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.
1. Calgary Stampeders
2015 record: 14-4
2016 projected record: 12-6
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
2016 projected record: 10-8
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
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
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
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.