance

The East Division appears primed to return to normal in 2016, with high-scoring offenses, middling defense and underwhelming records in comparison to the West Division.

The East is loaded with offensive firepower, as Montreal finally has an established quarterback in Kevin Glenn; Ricky Ray is back at the helm in Toronto;  Ottawa has a great 1-2 punch in Henry Burris and Trevor Harris; and Hamilton will soon see the league’s best pivot, Zach Collaros, return from injury.

As as a result, it should be no surprise that the top-2 teams in my projection anchor their lethal offenses with solid defenses.

READ: 2016 CFL West Division Preview

1. Ottawa REDBLACKS
2015 record: 12-6
2016 projected record: 12-6

trevor harris

The departure of offensive coordinator Jason Maas is obviously a big loss, as he transformed Ottawa’s offense from basement-dweller to record-setter in one season. But the damage could be limited given newly-hired Jamie Elizondo’s belief in Maas’ system, and his willingness to fully adopt it’s principals. Elizondo, of course, had a poor tenure as the Argos’ offensive coordinator in 2010, but he’s since scrapped that offense entirely, instead replicating the same concepts that Maas modernized last season. It was likely for this reason that general manager Marcel Desjardins selected Elizondo as the club’s third offensive coordinator in three years, as Desjardin’s offensive personnel assembled is molded perfectly – and perhaps strictly- to the modern, run-n-shoot offense that Maas installed.

The breakout seasons of Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli had a lot to do with Maas’ system, as while every CFL offense uses run-n-shoot concepts, it seems as though Ottawa’s pass-catchers were given complete freedom in their route-running to make adjustments pending on the coverage. Ellingson, Sinopoli, a former quarterback, and Ernest Jackson are tremendous at adjusting their routes, and given Henry Burris’ experience at quarterback, it’s no surprise that Ottawa’s receivers constantly seemed wide open.

The REDBLACKS lost some key players in the off-season, as right tackle Colin Kelly found employment in the NFL, while defensive ends Justin Capicciotti and Shawn Lemon departed for Saskatchewan. Ottawa also lost Canadian nose tackle Keith Shologan to the Blue Bombers in free agency, however it’s no secret that fifth-year player Zack Evans is more than ready to take on a starting role in Shologan’s absence. Stud defensive back Brandyn Thompson has unofficially retired, and veteran corner-back Jovon Johnson signed with Montreal, but the REDBLACKS had tremendous American depth in the secondary. Forrest Hightower, who was named Ottawa’s Most Outstanding Rookie last season, will step in at boundary halfback, while former UCLA star Brandon Sermons, who had a solid first CFL start at boundary corner in the Grey Cup, will get the nod at field-side corner.

Ottawa has arguably the top secondary in the league, which is also aided by inside linebackers David Hinds and Damaso Munoz’s abilities in coverage. The defensive line, which was a strength for the REDBLACKS last year, has been severely depleted, though. Aston Whiteside is still recovering from a knee injury, while fourth-year Canadian defensive end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, who was signed away from Hamilton in a similar fashion to Sam Hurl last season, will have his first opportunity to be a starter. The club needs a player to step up at right tackle, too – Jake Silas will start the season Kelly’s former position.

Bottom-line: Although there are no signs of 41-year-old Henry Burris slowing down, the REDBLACKS acquired Trevor Harris in free agency to solidify the depth (and future) of a position that needs two good pivots to be successful. Ottawa’s offense should continue to be a dominant force, while the defense is expected to decline, but hold their own for most of the season. Ottawa has a strong nucleus, and should continue to reign atop the East Division.

2. Hamilton Tiger-Cats
2015 record: 10-8
Projected 2016 record: 11-7

gable

Zach Collaros’ injury seems to have over-shadowed the rest of the roster, as this team should be able to hold their own for six weeks without the league’s best quarterback. Jeremiah Masoli has the abilities to maintain Hamilton’s offense at a respectable level, as while he’s greatly improved as a passer, he’ll also have a great supporting cast. With Luke Tasker, Chad Owens, Andy Fantuz, Terrance Toliver, Tiquan Underwood and Spencer Watt, the Cats have one of the league’s deepest receiving corps, while the offensive line is also proven and well-kept. Oh, and the Cats also tend to make huge plays on special-teams quite often, if you didn’t know, with coordinator Jeff Reinebold and return ace Brandon Banks. Momentum and favorable field-position supplied by Banks will do nothing but further aid Masoli.

A big reason for Hamilton’s projected success is their continuity along the offensive line. The only change among the starting group of Hamilton’s offensive line is at left tackle, with Brian Simmons dialed in to start as Jake Olson is on the 6-game injured list. Simmons, however, spent time in 2015 in Hamilton on top of four previous seasons – he has plenty of experience working with the current personnel. Center Mike Filer continues to improve every season, while the tandem of right guard Ryan Bomben and right tackle Jeremy Lewis easily give Hamilton the most athletic guard-tackle duo in the CFL. Those two are freaks, and they both excel in pass-blocking.

There are only really two position groups of concern in Hamilton: the defensive backs and at punter/kicker. Brett Maher beat out Cody Mandell in training camp, but he only made 67-percent of his field goals in 2014 as Ottawa’s full time kicker.

Canadian free safety Craig Butler suffered a season-ending injury in the off-season, while a training camp injury led to the release of Cleshawn Page, who was expected to start for the ‘Cats at boundary corner-back. Penciled in as the field-side corner with Courtney Stephan moving to safety, Demond Washington is on the 6-game injured list. Rico Murray and Johnny Sears will certainly play key roles for this defense at SAM linebacker and boundary halfback, but they are both, unfortunately, quite injury prone.

Hamilton’s front seven, however, is still loaded despite releasing Eric Norwood and losing Brian Bulcke, Bryan Hall and Justin Hickman in free agency to the Toronto Argonauts. Although I’m not sure if John Chick, 33, can still play at a high-level in the latter parts of the season after his body is worn down, he still offers a lot to this pass-rush and deserves respect. At defensive end opposite Chick, I’m a huge fan of the athletic Adrian Tracy – he can play a very versatile role in the defense – and he’ll be aided, of course, by the league’s best nose guard, Ted Laurent. Drake Nevis and Derrell Johnson, the favorites to receive playing time at the three-tech position, both had tremendous preseasons.

Bottom-line: Kent Austin will keep the ship afloat with Jeremiah Masoli for as long as Collaros is recovering from an injured knee. And when the 27-year-old does return to the lineup, the Cats’ offense will be downright lethal, even though they lost a bright football mind in former offensive coordinator Tommy Condell. Boosted from the rare abilities of Ted Laurent, who can rush the passer from a 0-tech (or even a 3-tech) position better than any nose-tackle in the game, the Hamilton pass-rush will be a tremendous help for what could be a very patchy secondary.

3. Montreal Alouettes

2015 record: 5-13
2016 projected record: 7-11

Photo via Joel Lemay/ QMI Agency
Photo via Joel Lemay/ QMI Agency

Although my faith in Jim Popp diminishes more with each passing day, veteran quarterback Kevin Glenn could supply the Alouettes with one solid season before the Birds of Prey really hit rock bottom next year.

Despite having anointed himself head coach four times in his tenure as Montreal’s general manager, Popp doesn’t inspire much confidence as the leader on the sidelines. The issues within the coaching staff don’t end there, of course, as defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe, meanwhile, unsuccessfully attempted to breach his contract and head to Edmonton.

Montreal has the talent at the skill-positions to boast a lethal passing offense this year, but while Glenn will rack up a ton of yards, his reputation for throwing crucial interceptions will hurt. Montreal has one of the league’s top receiving corps in SJ Green, Duron Carter, Kenny Stafford, Nik Lewis/BJ Cunningham and Sam Giguere, while Tyrell Sutton is a great weapon to have in the backfield. Montreal’s offensive line, however, could be a burden, as second-year Canadian Jacob Ruby is penciled in as the starting left tackle. 2016 1st-round pick Philippe Gagnon will also be thrust into the starting lineup long-term as Luc Brodeur-Jourdain recovers from a serious foot injury. Considering I can’t ever see Ruby developing into a respectable, Canadian left tackle, Popp’s idea of replacing Josh Bourke with Ruby, who’s only in his second season will be nothing short of disastrous.

Although Montreal could have the league’s best front-seven, they’re defensive backfield has some question marks. Presumably for salary cap reasons, the Alouettes released two projected starters, Mitchell White and Dominique Ellis, in training camp, and the team is already without boundary corner Jonathon Hefney, who suffered a career-ending injury last season in October. Once settled in, Montreal’s secondary still could become a decent unit, as halfback Billy Parker, one of the league’s most underrated defenders, and field corner Jovon Johnson are two veteran-savvy play-makers. Preseason play must be taken with a huge grain of salt, but Ethan Davis and Greg Henderson showed well against Winnipeg’s starting receivers sans Weston Dressler.

