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