Monday, June 22, 2015

2015 CFL East Division Preview

Quarterback Zach Collaros is expected to have a big season in his second year with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, whom I'd label as the team to beat in the East Divison.

Much like their Western opposition, the East Division will feature a very competitive race to the playoffs. This isn't a division filled with powerhouses like Calgary or Edmonton, but rather with team's that have lots of potential and could surprise the league in 2015. A new season brings new optimism and predictions, and this is how I think the East Division will shape-up. 

1. Hamilton Tiger-Cats 
2014 record: 9-9 
2015 projected record: 11-7 

After earning their second trip to the Grey Cup in as many years, the Tiger-Cats have proven that they're the undisputed beasts of the East. Their 2014-2015 off-season was relatively quiet, and that's a good thing. After two full seasons at the helm, Kent Austin is done re-shaping the Tiger-Cats into the team he wants them to be, and that's a positive sign for those in the 'Hammer' that have seen this team experience more than their fair share of roster turnover in recent years. 

Some of Hamilton's off-season losses included injury-plagued offensive linemen Greg Wojt and Marc Dile, national receiver Sam Giguère and of course, their starting weak-side cornerback and CFL All-Star Delvin Breaux, who signed with his hometown New Orleans Saints of the NFL. The 'Tabbies also lost national defensive tackles Brian Bulcke and Linden Gaydosh for the season, while national receiver Spencer Watt won't suit up either due to a torn achilles tendon. 

Coach Austin's best move of the off-season came at the draft, where he acquired veteran national offensive lineman Ryan Bomben from Montreal in exchange for a couple high draft picks. The pick-up of Bomben was huge as it gives Hamilton easier ratio flexibility having a third starting national offensive lineman. Bomben joins a unit that struggled in 2014, no matter what the ratio balance was. Hamilton will also be getting national guard Peter Dyakowski back after he missed almost all of 2014 with a freak-injury suffered in the year prior's Grey Cup. 

Simoni Lawrence, Ted Laurent, Chris Butler and Eric Noorwood (I could keep going) headline Hamilton's elite defence. They boast one of the league's top linebacker corps, and while they're suddenly short of Canadian defensive tackles, Hamilton's still set at defensive line. Their secondary wasn't amazing last season despite all the talent, and I don't think it'll get much better in 2015. Hamilton will need some young defensive backs to step in and take on a large role in replacement of some of their veteran guys who I don't think will adjust well to the new rules. 

Special teams play in the CFL is so crucial to success, and it's on this side of the ball where Hamilton will dominate all of their competitors. Justin Medlock is the second most reliable kicker/punter in the league beside Swayze Waters, while we all know what the electrifying Brandon Banks can do when he gets the ball in his hands. The Ti-Cats, who drafted more-than-enough linebackers at the 2015 draft, are always focused on improving their coverage units as well. The hiring of special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold a few years ago is really paying dividends to the Tiger-Cats' brass. 

Final Analysis: On paper, Kent Austin has put together a much better roster than an 11-7 record would indicate. Getting that entire roster ready for game day presents a bigger issue, as the Ti-Cats just keep losing players as training camp progresses. Two of their top three runningbacks are out, so expect Collaros to really carry the offence early, which shouldn't be an issue. Hamilton also has a history of starting seasons slow, and I don't expect that trend to change in 2015. The 'Tabbies, who were a terrible team on the road last year, will spend the first four weeks of the season as the visitors, which could hurt. They'll also be missing some key contributors to injury early on, which won't help even when they do return home to the ever-glorious Tim Hortons Field. But if the Ti-Cats decide to get all mediocrity out of the way early, they'll dominate the rest of the season. All of Ti-Cat nation will be hoping their teams momentum will carry them through the playoffs and back to the Grey Cup, where they can ultimately bring back the Grey Cup to 'Steeltown'. 

2. Montreal Alouettes 
2014 record: 9-9 
Projected 2015 record: 9-9

Jim Popp was a very busy general manager this off-season. He picked up a handful of veterans in free agency including runningback Stefan Logan from BC, cornerback Rod Williams from Saskatchewan as well as receivers Nik Lewis from Calgary and Sam Giguère from Hamilton. The Alouettes also acquired veteran receiver Fred Stamps from Edmonton in exchange for an up-and-comer in Kenny Stafford, to much fan-fare. 

Modifying the receiving corps was one of Popp's main goals this off-sesason. They lost an elite receiver in Duron Carter to the NFL, while 30-year old Brandon London surprisingly retired. Replacing Carter will be nearly impossible this season, but Montreal will be fine with SJ Green and Fred Stamps working as the team's number one and two receivers. 

The Alouettes cut injury-prone runningback Brandon Whitaker in a salary cap move during training camp but aren't expected to miss a beat. Whitaker was deemed expendable by a loaded group of runners that include Tyrell Sutton, Stefan Logan and Brandon Rutley. Frankly, the Alouettes could probably put whoever they want behind that offensive line and still find success. 

If their defence is forced to carry the team as they did in 2014, Montreal still has a very good chance of making the playoffs. Much like Hamilton, they have a stacked front seven led by Bear Woods, John Bowman, Chip Cox and Gabriel Knapton. The Alouettes just might finish with the league's number one rushing defence, but the Ti-Cats will surely put up a fight. The two teams are also in a similar situation regarding their secondary. 