Bottom-line: The ‘Als have the fourth-best quarterback group in the division, their Canadian content is middling and their head-coach has already given in to the pressure. With a complete change of environment from a new coaching staff – retaining Kavis Reed and Anthony Calvillo, of course – it’s possible to envision a scenario where the Alouettes make the playoffs. Regardless, though, this roster wouldn’t finish any higher than third place. Montreal has a very top-heavy roster, as their running backs, receivers, defensive linemen and linebackers are second-to-none in the division. But the units that aren’t elite – quarterbacks, offensive line, defensive backs – happen to likely be the bottom-feeders of the East.

4. Toronto Argonauts
2015 record: 10-8
2016 projected record: 6-12

photo courtesy Toronto Argonauts
photo courtesy Toronto Argonauts

Despite the many additions in free agency, and also the Argonauts’ great move to BMO Field, I tend to think this team really hasn’t changed on the field.

The Argos’ big free agency acquisition was Canadian left tackle Josh Bourke, making Toronto the lone team to start two Canadians at offensive tackle. (32-year-old Chris Van Zeyl is the incumbent at right tackle). But both Bourke, 33, and Van Zeyl had down seasons last year, and it seems as though really starting to decline being on the wrong side of 30.

After losing Canadian nose tackle Cleyon Laing to the NFL, and being outbid in their effort to re-sign Euclid Cummings, the Argos brought over a trio of defensive lineman from the Tiger-Cats in February. Adding fuel to the fire for the Battle of Ontario, Jim Barker inked contracts with Justin Hickman, Bryan Hall and Canadian defensive tackle Brian Bulcke. Hickman, however, is far from the player he once was in 2011, while Bulcke will start the season on the 6-game injured list.

Losing Greg Jones in free agency, the Argos have questions at the inside linebacker positions, too. 31-year-old Canadian weak-side linebacker Cory Greenwood was plagued by concussions last season – though he was great when he played – and Jones’ successor is expected to be Marshall McFadden, a 27-year-old rookie out of South Carolina State.

It’s the secondary, however, that is the most concerning. With the aging Ricky Foley, 34, and declining Justin Hickman, 30, at defensive end, the Argos’ inexperienced secondary could once again be left out to dry in coverage. Toronto likely had the CFL’s worst – and coincidentally, the youngest – secondary in the season. They’re now without second-year halfbacks Travis Hawkins and Devin Smith (which could be viewed as a step in the right direction, honestly). Former defensive coordinator Casey Creehan put Toronto’s defensive backs in some seriously disadvantageous scenarios last season, and while the addition of Rich Stubler will help tremendously – I also loved the addition of SAM linebacker Keon Raymond – I can’t see the Argos’ defense improving much in 2016.

As long as Ricky Ray stays healthy, which is no guarantee considering he’s 36 years old and coming off of a major shoulder injury, the offense should once again be lethal. Although they have one of the deepest receiving corps in the league, the Argos don’t necessarily have an elite receiver in their corps. That won’t matter with Ray at the helm, though. Whether that receiver – be it Vidal Hazelton or Kevin Elliott – might not be an elite pass-catcher, one of them (or both) should eclipse the century mark for receiving yards with Ray feeding them the football.

Bottom-line: The Argos are fortunate to have a veteran, proven coaching staff with Stubler, head coach Scott Milanovich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady. And while the offense will put up some great numbers, the defensive unit could once again be a liability. The Argos are also betting on Lirim Hajrallahu to have a comeback season. Jim Barker could, bar-none, be the best general manager in the league at finding his own import talent through scouting and free agent camps, but I think most of the Argos’ veteran free agent signings will disappoint.

2016 CFL West Division Preview: Lions Make the Leap

It’s been an absolute wacky winter in the West Division.

Days after winning the Grey Cup, the Eskimos found themselves without an entire coaching staff – minus their receivers coach who left shortly after – when Saskatchewan sold every farm in the province for Chris Jones and his staff. The Calgary Stampeders will have a coach not named John Hufnagel roaming the sidelines for the first time in nearly a decade, while legendary head coach Wally Buono announced his return to the coaching ranks after five years in a suite as general manager.

And if I’d have told you that Mike O’Shea was the lone returning head coach in the West Division this season, no one would have bought it.

With little continuity, the West Division is harder than ever to predict. And in turn, predictions are bound to spark more controversy than ever this season. That’s why it’s always a safe-bet to put Calgary at the top of the standings, and it’s easy to see why they’d finish first place in 2016.

READ: 2016 East Division Preview

1. Calgary Stampeders
2015 record: 14-4
2016 projected record: 12-6

bo mitchell

Quarterback, head coach and Canadian talent: despite all the changes, the Stampeders continue to follow the recipe to success in the CFL. As long as they have Bo Levi Mitchell, Dave Dickenson and their elite, Canadian pool of talent, the Stampeders will continue to find themselves hosting playoff games at McMahon Stadium. Sure, it’s Dickenson’s first season as a head coach, but he’s cut his teeth for many years as an offensive coordinator – and as one of the league’s very best, at that.

The Stamps lost some fantastic players in Jon Cornish and Eric Rogers, as well as their two most valuable defensive players in Keon Raymond and Juwan Simpson, but the Stamps have had younger, proven replacement ready to takeover. Canadian running back Jerome Messam was the most consistently dominating ball-carrier last season, while Joe Burnett, who’ll move to a familiar position at SAM linebacker, was playing at a very high level at boundary corner last year before breaking his ankle. While he has huge shoes to fill and won’t offer the same leadership as Simpson, Taylor Reed is a solid, 24-year-old middle linebacker who was signed away from Hamilton in free agency after two successful seasons as Orlando Steinauers’s MIKE linebacker. Reed still has untapped potential, and as a result of working behind the league’s most underrated interior defensive line in the CFL, with Micah Johnson at nose guard and Junior Turner at three-tech, he’ll continue to progress. Kamar Jorden, meanwhile, has been heralded as the next star receiver to sport the horseshoe. The club also added veteran pass-catcher Bakari Grant in the off-season to help fill the void left by Rogers and Jeff Fuller, and will also boost a potentially great, Canadian duo at slot-back with Anthony Parker and second-year weapon Lemar Durant.

The Stampeders had one of the best offenses in the league last season despite a never-before-seen amount of injuries along the offensive line. Often pairing one or two day-1 starters with third-string cast-offs, the Stamps’ offense was hardly limited by the rash of injuries up front. Even without Jon Cornish for much of the season, the Calgary offense continued to dominate, which deserves a respectful cap-tip to Dickenson’s game-planning, Mitchell’s understanding and execution, and the offensive line’s impressive depth. Although they’ve had some bumps and bruises in training camp, there’s simply no way possible the Stamps will be forced to use such a ludicrous amount of hogs this season.

The loss of defensive coordinator Rich Stubler, who’ll be replaced by first-year play-caller DeVone Claybrooks, is huge, no doubt. But the loss is less impactful when the defense is loaded with veterans. The Stampeders’ secondary is incredibly veteran-savvy – they’re discipline in coverage is second-to-none – and the front-seven surely does not lack experience. The Stampeders are better than everyone at patiently developing internationals, and third-year pass-rusher Frank Beltre (along with third-year receiver Kamar Jorden) should be the next and latest examples. Beltre, who has shown flashes as a rotational pass-rusher in the past, will get his shot playing a position opposite Charleston Hughes that has sent three players in three years to the NFL: Cord Law, Shawn Lemon and Freddie Bishop. The Stamps’ slow, subtle youth-movement is a work of art, as 6-foot-3 cornerback Tommie Campbell displaced 30-year-old veteran Brandon McDonald in training camp, earning a spot in a starting lineup filled with veteran defensive backs.

The Stamps have two veteran, elite specialists in kicker Rene Parades and punter Josh Maver, while Drew Tate gives the Stampeders a reliable backup in a league where two quarterbacks are required.

Bottom-line: The league’s model of continuity under went more changes in one off-season than they usually do, but the club always has players and coaches ready to takeover, waiting in the wings. Jon Hufnagel still plays an absolute crucial role in the football operations department, and has had a backup plan in place for every loss the club was prepared to endure throughout the off-season. This football team has a healthy mix of capable veterans and young players that have experience under their belt, and there’s no reason to believe that the Calgary Stampeders will regress in this new regime.

