The 2015 season is expected to be quite the battle in the CFL's West Division. The off-season was littered with transactions and most made the Western teams look even more intimidating on paper. I feel like there's quite a disparity in talent between the two divisions, evidently shown by the amount of wins handed out to teams in the West in my preview.
So here it is, my 2015 CFL West Division predictions, preview and off-season recap.
1. Calgary Stampeders
2014 record: 15-3
2015 projected record: 14-4
The Stampeders have a league-high 75 wins over the past six seasons under the guidance of John Hufnagel. They'll be expected to add a lot more to that total in 2015, and of course, another big shiny trophy.
The Stamps were unable to keep a good chunk of players that left during free agency. But don't be fooled, even with these losses, the reigning Grey Cup champions still have the most impressive roster in the league.
Out are the likes of right tackle Stanley Bryant (Blue Bombers), centre Brent Jones (New York Giants), national receiver Brad Sinopoli (Ottawa) and defensive end Shawn Lemon (Pittsburgh Steelers). They also traded veteran slotback Maurice Price to the Redblacks in exchange for linebacker Jasper Simmons.
One of the main reasons that Calgary has been so good is because of their incredible depth, which makes most of these losses hardly anything major. They're the league's best team at finding and developing talent, so they almost never miss a beat when a player goes down, even if it's Jon Cornish.
Expect big things from Bo Levi Mitchell and this offence in year two of the young signal-caller's career as a starter. Mitchell was exceptional in his first season, so don't be surprised if offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson makes the passing game the feature of the offence after years of them employing a run-first system with Cornish. Cornish will still easily lead the league in rushing; he did so last year in only nine games. Cornish even believes he could surpass the 2,000 yard plateau- only Mike Pringle has ever accomplished the feat- and I wouldn't bet against him.
Calgary's defence is just as good. They have an elite group of linebackers and defensive backs, while there's many options along the defensive line. Look for veteran defensive end Charleston Hughes to have a huge season after injuries plagued him in 2014 and for Freddie Bishop to smoothly replace Shawn Lemon opposite of Hughes.
Final Analysis: The Stamps have to be the favourites to hoist the Grey Cup at Investors Group Field in November. Looking to win back-to-back Grey Cups for the first time in team history, the Stamps will look to their up-and-coming elite quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, healthy runningback Jon Cornish, talented receiving corps and ball-hawking defence to guide them back. Hufnagel and his coaching staff have discovered the perfect winning formula, and it'll be in full effect this season.
2. Edmonton Eskimos
2014 record: 12-6
2015 projected record: 12-6
The Eskimos are one of the those teams that have took on their head coaches' personality and philosophy onto the playing grid-iron. Lead by a tough, physical and strategic defence, the Eskimos define football in the Western Division. Chris Jones has transformed the identity of this defence while quarterback Mike Reilly has become an elite signal caller on Edmonton's exciting, smash-mouth style offence.
The Eskimos were rather quiet in the off-season, although the shocking trade that sent veteran and fan-favourite receiver Fred Stamps to Montreal for young receiver Kenny Stafford made plenty of headlines. Edmonton mainly picked up reinforcements for their shaky offensive line in 29 year old guard Greg Wojt (Hamilton) and former Eskimos centre Alex Krausnick (Ottawa). The Esks are hoping Wojt will replace right guard Matt O'Donnell, who signed with the NFL's Cincinatti Bengals.
GM Ed Hervey didn't have to do too much this off-season, but one thing he did quickly was pick up a replacement for runningback John White. Edmonton had high hopes for White after the 24 year old was named a West Division All-Star in 2014, however he recently tore his achilles tendon in practice, ending his season prematurely. Hervey picked up former Blue Bomber Chad Simpson to provide depth behind while either Shakir Bell or Kendial Lawrence take on the bulk of the hand-offs.