Final Analysis: Quarterback Jonathon Crompton's performance will go a long way in determining where the Alouettes place in the East Division. While I think they'll make the playoffs either way, they can say good-bye to any hopes of catching Hamilton in first place if Crompton regresses. The Alouettes have a fantastic offensive line, capable receiving corps and talented defence, but the Ti-Cats have that and a game-changing quarterback. Dan Lefevour looked better in limited pre-season action than Crompton did, and it sounds like there's a closer competition between the two than you might think. 

3. Toronto Argonauts
2014 record: 8-10
2015 projected record: 6-12

Trevor Harris will have the keys to the offence for at least six weeks while Ricky Ray recovers from off-season surgery. Harris has looked sharp in the past, most recently throwing for 281 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception on 26/36 passing in a must-win game last year against Ottawa. Despite the potential he's shown, it's hard to say the Argos make it to week seven in good shape. They'll spend the first four weeks on the road against the tough West Division, then continue their road trip  to Hamilton before finally returning home for their actual home-opener against Saskatchewan. 

The Argos lost more experienced players than they gained this off-season. Gone to the NFL are cornerback Jalil Carter and receiver John Chiles, while left tackle SirVincent Rogers signed with Ottawa and veteran wideout Maurice Mann retired.

Toronto's abysmal defence went through a slight makeover this off-season. They brought back veteran national defensive end Ricky Foley from Saskatchewan to form quite the tandem with 2014 break-out player Tristan Okpalaugo after the defensive line as a whole failed to generate much of a pass-rush last year. That trade was made possible by the emergence of linebacker Cory Greenwood- Toronto's first round pick in 2010- who's play late that season gave the Argos the opportunity to trade Shea Emry. Two other new faces on the defence will be former NFL defensive backs A.J. Jefferson and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, who have both impressed in the pre-season. Toronto's secondary is still very much inexperienced, and 2014 showed how valuable veteran defensive backs are. 

Final Analysis: If the Argos want to stay relevant in the Eastern Division, they'll need to find a way to survive the awful road trip that awaits them and Trevor Harris at the start of the season. Harris and Ray will be protected well behind Toronto's offensive line, but you have to wonder about the health of their main weapons Chad Owens and Andre Durie down the stretch even if the double blue start strong. The Argos' superstars simply cannot find a way to stay healthy, and that'll hurt Toronto again in 2015. The Argos are an up-and-coming team that I think will be really good come next year. They already have what appears to be a dominate defensive line in place and will use 2015 to gain another year of experience in their secondary while they also evaluate what they have with their linebackers and receivers. Trevor Harris could break-out and push Ray towards an earlier-than-anticipated-retirement, and while that's unlikely, it's definitely intriguing. His 2014 record may not help, but you can hardly blame the 29 year old. 

4. Ottawa Redblacks
2014 record: 2-16
2015 projected record: 5-13

There's a whole lot to be optimistic about in R-Nation. The Redblacks made the off-season interesting, acquiring a dynamic receiving corps, new offensive coordinator and an upgraded offensive line. Their young, promising defence remains intact and will be looked to build on what they started in Ottawa's inaugural campaign. 

Their biggest move was acquiring receiver/ return specialist Chris Williams. Williams spent the 2013 and 2014 season in the NFL after dominating the two previous seasons with Hamilton. Ottawa also signed receivers Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson, Brad Sinopoli and Alex Pierzchalski, all of whom have shown tremendous potential with their previous clubs. They also acquired veteran speedster Maurice Price in a trade that sent linebacker Jasper Simmons, voted the team's Most Outstanding Player, to the Stampeders.

General Manager Marcel Desjardins made sure to address their poor offensive line in the off-season as well, inking former Argonauts left tackle SirVincent Rogers to a contact while also drafting centre Alex Mateas with the first overall pick. If Henry Burris can take a sip from the fountain of youth and even somewhat regain his old form, there's no reason why this offence won't vastly improve on their terrible results from last season. 

Ottawa's defence was a glaring bright spot in their inaugural season. I see plenty of potential in the secondary with names like Brandon McDonald, Jerell Gavins, Abdul Kanneh and Jermaine Robinson, although I do worry about the lack of experience in this group which will improve as the weeks go on. Their front seven seems rather mediocre, with only break-out Canadian defensive end Justin Capicciotti, middle linebacker Travis Brown and strong side linebacker Antoine Pruneau being the lone sure-things. Ottawa's still without a second capable pass-rusher, while weak-side linebacker and defensive tackle are both positions with question marks. 

Final Analysis: I wouldn't expect the Redblacks to come flying out of the gate to open up the 2015 season. While pre-season games should be taken with a grain of salt, it seems Ottawa's offence is still behind as both the new faces and returnees learn Jason Maas' offence. It might not be until July until we see the full potential that we see on paper show it on the field, and that's assuming Henry Burris steadily improves as the weeks go on. I have my doubts with the 40 year old quarterback. His accuracy woes displayed last season didn't look any better in the pre-season, but of course most of his pass-catchers weren't familiar faces with Ottawa's new acquisitions. Ottawa's defence didn't suffer from much roster turn-over, although there is an obvious lack of depth at nearly every position and that has to be concerning. Once again, the Redblacks will remain very competitive in the East Division, however the fans no longer want to settle for competitiveness, they want wins. The 2015 season may not bring as much as they may hope. 

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