2. BC Lions
2015: 6-12
2016 projected record: 10-8

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (I do not own this photo)
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (I do not own this photo)

The disastrous Jeff Tedford era could have a lasting impact on the Lions, but I liked GM Wally Buono’s decision to remain in-house and make a return to the sidelines. The 66-year-old has served as strictly the general manager for the past five years, last coaching in the 2011 Grey Cupgame. Buono, a proven, legendary coach, should not be viewed in the same light as Jim Popp, of course. I don’t see him succumbing to the pressure after firing two coaches in two seasons. Taking over a roster that he assembled himself, Buono will over-see an offense that will be electric under second-year QB Jonathon Jennings, who I believe will waste no time establishing himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the league.

It’s well-versed that most rookie quarterbacks regress significantly once teams have film to game-plan with – see Brett Smith, Rakeem Cato, James Franklin and Jeff Mathews. But when you look deeper into their games, they each had outstanding flaws that plague most rookies and/or incompetent quarterbacks. None of the above, at least not in their rookie seasons, possessed the traits that Jennings already had. With his abilities to make tremendously quick, decisive decisions, manipulate defenses with his eyes, escape from pressure and locate his check-down, I see no reason for Jennings to endure a sophomore slump. He can make every throw needed, and with Travis Lulay at the no. 2 spot, the Lions’ quarterback situation is in good hands.

Buono made a few subtle veteran signings in free agency, bringing back receiver Nick Moore after two years in Winnipeg, as well as signing field-side corner Brandon Stewart to a one-year deal. Jennings has a decent supporting cast to work with, including what should be a stud pass-blocking offensive line with Jovon Olafioye and Levy Adcock, an underrated signing, as the book-ends. (They’re run-blocking could be a different story for multiple personnel reasons, however, as I see rookie center Charles Vaillancourt as a pro-ready pass-blocker only). Emmanuel Arceneaux is one of league’s top receivers, while Nick Moore is a terrific, reliable route-runner who would have eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2014 and 2015 had he stayed healthy. It all really boils down to the quarterback, though, and I believe the Lions have one of the top passers in the league.

The Leos are entering their third season in Mark Washington’s defense, and while his scheme resembles that of Richie Hall – a conservative, zone-heavy philosophy – the return of Soloman Elimimian will make a huge difference. It’s crucial that a zone-heavy defense has great linebacker play, and there is no better duo than Elimimian and Adam Bighill. The presence of the 2014 Most Outstanding Player allows the Lions to be much more creative with Bighill, and on top of greatly impacting their run defense, Elimimian is an incredible difference-maker against the pass. Defensive end Craig Roh is expected to build on his 13-game, six-sack rookie season, while if preseason play means much, halfback TJ Lee could have a break-out season in store.

Bottom-line: The Lions might not dominate in any aspect of the game, but the Wally Buono factor could push this team to a couple extra wins. Although Jonathon Jennings could have a drought at some point in the season, I think he’ll continue to establish himself as a great passer in the league. Their roster isn’t stacked, and they’re placed all their eggs in a couple player’s baskets, but the Lions could take a big step forward in 2016. BC’s depth at some positions is porous, and I could easily see them with 5-6 less wins, but the return of Buono – as well as some other factors – is why I’ll go on record and list them as my bold prediction for this season.

3. Winnipeg Blue Bombers
2015 record: 5-13
2016 projected record: 10-8

THE CANADIAN PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS IMAGE)
THE CANADIAN PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS IMAGE)

It’s playoffs or bust in Winnipeg, as head coach Mike O’Shea is entering the final year of his three-year contract with a combined record of 12-24 in two seasons. Drew Willy has the best supporting cast he’s ever had, with Kyle Walters signing Andrew Harris, Ryan Smith and Weston Dressler in free agency. The club also mightily boosted their defensive line with the additions of Euclid Cummings and Keith Shologan, who are two of the best player’s at their respective positions. The Bombers lost a handful of games almost single-handedly due to poor kicking, but that position has been filled by one of the greatest of all time, Justin Medlock. There’s no excuse for Mike O’Shea to not make the playoffs with this group of players.

Following two years of rebuilding and drafting, the Bombers, at last, boast some very respectable Canadian depth. Offensive lineman Sukh Chungh and Mathias Goossen are two building blocks for the future up front, and will play a crucial role keeping Willy healthy and on his feet. Protection has a lot to do with Willy, too, as he’ll have to stop panicking with pressure in his face if he wants to be an elite quarterback in the CFL. There are several ways for offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice to compensate for Willy’s achilles heal, though, as the fifth-year passer has proved that he possesses some of the other traits required to be an elite quarterback in the league. The addition of Harris will be huge for the offense – he and Jamaal Westerman are easily the club’s most valuable players on the team – as he’ll be Willy’s first running back in Winnipeg that excels in all three duties (running, pass-blocking and receiving).

The additions of Cummings and Shologan give the Bombers one of the best defensive lines in the CFL. Seeing as defensive line play is incredibly important in the CFL – defenses in this league are only as good as their defensive lines – it’ll be interesting to see how great of an impact the two free agent acquisitions will have. The defensive end spot opposite Westerman could see several different candidates throughout the season, though, but Cummings’ pass-rush skills as a three-technique will remove a lot of pressure. There are also holes at safety and boundary halfback, however. Starting Macho Harris at safety will hurt this defense in more ways than one, while post-training camp pickup Travis Hawkins must show large improvement in year two once he learns the system.

Bottom-line: While the Bombers boast a significantly better roster than the Lions, it’s the Jonathon Jennings and Wally Buono factor that I can’t overlook. But if Jennings doesn’t take quite as big of a leap as I think he could, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Bombers will leap-frog the Lions in the standings with ease. 10-8 shouldn’t satisfy Walters with the roster he’s built, but it would surely grant O’Shea a contract extension, and the fans a much-needed playoff appearance.

4. Edmonton Eskimos
2015 record: 14-4
2016 projected record: 8-10

Kevin Light/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Grey Cup champions spent much of their off-season in the headlines for not only what they won, but for what they lost: head coach Chris Jones and the entire rest of the coaching staff left, who left for a new challenge in Saskatchewan merely days after hoisting the Grey Cup. The Eskimos turned immediately to REDBLACKS’ offensive coordinator Jason Maas, sparking a large controversy on compensation after naming the former Edmonton quarterback as the club’s 21st head coach in franchise history. While Maas is one pf the best young offensive minds in the CFL – he transformed a brutal Ottawa offense in 2014 into a record-setting unit in one season – he, incredibly, only has three seasons of experience in the coaching ranks, and only one as a coordinator. At 40-years-old and with little experience as a coach, Maas will double as head-coach and offensive coordinator. The loss of an entire coaching staff, meanwhile, cannot be overstated. It’s a complete change of environment, coaching methods and schemes, and the new staff mustn’t attempt to fit square pegs into round holes in terms of their players and systems.

The Eskimos lost an incredible amount of key players in the off-season to the NFL, as Dexter McCoil, Willie Jefferson and Aaron Grymes each found employment down south. The Riders, as expected, poached even more contributors from Edmonton in free agency, signing Kendial Lawrence and Otha Foster in free agency, as well as Canadians Shamawd Chambers and Andrew Jones. Kenny Stafford, meanwhile, returned to Montreal in free agency, while corner-back John Ojo, who I expected to soon swap positions with declining corner-back Pat Watkins at some point in the season, suffered a season-ending achilles injury in training camp.

The Esks were somewhat of an anomaly last season, winning the Grey Cup despite having middling Canadian talent. The club decided to give veteran Canadian safety Cauchy Muamba his release, which really wasn’t all that surprising – but hardly justified – since defensive coordinator Mike Benevides did the same thing to the 29-year-old during their time in BC, too. FS Mike Dubuisson is an intriguing, young Canadian, but he’s still very much untested in live action. The Esks’ Canadian draft will not help their cause in 2016, either, as their first two selections were spent on two NCAA prospects currently under contract with NFL clubs in Iowa WR Tevaun Smith (Indianapolis) and Michigan State CB Arjen Colquhoun (Dallas). The Eskimos also had no third-round pick, which really brought their opening two picks into question.

With 34-year-old right tackle D’Anthony Batiste and the inconsistent play of 30-year-old Tony Washington left tackle, I have some concerns about Edmonton’s pass-blocking. (Give credit where credit’s due: Batiste did close out the 2015 season with strong play down the stretch, though). But I’m not worried at all about Mike Reilly and the offense. John White, who had an outstanding rookie season in 2014 before tearing his achilles tendon in training camp last spring, returns to the backfield, while Derel Walker and Adarius Bowman provide Reilly with the best duo in the West Division.

Bottom-line: There’s every reason to believe that Maas and Reilly will form a lethal offense in their first season together. But having lost several core defenders in the off-season, the Eskimos’ identity under Chris Jones could become their weakest link in the new regime with Benevides.