On paper, the Eskimos look very solid. Offensively, Reilly has a slew of weapons to throw to including the league's top receiver in 2014 Adarius Bowman, young Canadians Nate Coehoorn and Shamawd Chambers, and also dynamic, dual-threat player Kendial Lawrence. And that's not it, the list goes on. The offensive line is my main concern (it may be the league's most depleted), but Reilly is one of the best in the business at buying himself time, and offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo runs his offence to their strengths.
Their defence is even better. Led by Odell Willis and Almondo Sewell, Edmonton's defensive line is the best in the business, while their secondary, led by Pat Watkins and Aaron Grymes, is very strong as well. They have JC Sherritt at middle linebacker along with the CFL's top rookie of the year in 2014, Dexter McCoil, ball-hawking on the weak-side.
Final Analysis: Clearly, the Eskimos haven't made any friends with the CFL's schedule makers. The Green and Gold play consecutive games between their terrible week 2 and 20 bye weeks, which won't help an already injury-plagued team stay healthy or energized. Especially not against the Stampeders, who stand in the Eskimos way from getting a first round playoff bye or a Grey Cup berth. The Eskimos went 0-4 against Calgary last year, but don't expect the battle of Alberta to go all Calgary's way this year. In year two of all their coordinator's systems, and with no major off-season changes, the Eskimos are destined to improve. They'll be battling during the race for the West Division title, although injuries and an awful offensive line could slow them down.
3. Winnipeg Blue Bombers
2014 record: 7-11
Projected 2015 record: 10-8
The Bombers made sure they did their due-diligence and brought in enough talent to make sure Drew Willy stays off his back in his second season as the Bombers' starting quarterback. The 28 year old pivot was sacked a league high 68 times last year and was bruised and battered by mid-season.
And Kyle Walters decided to do something about it. The Bombers inked highly coveted left tackle Stanley Bryant from Calgary in free agency and picked up centre Dominic Picard after he was cut from the 'Riders for salary cap purposes. They even drafted guard Sukh Chungh with the second overall pick, so Winnipeg's more than set along the interior of their offensive line.
Another big move Walters made was signing national defensive end Jamaal Westerman, an NFL veteran who had contract offers from all nine CFL teams. The Bombers could potentially start 8 Canadians per game now if they choose. That's an incredible thought considering they've had trouble scraping together seven capable starters in the past.
Two things the Bombers have to get better at are running the ball and stopping the run. Newly signed bruiser Cam Marshall will be a nice compliment to the speedy incumbent Paris Cotton, but it's still up to offensive coordinator Marcel Bellefeuille to give them enough carries per game for them to get in a groove. On defence, the Bombers brought in Richie Hall and his traditional scheme as defensive coordinator after witnessing Gary Etcheverry's exotic defence get run over by runningbacks week after week. Hall doesn't have a whole lot of talent at linebacker to work with, while I still have questions about the interior of this defensive line.
Final Analysis: Drew Willy and this Bomber offence should be able to put up points consistently through the air. Willy passed for big yards when healthy, and he should continue that trend with his improved offensive line giving him time to progress through his reads. However, I think that if the Bombers can't run the ball consistently, it'll hold the team back a lot. Winnipeg is set on special teams and looks decent on defence, especially their always-good secondary. Mike O'Shea is in year two, so he knows the players and they know what to expect. The Bombers have to make the playoffs, and their projected 10-8 record will give them a spot.
4. Saskatchewan Roughriders
2014 record: 10-8
2015 projected record: 9-9
The 'Riders had quite the entertaining off-season. The blockbuster trade that sent fan-favourite national defensive end Ricky Foley back to the Argonauts in exchange for national linebacker Shea Emry shocked many, but made sense as it meant the 'Riders had finally found a middle linebacker after a revolving door there in 2014. It especially made sense when the Riders announced the signing of defensive end Alex Hall, who was a force in the CFL in 2013 but spent the 2014 season down south in the NFL.