5. Saskatchewan Roughriders (5-13)
2015 record: 3-15
2016 record: 5-13

bagg

The Roughriders are in the midst of one the largest rebuilds I’ve ever seen, bringing in an entirely new coaching staff – one that has all worked together before, winning a Grey Cup – and probably setting a record for players released in a calendar year. The Riders have made a lot of smart decisions in their rebuild, and I like a lot of the things they’re doing, but this rebuild is simply far too massive to yield positive results in year one.

The Riders are razor-thin in terms of their Canadian talent, bringing in several cast-offs in the last couple days. (For reference, the Riders don’t have single Canadian linebacker on the roster). Meanwhile, ratio implications could force Nic Demksi in the starting lineup, and the Riders have no other Canadian depth receivers. And with all due to respect, Jordan Reaves, who hasn’t played football in 11 years aside from his tryout with the Bombers one year ago as a receiver, made the team as 220-pound Canadian defensive end.

The team is scraping to field seven or eight national starters, and the depth behind their starters is porous. But that is to be expected, of course; it’ll take time to fix the mess that Brendan Taman left. They’ll also be starting several rookies all over the field this year, while the quarterback depth behind Darian Durant is disastrous. As we know, it takes two good quarterbacks in this league, and it’s hard to imagine either BJ Coleman or Philip Sims winning games in this league.

The Riders have a solid group of linebackers, as well as two building blocks at defensive end in Justin Capiciotti and Shawn Lemon, but the secondary has very little experience. Brandon McDonald is a good, veteran boundary corner, but the two other veterans, Ed Gainey and Buddy Jackson, were liabilities in 2015 on the level of Demond Washington. Saskatchewan will start two rookies at halfback, and their starting safety could seriously be National rookie Kevin Francis, a converted-tight end in his first professional season that the Riders gave up a third round pick to acquire. Oh, and he’s probably never played safety before.

I’m placing a lot of faith in this elite coaching staff and quarterback, however it just seems as though this roster has far too many holes in it one season after going 3-15 and cleaning house.

Bottom-line: If Darian Durant, who’s suffered season-ending injuries in back-to-back seasons, goes down, it’s hard to imagine this team winning another game. (Okay, as a professional team, I’m sure they’d win one). But the supporting cast is still very much a work in progress, and while the Riders should rejoin the top forces in the West Division in 2018, I doubt that even this coaching staff can win with the current roster in Saskatchewan. Five wins should is almost overachieving in this scenario.

Blue Bombers’ Positional Roster Grades: Defense and Specialists

The Bombers final cuts have been made as the team prepares for their home-opener on Friday against the Montreal Alouettes. In year-three of the Kyle Walters, Mike O’Shea era, it appears as though Richie Hall’s defense should improve to a top-five unit in the new year, while O’Shea’s specialists could take the league by storm.

Legend:
A or higher = great
B+ or A- = above-average
B = average
C+ or B- = below-average
C or lower:  very poor

DEFENSIVE LINE

Additions: Keith Shologan, Euclid Cummings, Shayon Green, Trent Corney

Starters: Jamaal Westerman (DE), Euclid Cummings (3-T), Keith Shologan (NT), Shayon Green (DE)

Depth: Jake Thomas, Trent Corney, Sam Scott (1-game), Derrell Johnson (reserve)

Practice-roster: Adrian Hubbard, Louie Richardson, Padric Scott

It’s been largely the defensive line that has plagued this defense recently, and this is easily the best unit the Bombers’ have boasted since 2013. Keith Shologan and Euclid Cummings, both added in free agency, are two of the best players at their respective positions, bringing some much needed assistance to the league’s best defensive end, Jamaal Westerman. The club has good depth inside in fourth-year Canadian Jake Thomas, while 9th-overall pick Trent Corney should make an immediate impact as a rotational pass-rusher. Shayon Green brings down the group’s grade, as he was quite underwhelming in preseason action. The Miami product made this team with his athleticism and his motor, but he appears one-dimensional as a pass-rusher and struggles against the run. Look for Corney to really push Green for reps as the seasons wears on if Derrell Johnson doesn’t.

Grade: A-

LINEBACKER

Additions: Shayne Gauthier, Kyle Knox

Starters: Khalil Bass (WIL), Ian Wild (MIKE), Maurice Leggett (SAM)

Depth: Tony Burnett, Sam Hurl, Jesse Briggs, Garrett Waggoner, Teague Sherman

Practice-roster: Shayne Gauthier

Ian Wild will resume his duties as the club’s middle linebacker after the Sam Hurl experiment mostly failed last season, and we know exactly what Wild offers. Meanwhile, the club will be looking for Khalil Bass to take the next steps in his development in year-two, which is his play in pass coverage. Maurice Leggett, who’s likely the league’s top safety, has made the full-time switch to strong-side linebacker, and while he’s a terrific threat as a run defender – he could probably play weak-side linebacker – some of his raw cover skills are not quite up to par. Tony Burnett, who had a tremendous preseason in his sophomore season, could soon move Leggett back to safety, but he’ll have to continue to make a name for himself on special-teams first. The Bombers’ Canadian depth is great, too, as Hurl is a good Canadian backup middle linebacker and an excellent special-teamer, while Garrett Waggonner has a ton of potential that needs to be fulfilled.

Grade: B

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Additions: Macho Harris (FA), Kevin Fogg (INT rookie), Julian Posey (INT rookie), Taylor Loffler (CDN rookie), CJ Roberts (INT rookie)

Starters: Johnny Adams (CB), Kevin Fogg (HB), Macho Harris (FS), Bruce Johnson (HB), Chris Randle (CB)

Depth: Julian Posey, Taylor Loffler, Derek Jones, Brendan Morgan

This is easily the most top-heavy unit on the roster, as Johnny Adams, Chris Randle and Maurice Leggett are bona-fide stars, and Bruce Johnson is one of the top raw press half-backs in the league. Randle, one of the league’s premiere defenders, found himself competing for the field corner position after recovering from a torn ACL, as Leggett is set to stay at SAM linebacker, and Adams emerged as arguably the league’s best corner in 2015. Randle, who’d be playing short-side corner on most teams, easily displaced Matt Bucknor and his passport, giving the Bombers an elite cover-man at field corner. But there some large holes in the secondary at safety and at weak-side halfback, as both Kevin Fogg and Julian Posey left much to be desired in preseason action, while it’s hard to believe that Macho Harris is employed – let alone a starter. An unlikely, but smart scenario would be for Tony Burnett to emerge into a role a SAM, moving Leggett back to safety in place of Harris. And while that would be ideal, I’d be content if even Teague Sherman took over at safety in place of the four-year Rider.

Grade: B+

KICKER/PUNTER

Additions: Justin Medlock (FA)

Starter: Justin Medlock (K/P)

Depth: Sergio Castillo (1-game)

After witnessing Lirim Hajrallahu almost single-handedly cost the team wins, the Bombers went out and signed one of the greatest kickers in CFL history, Justin Medlock. The 32-year-old is easily the league’s top kicker, although his punting has been largely below-average throughout his career. Sergio Castillo had himself a great preseason, solidifying a backup plan should Medlock miss time with an injury.

Grade: A

RETURNER

Additions: Quincy McDuffie

Starter: Quincy McDuffie

Depth: Weston Dressler, Ryan Smith, Tony Burnett

One of the fastest players in the league, McDuffie is a somewhat proven returner in the CFL and won this position in Winnipeg quite handily. He’s a fearless, decisive returner with great vision, short-area quickness and deceptive force. McDuffie, who returned a punt for a touchdown against Winnipeg in 2014, will be an electrifying returner in 2016. Tony Burnett will likely return kickoffs along with the Central Florida product.

Grade: A

PHIL HOSSACK: THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)
PHIL HOSSACK: THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)

Blue Bombers’ Positional Roster Grades: Offense

The Bombers final cuts have been made as the team prepares for their home-opener on Friday against the Montreal Alouettes. In year three of the Mike O’Shea, Kyle Walters era, look for the offense, under the guidance of Paul Lapolice, to progress into a top-five unit this season.

Legend:
A or higher = great
B+ or A- = above-average
B = average
C+ or B- = below-average
C or lower:  very poor

QUARTERBACK

Additions: None

Starter: Drew Willy

Depth: Matt Nichols, Dominique Davis, Brian Bennett

Practice-Roster: None

Drew Willy enters his third-season as a starting quarterback with something to prove, whether he admits it or not. It’s clear that he’s starting quarterback material – two years is enough to prove that. What could be Willy’s ceiling, however, remains to be seen; can the 29-year-old develop into an elite quarterback in a division filled with elite quarterbacks? As talented a passer as he is, I think his ceiling tops off as a solid starter with a high floor. He’s a hard quarterback to protect, struggling to make throws while under duress. But a change in philosophy, as well as the upgrades around the Buffalo product, will somewhat compensate for his flaw. For Matt Nichols, however, it takes much more to go right for him to have success. Acquired for a seventh-round pick, Nichols seemed to be a bottom-tier second-string when has brought in from Edmonton. While he’s the best backup quarterback the Bombers have had in years, he’s no Drew Tate or Travis Lulay.

Grade: B-

RUNNING-BACK

Additions: Andrew Harris (FA), Pascal Lochard (FA), Timothy Flanders (INT rookie)

Starter: Andrew Harris

Depth: Pascal Lochard

Practice roster: Timothy Flanders

Andrew Harris’ value to this team cannot be emphasized enough. If the Bombers are going to become a top-3 offense, it’s only possible if Andrew Harris does not miss an extended period of time. His abilities as a pass-blocker and as a receiver is what this club has desperately needed for the past two seasons, as neither Paris Cotton, Nic Grigsby or Cam Marshall were adequate in both areas. Tim Flanders will likely come off of the practice roster to be the starter should Harris miss a start, but it’ll be Pascal Lochard subbing in while Harris is healthy – and that is concerning. Harris, 29, is expected to lead the league in rushing yards and in yards-from-scrimmage, but considering how valuable the running back position is with Willy and Nichols as quarterback, it’s difficult to be content with the depth the Bombers have behind their hometown product.

Grade: B+

FULLBACK

Additions: none

Starter: Chris Normand

Depth: Pascal Lochard

Practice roster: Tim Cronk

One of the few roster transactions the Bombers made on cut-down day that I disagreed with, the Blue & Gold are set to roll with second-year Laval product Chris Normand, with veteran Tim Cronk on the practice. While it’s evident that Paul Lapolice doesn’t intend on using his fullbacks often on offense, I’m just not convinced that Normand is ready to displace Cronk, who was solid in 2015. The move to only roll with one fullback, however, is welcomed; the Bombers have talented Canadians elsewhere that need a spot on roster in a more valuable position. The lone fullback should be Cronk, though.

Grade: C

RECEIVER

Additions: Weston Dressler (FA), Ryan Smith (FA), Jace Davis (INT rookie), Quincy McDuffie (FA), Thomas Mayo (INT rookie), Gerrard Shephard (INT rookie), Kris Adams (INT rookie)

Starters: Weston Dressler (WR), Ryan Smith (SB), Darvin Adams (SB), Jace Davis (SB), Rory Kohlert (SB)

Depth: Quincy McDuffie, Julian Feoli-Gudino, Kris Bastien, Addison Richards (6-game), Kris Adams (1-game)

Practice-roster: Thomas Mayo, Gerrard Shephard

The Bombers completely revamped this unit, signing prized free agents Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith in replacement of Nick Moore and Clarence Denmark. Dressler is still an elite receiver in the league, while Smith should enter that category with another successful season under his belt. Darvin Adams, a solid complimentary receiver, and Jace Davis bring size to the group, while Rory Kohlert is an adequate Canadian pass-catcher at field-side wideout. Davis is an intriguing product, as although he failed to register a catch in his lone preseason game, he seemed to get good separation, and has dominated in practice. For a number of reasons, the Bombers’ pass-catchers have let Willy down since he arrived in Winnipeg, but this group seems poised to fix that.

Grade: A-

OFFENSIVE LINE

Additions: Travis Bond (INT rookie), Jamarcus Hardrick (FA), Manase Foketi (INT rookie), Michael Couture (CDN rookie), Jeff Keeping (FA)

Starters: Stanley Bryant Jr. (LT), Jamarcus Hardrick (LG), Mathias Goossen (C), Sukh Chungh (RG), Patrick Neufeld (RT)

Depth: Jeff Keeping (6-game), Michael Couture, Travis Bond (1-game)

Practice Roster: Manase Foketi

The center, left guard and right tackle positions were two huge burdens on Winnipeg’s offense last year; Sukh Chungh, as expected as a rookie starting in all 18 games, was a below-average right guard; Patrick Neufeld took over in the final third off the season at right tackle, and while he’s still a slightly below-average right tackle in the league, he was easily the club’s best option last year. Goossen, meanwhile, must continue to develop, and he should be an above-average center by years end. The biggest questions surrounds Chungh: he has the potential to become the CFL’s best offensive lineman, but how much of a jump will he take in year two? Playing the hardest position on the line, Chungh’s next step is to become more consistent in year two while continuing to refine his overall game. Stanley Bryant, at left tackle, provides the group with consistently solid play, while Jamarcus Hardrick appears to be a significant upgrade over the Bombers’ recent left guards. Travis Bond should be the starter – he was the best player, both offensively and defensively, on the field against Montreal – but it appears he’ll start on the 1-game injured list while Michael Couture, who’s not nearly ready for this role, will serve as the sixth offensive lineman in Jeff Keeping’s absence.

Grade: B-

THE CANADIAN PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS IMAGE)
THE CANADIAN PRESS (I DO NOT OWN THIS IMAGE)

Bombers Final Cuts Should Come as No Surprise Despite Cutting Ties with Veterans

With a high level of competition in training camp, as well as multiple legitimate candidates at each of the few position openings in camp, the Bombers were expected to make headlines across the league in the final round of cuts. Having released Canadian defensive back Matt Bucknor, international left guard/right tackle Jace Daniels and receiver/returner Justin Veltung, they did exactly that – which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Also released was receivers Julian Talley and Fred Williams; running back Carlos Anderson; right guard Zachary Intzandt, the Bombers’ fifth-round pick; defensive lineman Emmanuel Dieke; and defensive back Jonte Green.

Bucknor, of course, was the most notable release of the day, having really established himself as a serviceable, Canadian field-side corner in two years with the Blue & Gold. Bucknor, 31, never failed to miss a game during his tenure, starting in all 36 games in 2014 and 2015. While he was never a great cover-man, Bucknor’s run-support skills and ability to read and react to quarterback’s eyes made the Hamilton native a valuable asset to the secondary.

But as a result of Maurice Leggett moving to strong-side linebacker as well as with Johnny Adams establishing himself as one of the best boundary corner-backs in the league, Bucknor found himself in a training camp showdown with premiere defender Chris Randle, who wouldn’t typically be competing for a job at field corner on most teams. The Bombers have gained a lot of ratio flexibility recently, which ultimately made Bucknor’s passport less relevant in the competition. Randle, who’s ill-suited to play halfback despite being one of the league’s better corner-backs, had a tremendous preseason, winning his match-up with Duron Carter in the opening preseason game and allowing just one catch on four targets, including two knockdowns, in game no. 2 at Ottawa.

The Bombers could have kept Bucknor on the roster as a special-teamer, but it seems as though, while unintentional, they’ve already assembled his succession plan. In all three of his drafts since taking over the General Manager posting, Kyle Walters has continuously invested high draft picks in Canadian defensive backs – Taylor Loffer, Brendan Morgan and Derek Jones were all top-20 picks in the 2016, 2015 and 2014 drafts. Veteran Canadian safety Teague Sherman, meanwhile, is as good of a depth Canadian safety/special-teamer as they come, essentially making it unnecessary for the club to retain Bucknor at his current salary.

The Bombers’ decision to cut ties with Jace Daniels may have also been a surprise to some, but it didn’t blindside me in the least bit. Daniels, as expected, underwhelmed in two games at left guard, most noticeably struggling to pick up basic of stunts from defensive lines, which also plagued him as a right tackle in 2015. While Daniels was far from great during his tenure in Winnipeg, it was more likely the play of his competition at left guard that influenced the front-office’s decision to release him more than anything.

Travis Bond and Jamarcus Hardrick were simply phenomenal in preseason action. Sitting out of the Ottawa game while nursing an injury, Bond may have to start the season as either the club’s sixth offensive lineman or on the 1-game injury list pending the extent of his injury. (Although Michael Couture is simply nowhere near ready for such a role, ratio implications could force the SFU product could onto the active roster prematurely). Bond was the best player, offensively and defensively, on the field against Montreal, displaying sound fundamentals to go along with incredible athleticism for a man carrying a 6-foot-6, 330-pound frame. And while I’d like to see Bond start at left guard, Hardrick has certainly made a case for himself (and he played in both preseason games). A veteran of 18 career starts in the CFL, the former Saskatchewan Roughrider, who’s the most energetic offensive lineman I’ve ever watched, is best-known as an absolute mauler in the run game. Evidently, both Bond and Daniels are upgrades over Daniels, and the Bombers simply needed change after allowing 59 sacks in 2015.