There were other significant players brought in, such as quarterback Kevin Glenn, who'll solidify Saskatchewan's back-up position. The 'Riders went 2-10 when Darian Durant went down last season, so GM Brandon Taman made it his priority to bring in the best insurance policy in a former 'Rider in Glenn.
The 'Riders should have one of league's top passing attacks under a healthy Durant in new offensive coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine's system. Their veteran quarterback is surrounded with quite the arsenal of weapons with a pick-your-poison type receiving corps headlined by Weston Dressler. There are some concerns regarding the five big-men blocking for Durant, however, as centre Dominic Picard was released for salary cup purposes and national right tackle Ben Heenan left for the NFL. There's also some questionable depth along this offensive line as well.
The 'Riders may have a revolving door around their seven National starters. Saskatchewan, who'll start three Canadian offensive lineman and two Canadian receivers, brought in safety Keenan MacDougall from Calgary to account for another while their seventh may come in the form of Jerome Messam. However Messam, who doesn't have a capable national runningback behind him, is prone to injuries while Saskatchewan is also short on national back-ups behind Emry at linebacker and MacDougall at safety. They could turn to starting one of their talented Canadian defensive lineman should injuries pile up, but you never want to sit a talented international just because the ratio forces you to make changes. Expect to see plenty of games the 'Riders choose to start three Canadian receivers considering the depth they have there while coach Corey Chamblin is forced to do some juggling with his seven starters.
Final analysis: Saskatchewan is going to compete in every game, with every team. There could be a couple last-second field goal losses that sting, or maybe some in their favour courtesy of the inconsistent Chris Milo. There's no shortage of talent on the roster, particularly at defensive line, receiver, runningback and quarterback, but still some concern along the offensive line and with their shortage of Canadians. They also brought in two new coordinators in the off-season, meaning the players are still learning their new systems, and they may start slow. I have the 'Riders going 9-9, a single win down from the 2014 total, while still being an exciting team to watch.
5. BC Lions
2014 record: 9-9
2015 projected record: 5-13
The hiring of head coach Jeff Tedford was the highlight of BC's off-season. Tedford is a well-travelled, well-respected coach with loads of experience south of the border in the NCAA and NFL, and some with the CFL, where he was a quarterback for six years and also spent three years as an assistant coach for Calgary. Tedford immediately began rebuilding his new club, releasing veterans Eric Taylor, Tim Brown and Stefan Logan while deciding against re-signing veteran cornerback Dante Marsh, receiver Ernest Jackson and quarterback Kevin Glenn.
In return, the Lions didn't bring much in. They picked up national safety Chris Rwawakumba from Edmonton and inked former NFL receiver Austin Collie, who qualifies as a national, to a contract.
The weight of the franchise rests upon the shoulders of Travis Lulay; particularly his right one. Lulay missed all but three quarters of play last year with an injured shoulder, so it'll be interesting to see whether the league's 2011 M.O.P. will ever be the same player.
Lulay will have a new offensive coordinator in 2015. Tedford brought in George Cortez from Saskatchewan to run the offence, and I think this was a great hire. Cortez is a Grey Cup champion with a proven scheme. He'll make runningback Andrew Harris the feature of the offence, as he should be, while letting Lulay stretch the field on passing downs.
There are some glaring weaknesses on this re-building roster. BC's offensive line has been less than stellar, while there's two vacant defensive tackle spots with the exit of Khalif Mitchell and Eric Taylor. There's also a lack of Canadian talent on the team as well. The lack of depth at some positions on the team has to be concerning.
Final Analysis: A healthy Andrew Harris will go a long way in sparking this offence, but again, it's all about Travis Lulay. If the 31 year old pivot can't stay healthy, the Lions will have to go through the growing pains of grooming a young quarterback. BC's defence, highlighted by a good pass-rush, elite linebacker corps and serviceable secondary will be forced to anchor the team. But it won't be enough to carry them through an improved West Division. The Lions fall to 5-13.