The rest of the Bombers’ cuts were rather unsurprising. Carlos Anderson and Justin Veltung, who’ll likely get an opportunity with another club soon, lost the returner duties to Quincy McDuffie, while RG Zachary Intzandt only has two years of playing offensive lineman under his belt, and will return to McMaster to gain experience.

The Bombers also assigned nine players to their practice roster, including Canadian defensive end Louie Richardson; veteran fullback Tim Cronk; running back Tim Flanders; receivers Thomas Mayo and Gerrard Shephard; defensive lineman Padric Scott (3-tech) and Adrian Hubbard (DE); offensive tackle Manase Foketi; and defensive back CJ Roberts.

Richardson, 30, moves to the practice roster after five years of experience in the CFL. Knowing the Bombers had an excess of Canadians on the roster, I mentioned in my pre-training camp roster projection that the Bombers likely didn’t have room to carry three Canadian defensive ends. With ninth-overall pick Trent Corney coming along very fast – he’ll see significant reps on defense – the Bombers did as expected.

Another veteran Canadian, Tim Cronk also accepted a spot on the practice roster after six years in the CFL, and this move surprises me. While I understand the Bombers’ intentions to fit more Canadians onto the roster in other positions instead of carrying two fullbacks plus a backup running back/depth fullback, I’m not sure that either Chris Normand or Pascal Lochard are ready to be primary fullbacks. Paul Lapolice’s system likely won’t involve Normand in many packages, but if the club is going to keep only one fullback, I’d prefer to see Normand on the practice roster and Cronk on the field.

The Bombers also surprised many with the decision to place international defensive end Adrian Hubbard on the practice roster. This move did slightly catch me by surprise, but under no circumstances is it shocking. Simply put, both Hubbard and Shayon Green were extremely disappointing in preseason action. Hubbard, who led the Alabama Crimson Tide in sacks in his sophomore and junior seasons, significantly lacks quickness – watching him get off the line of scrimmage is an eye-sore. Green’s athleticism, meanwhile, is off the charts, but he appears very one-dimensional as a pass-rusher, and struggled to maintain the edge as a run defender, an area where Hubbard was quite good, actually.

While Hubbard is much more of a technician than Green, both ultimately struggled in the preseason, and the Bombers likely went with Green in hopes of improving the athletic player’s technique – you can teach an athlete technique, but you can’t teach athleticism to a strict technician. Regardless, unless former Tiger-Cat Sam Scott impresses once back from injury, I maintain that Trent Corney will take over the starting duties opposite Jamaal Westerman at some point during his rookie campaign.

Taylor Loffler, seen as one of the most pro-ready prospects in the 2016 draft class, also boasts the abilities to be impactful from the get-go, but Corney will undoubtedly be the club’s top first-year Canadian in year one. The club has released it’s final four draft picks from May – SB Alex Vitt, NT Rupert Butcher, LB Frank Renaud and the aforementioned Intzandt – as well as LB John Rush, who led the CIS in tackles last season while at Guelph after going undrafted due to a knee injury. Butcher (Western), Intzandt (McMaster) and Renaud (Windsor) all have one season of CIS eligibility, I believe. They should each rejoin the club for training camp next season after completing their collegiate careers.

Photo via BlueBombers.com (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)
Photo via BlueBombers.com (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)

Stock Market Report: Bombers vs. Redblacks

Remember, folks, it’s preseason.

The Bombers’ 18-14 loss at the hands of the Ottawa Redblacks undoubtedly revealed some causes for concern, but it’s an entirely new environment in the regular season.

I believe the preseason matters. It matters a lot. Sure, the score isn’t important, but the level of play absolutely is, and the Bombers first-team really did play quite poorly. But there are several things that must be taken into consideration before coming to any conclusions and ultimately coming down hard on both sides of the football.

The game, win or lose, most certainly offered some clarity regarding some position battles as well as with some veteran players, which is, of course, significantly important in the preseason. With cuts first-cuts here, let the Stock Market Report investigate the great, good and awful of the Bombers’ first loss of 2016.

BLUE-CHIP STOCKS

wild preseason

Chris Randle: It almost seemed as if Randle had fallen out of the coaching staff’s favor when Mike O’Shea announced that Maurice Leggett will enter the season at SAM linebacker, and Randle would compete at field corner. But in reality, the club understood that Randle is a completely different player when he can work his technique at corner, and it’s been rather evident that the right decision was made. The third-year Bomber was exceptional while playing boundary corner in place of the injured Johnny Adams against Ottawa, allowing zero completions on three first-quarter targets, including two pass breakups. His bump-n-run technique was fantastic, and he even showed his abilities to change directions in off-coverage, breaking on Chris Williams’ 5-yard slant route and registering a knockdown. On the lone completion he allowed – a 10-yard-out from Ernest Jackson in the second quarter – Randle was even in perfect coverage. He even jumped the route, simply missing the swat. With two straight stand-out performances at boundary corner against two elite receivers, Randle has locked down a starting spot in the secondary.

Ian Wild: The term “side-line to side-line” has become an overused, devalued description of linebackers. While possessing good range does not necessarily make a great linebacker, very few can truly go side-line to side-line like Adam Bighill and Winnipeg’s Ian Wild, who showcased this trait in Monday night’s tilt. He covered a lot of ground in pass coverage and effectively filled gaps, drawing a holding call early in the second quarter after exploding through the gap to meet Van in the backfield before being mauled down to the turf. With Sam Hurl having sat out both preseason games with an injury, Wild has likely secured the starting MIKE linebacker role. And let’s be honest, even if Hurl had been healthy and it was a fair competition, Wild was expected to emerge victorious.

Quincy McDuffie: The open job at returner has now undoubtedly been filled, as McDuffie put on a show against the Redblacks just five days after having a solid outing in the preseason opener against Montreal. He had a spectacular 56-yard kickoff return in the first half, breaking at least four tackles on the way, and registered a trio of receptions for 27 yards and a touchdown, which came from five yards out on a sit-route. McDuffie has easily been the Bombers’ most effective returner in the preseason, as Carlos Anderson didn’t generate anything against Ottawa, while Veltung didn’t play. He’s been effective on offense, too, and will no doubt be a member of the roster when week one arrives.

Gerrard Shephard: Shephard followed up a poor performance against Montreal with a 3 catch, 45-yard outing against Ottawa. Similarly to in the preseason opener, Shephard didn’t manage to get a lot of separation with his route-running, but he conversely managed to make plays on the ball. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound pass-catcher used his size advantage to haul in a difficult, back-shoulder catch for 45 yards in the third quarter despite having the defensive back all over him. He also used his large frame to shield away the defensive back from making a play on the ball while reeling in catch on a third-quarter curl-route, which was thrown late from Matt Nichols. With Wednesday’s outing, Shephard has put himself in the same conversation as Thomas Mayo, as they look to surpass Jace Davis in the competition for the final available spot in the Bombers’ receiving corps.

Tony Burnett: Burnett made a real statement with his play in the preseason. Although his spot as one of Winnipeg’s designated imports is secure, the Bombers could be inclined to move some pieces around on the defense to make room for Burnett in the starting lineup. Even with his six-tackle performance against Ottawa, having strictly played the weak-side and middle linebacker positions, it’s unlikely he enters the season as a starter, though. But as the season progresses, it is possible that Burnett sees time at SAM linebacker, as it would allow Maurice Leggett to move back to safety and Macho Harris to the free agent list.

SOLID INVESTMENTS

Kevin Fogg: The promising 25-year-old, who’s impressed in practice but seemed to struggle against Montreal, was much more sound in coverage in his second career game. Fogg showed some flashes of potential, displaying a solid hip-turn to remain in Chris Williams’ pocket on a post-route at the 13:26 mark of the second quarter. I think Fogg will win the competition at boundary halfback, but there’ll be some growing pains in the first few weeks of the season. He has some learning to do – the Liberty product, who had flat responsibilities, looked lost after passing off the deep receiver to Randle at 2:41, leaving Jackson all alone underneath on a quick slant. But with intriguing athletic abilities, Fogg has potential and the Bombers will allow him to grow into the large role.

Tim Flanders: Albeit with a smaller workload, Flanders was once again effective and should have locked up the backup role to Andrew Harris. Carrying six times for 29 yards, it was satisfying to see the diminutive speedster hit the hole hard despite having smaller openings to work with. Flanders looked great pressing inside zone runs towards the C-gap, allowing his offensive lineman to work with the displacement of the defenders, before cutting back inside, as the play is designed. Flanders has been the best American running back in camp in pass-blocking and, to a lesser degree, on the ground. With Carlos Anderson having lost out to McDuffie for the returner duties, Flanders has the advantage.

Trent Corney: Working largely against SirVincent Rogers, Corney wasn’t quite as effective as a pass-rusher this week, but he managed to hold his own against the run. I thought the ninth-overall pick did a solid job keeping his helmet on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle while also maintaining a solid base to prohibit being pushed back, keeping Van from getting the edge. Corney’s stock is rising with every week that passes – he was the Bombers’ best pass-rusher last week aside from Jamaal Westerman, of course – as it was in run defense where import DE Shayon Green really struggled.

Frank Renaud: While he’ll likely head back to school to fulfill his eligibility, Renaud proved in the preseason that he’s better than an 8th-round draft pick. After showing well on special-teams in the Montreal game, Renaud made his impact on defense against Ottawa. The Windsor product really flies to the ball and finishes plays. Recording four tackles, Renaud instilled a lot of energy on the Bomber defense in the late, fourth-quarter push.

FALLING STOCKS

FRED CHARLAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Drew Willy: I disregarded his performance against Montreal due to his receivers failing to get separation against a lot of one-on-one match-ups. I stand by that. But it’s hard to defend Willy’s play against Ottawa – he simply played like garbage. Willy locked onto the receivers – often those in the boundary – and after taking a couple shots, seemed to pre-determine his check-downs to Andrew Harris, while also lacking aggressiveness. He failed to see Darvin Adams on a “hot” down the seam late in first half, as well as Jace Davis on a 15-yard-in during the second drive of the game. The Bombers didn’t get their second first-down with Willy at the helm until the end of the second quarter, and much of that is due to Willy’s inability to throw with pressure around, something I mentioned in this piece on Marcel Bellefeuille’s offense. It’s nothing to panic about, but it’s certainly disappointing to see that, in his third season as a starter, Willy hasn’t developed whatever it takes to remain calm in the pocket when the protection is less than stellar.

Kevin Cone: I must commend Kevin Cone’s willingness to block – Lapolice brought him in as an extra pass-blocker a couple times against Montreal – but two terrible drops against Ottawa will ultimately be too much to overlook. It’s clear that the competition for the remaining spot in the receiving corps is a three-man race between Davis, Mayo and Shephard, with Davis in the lead.

Jace Daniels: This was a big game for Daniels. Travis Bond, who was excellent against Montreal, did not play due to an undisclosed injury – a great opportunity for Daniels to cement a roster spot. But, instead, he struggled picking up stunts, giving Moton Hopkins a clear shot at Willy on the Bombers’ second drive. With Daniels also struggling in the run game at left guard, I’m hoping that it’s Bond who enters the regular season as the starter. However, seeing as he’s received very few in-game reps with the first-team, that’s unlikely.

Macho Harris: It’s the second week in a row that Harris has landed in this category, and if the Bombers seriously enter week one with the former Rider at safety, which they will, the secondary is in trouble. Although the pass was dropped, Harris let Chris Williams free down the seam in the second quarter, and was late reacting to Williams coming underneath him on a post route on a 2nd and 20 play also in the second quarter, which was called back via penalty. He was also late breaking on Ellingson’s 15-yard-hook in the first, while his missed tackle on Travon Van led to what should’ve been a touchdown. At this point, anyone’s an upgrade over Harris, and I’d prefer to see Teague Sherman on the back-end, instead.

Julian Posey: The second-year halfback was continuously victimized during his time against Ottawa’s first-team offense. Greg Ellingson burnt him on a post-route for 31-yards, and on the next play, he didn’t get enough depth on his underneath zone duties, allowing Trevor Harris to complete a pass over his head to Williams on an out-pattern. He maintained great coverage on Jackson’s corner-route on Ottawa’s opening drive of the game, but that’s essentially where the positives end, as Winnipeg’s once-heated competition for the boundary halfback position has been anything but.

Nate Collins: Collins’ play against Ottawa could be enough to convince the Bombers to only carry a backup import 3-tech (Emmanuel Dieke) instead of a nose guard, with both Collins and Padric Scott struggling mightily. Collins was eaten up in the run game by Ottawa’s 1st team offensive line that was working without Nolan Macmillan. It’s as simple as that.

Shayon Green: The battle between Adrian Hubbard and Shayon Green has been underwhelming – and borderline sad – to say the very least. Green, who’s considerably more athletic, but less of a technician than Hubbard, really struggled in the run-game against Ottawa, while also looking just as one-dimensional as a pass-rusher as he did versus Montreal. Green struggled to set the edge, allowing the ultra-shifty Travon Van to get the edge on inside/outside zone plays, breaking the cardinal rule – and only responsibility – for defensive ends playing against zone run plays. As a result of the import talent at defensive end, Green will likely survive first cuts, but that’s as far as the University of Miami product will get.


BUY: Richie Hall’s poor defensive scheme. Richie Hall’s philosophy does not seem to have changed over the off-season, and it’ll hold back the secondary. Hall is a conservative play-caller with soft zone coverage, usually asking his halfbacks and corners to also give a cushion, too. Sure, his schemes were absolutely vanilla in the preseason, but it’s clear that the philosophy has remained the same, so don’t expect to see the Bombers bring much pressure, give many exotic looks or align aggressively.

SELL: It’s to panic about Drew Wily and the offense. It’s not. Drew Willy can still be a really good quarterback despite his achilles heal – remaining poised in the pocket while it collapses. It hurts, and it’s an obstacle that must be worked around, but it’s not the end of the world. Inserting Travis Bond or Jamarcus Hardrick at left guard will help, as will opening up the play-book in the regular season. Seriously, that’ll make a huge difference, as defenses are always ahead of offenses in the preseason, and Ottawa had much more preparation. The offense won’t be the best in the league, but it’ll be night and day from last season. 

BUY: Jace Davis and Trent Corney are legit. While not registering a reception, Davis also wasn’t targeted, and I don’t believe that was due to him not being open. Davis is so smooth in and out of his breaks, and Willy failed to locate him on open on a 15-yard-in in the first quarter, and on a seam-route in the second quarter. Corney, meanwhile, has been the most effective defensive end in the competition for the spot opposite Westerman. His burst off the line is special, and his repertoire as a pass-rusher, while still developing, is much better than expected, as is his play as a run-defender.

SELL: The Bombers have found a starting caliber import DE. Both Adrian Hubbard and Shayon Green have been extremely underwhelming despite impressive resumes. Although Corney has been the best – seriously, this guy was a steal at ninth overall – I expect the Bombers to bring him along slowly, starting Hubbard this season. I’ve been far from impressed with Hubbard, however, and see that defensive position as a dark spot early on.


OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: WR Gerrard Shephard
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: CB Chris Randle


The Bombers are back at action for their home-opener on June 24th against the Montreal Alouettes.

Stock Market Report: Bombers vs. Alouettes

It’s well-versed that CFL rookies must make an excellent first impression in training camp and in preseason game situations, as two games is not a lot of time to earn a roster spot, let alone displace a veteran.

If the second-half of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ 36-13 victory over the Montreal Alouettes is any indication, a large amount of rookies wearing the Blue & Gold must’ve made some strong impressions for Mike O’Shea and his staff.

While it’s impossible to really know for sure without the play-calls, certain players absolutely popped off the page with blue-chip performances, while others inevitably disappointed. Any game is extremely hard to evaluate at first glance, and the weekly installment of the game-review Stock Market Report is my thoughts after replaying the game and working my rewind button to hell on every play.

Here’s the inaugural Stock Market Report of 2016: newcomers edition.

BLUE-CHIP STOCKS

JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Travis Bond: The 6-foot-6, 330-pound Bond could’ve earned himself a starting job with his performance on Wednesday. Bond was easily the Bombers’ top offensive lineman, and he took reps at both offensive tackle and guard. On a second & one play with 1:51 remaining in the first half, Bond essentially ate the nose guard as Carlos Anderson plunged behind him for a 1st down – and that may not have even been his best block of the night. Bond only lost one match-up all night, and in the match-ups he did win, he completely instilled his force on the defender. Bond even showed great comfort passing off defenders and picking up twists, too. Having excelled at both guard and offensive tackle in the preseason game, he should enter the season as the swing man with Jeff Keeping out eight weeks, since the team still seems really high on Jace Daniels at left guard.

Trent Corney: Upon further review, Corney was significantly better as a pass-rusher than both Adrian Hubbard and Shayon Green. (All three were played in the third and fourth quarter, too; Corney faced the same competition for much of the game). While Hubbard was extremely slow off the ball, Corney showcased an absurd burst out of a three-point stance. (That wasn’t necessarily unexpected with his absolutely off-the-charts athleticism). Corney, who recorded two sacks in his first taste of pro ball, used his hands surprisingly well on a couple of rushes, showcasing his expanded repertoire on a series of plays while absolutely bullying sophomore tackle Jacob Ruby on an Alouettes’ drive that started at around the three-minute mark of the second quarter. The Virginia product wasn’t nearly as average against the run as I first thought he was following the game, either; he maintained gap discipline and responsibilities decently well. The Bombers won’t start Corney in week one, but this muscle-head should be the club’s primary rotational pass-rusher from the get-go.

Tim Flanders: Speed, shiftiness, vision    Flanders showed it all in his first game with the Blue & Gold. Averaging 5.3 yards on 15 carries for 80 yards, Flanders did a great job hitting the hole without any hesitation. His vision in general was terrific, and he also excelled as a pass-catcher. The Sam Houston State alum added 32 yards on two grabs, including a 22-yarder on a screen play. I don’t know if Flanders, who had a cup of coffee with the Lions in week 20 last year, could have played any better in his debut. After all, his fumble after an ankle-breaking juke on Mitchell White was overturned.

Thomas Mayo: The 6-1 pass-catcher made the most of the absence of Jace Davis, who was the favorite to win the lone opening in the Bombers’ receiving corps in the first week of camp. Finishing with 2 receptions for 27 yards in the stat column, Mayo also had a great play off a high slant route across the middle versus cover-1 wiped off by a penalty. A couple plays later, with 16 seconds on the clock, Mayo got the Bombers down to around the 3-yard line with another tough grab on the same route as before. Away from the ball, he got better separation than most of Winnipeg’s struggling receiving corps, showing that he should receive an increase in targets in the second preseason game. In that case, giving his sample of tough catches already, Mayo will be a week one starter if he can repeat his game one performance against Ottawa.

Sergio Castillo: He’ll inevitably be released during final cuts, however Castillo’s four-for-five-performance should earn him another gig when CFL teams are looking for kicking help in a month or so. After missing his first kick from 44 yards, knowing he already had no chance of making the roster, Castillo could’ve packed it in right then and there. Instead he went out and made kicks from 35, 44, 39 and 49. Castillo also added two extra points. Good for him.

Quincy McDuffie: A terrible drop on a would-be touchdown catch from McDuffie was the only thing that prohibited the former Ti-cat from locking up a roster spot. Otherwise, the diminutive speedster was great as both a receiver and a returner. His route-running was better than expected, and he made an emphatic statement in the third quarter with a reception on a beautiful corner route, which featured a nice inside stem to open the halfback’s hips. He also, as expected, made plays when receiving the ball in space, breaking off a 17-yard romp after catching a speed-out against a soft zone. McDuffie showed the same short-area burst as on the corner route here, evading the first tackler with a nasty juke-move. The club is still very high on Justin Veltung – as they should be – but it’s going to be nearly impossible to keep McDuffie off the roster.

Andrew Harris: Harris’ highlight reel catch-and-run in the 1st quarter was everything Bomber fans had ever dreamed about when the Winnipeg-native first burst onto the scene in 2011 with the Lions. With how the Bombers intend to use the run-game under Paul Lapolice, I have no doubt Harris will lead the league in yards from scrimmage in 2016.

SOLID INVESTMENTS

Photo via JOHANY JUTRAS http://www.johanyjutras.com

Jamarcus Hardrick: The most enthusiastic offensive lineman I’ve ever seen, Hardrick had himself a fantastic outing. The veteran of 18 career starts dominated at both offensive tackle and guard, and if it was my choice, I’d have Travis Bond starting at left guard with Hardrick as the depth swing-man. (It was announced that Jeff Keeping is out about 8 weeks with a knee injury, and Michael Couture is nowhere near ready to be the sixth man). Hardrick is an absolute mauler in the run-game, while also possessing the needed quickness to block speed-rushers as a book-end. He was a solid pickup in the off-season by GM Kyle Walters.

Brian Bennett & Dominique Davis: The two battling pivots weren’t as great as Winnipeg’s 23 second-half points might indicate, but each showed some positive traits as inexperienced quarterbacks. Both guys were extremely poised in the pocket, mostly executed the play-calls and showed some good escapability. Aside from his beautiful, back-shoulder touchdown toss to Fred Williams, Bennett was quite inaccurate, while Davis didn’t always seem to see the defense quite as fast as needed. The latter still has the upper-hand, though    and likely by a large margin after Wednesday    but one thing’s for certain: both quarterbacks competing for the third-string job are gamers.

Tony Burnett: Likely Winnipeg’s most underrated player, Burnett locked up his roster spot with his performance Wednesday night. Suiting for about half of Winnipeg’s games in 2015 – Burnett battled a couple of injuries in his rookie campaign – Burnett will be the club’s designated import at linebacker once again in year two. The USC product’s excellent change of direction skills, in tandem with his tackling abilities, were put on display in the preseason opener. He reacted quickly to an Alouettes’ screen pass with 2:44 left in the second quarter, making a drive-ending, solo tackle with no other defender near the ball. Burnett played well at both SAM and WIL linebacker in the third quarter, and made another excellent open-field tackle on Duron Carter’s missed field goal return in the 1st half.

Addison Richards: Richards’ play against Montreal showed that he isn’t quite ready to be Rory Kohert’s primary backup, but he certainly showed some signs of potential. In the very few games that Richards was healthy enough to suit up in last year, the game seemed to be going 1,000-mph in the rookie’s head. He seemed much more confident on Wednesday, and although his route-running needs a ton of work, Richards played very fast and with poise. Sure, his first catch – a 12-yard curl – was a poor route, while his second was a short hook with the corner playing way off in deep zone duties, but it was good for the Regina product to get on the stat-sheet after a tumultuous first season.

Carlos Anderson: Ditto to Flanders in every aspect – decisiveness, speed, shiftiness – but the only thing preventing Anderson from being a blue-chipper that night was his pass-blocking. Anderson was burnt badly by a blitzing linebacker in the C-gap around the 11:00 mark of the third quarter, which hurts his stock. Averaging 6.7 yards-per-carry on the ground, he did, however, match Flander’s effectiveness as a runner – although working with the starting offensive line (not Michael Couture, specifically), he might have even been better – and provides experience and big-play ability as a returner. Mike O’Shea, Avon Cobourne and Paul Lapolice are going to have to make a very tough decision when it comes to Andrew Harris’ backup.

STOCK DOWN

Manase Foketi: He received significant playing time, but Foketi was a weaker point on what was a very solid offensive line for all four quarters. Playing mostly offensive tackle, Foketi’s feet seemed to be stuck in the mud on his kick steps. For reference, watch Aaron Lavarias go nearly untouched around the edge (2:10 mark of the 2nd quarter) as the Bombers rolled the pocket to Foketi’s side. With Bond and Hardrick putting on a clinic, Foketi’s days in Winnipeg could be numbered.

Macho Harris: Harris’ missed open-field tackle on a Brandon Rutley screen pass on Montreal’s second drive of the game was an abrupt reminder that he was one of the underlying issues of Saskatchewan’s brutal defense in 2015. With Tony Burnett’s continual development at linebacker, I’m open to having Burnett start at SAM, allowing Maurice Leggett to replace Harris at safety. As a strong-side LB, Burnett is probably no better than Leggett as a cover-man, but it’d be worth it with Leggett, an elite safety, stepping in for Harris on the back-end.

Shayon Green: Frankly, Adrian Hubbard wasn’t all that better, but he did, at least, show some life while setting the edge on a couple run plays, and while recording a sack against All-Star right tackle Jeff Perrett. Green, meanwhile, was largely ineffective, running himself out of the play against the run, and while looking one-dimensional as a pass-rusher. While Green is far more athletic, he lacks the technique that Hubbard possesses.

Kevin Fogg: Fogg entered Wednesday’s game with a lot of hype coming from his excellent 10 days of practice, so anything less than an average-to-solid performance would see his stock drop. Als’ receiver Chandler Jones beat him a couple times on the night for solid gains, although I’m not too sure if Fogg actually had flat responsibilities on Jones’ touchdown reception from Rakeem Cato. Fogg still has a good chance to start in week one at boundary halfback, but with Julian Posey receiving a lot of reps, Donald Celiscar continuing to improve – he was very sound in coverage, and forced a fumble on kickoff – as well as Johnny Patrick returning to the lineup, Fogg needs to be an impactful player on Monday against Ottawa.

Gerrard Shephard & Lester Jean: On a night where the majority of the receiving corps struggled to get separation, Shephard and Jean may have struggled more than any of the receivers at getting open or making plays on the football. Bennett’s pass was slightly behind him, but Shephard had a bad drop across the middle at the 8:17 mark of the fourth quarter, while Jean struggled to beat press, and didn’t generate any leverage with the ball in the air.


OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: OL Travis Bond (6’6″, 230-lbs)
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME: LB Tony Burnett (6’1″, 205-lbs)

The Bombers are in action next on Monday against the Ottawa REDBLACKS.