Reviewing the Wacky, Riveting and Predictable 2016 Season

With the another season in the books, its time to take a look at how, aside from the Grey Cup game, the 2016 campaign came with minimal surprises for Eric, who nailed his season predictions top-to-bottom in both divisions. Here’s a brief look at what went wrong and what went right for each team in another odd year of Canadian football. You can read Eric’s West Division predictions from June here, and his East Division predictions here. 

1. Calgary Stampeders
Projected record: 12-6, 1st in West
Actual record: 15-2-1, 1st in West

Johany Jutras/Stampeders.com
Johany Jutras/Stampeders.com

Coming off a 14-4 season, the Calgary Stampeders were expected to decline given the off-season departures of Jon Cornish, Eric Rogers, Keon Raymond and Frank Beltre. Maybe they’d still win the West, some said, without head coach Jon Hufnagel and defensive coordinator Rich Stubler. But no one expected Calgary to come one win shy of being arguably the greatest CFL team of all-time.

And, one week ago, no one expected the Stamps to become the greatest CFL team to not win a championship. Led by 26-year-old QB Bo Levi Mitchell and rookie head coach Dave Dickenson, the Stamps breezed through the regular season, losing their first game of the season since week one in their final regular season game. Mitchell, unanimously voted the league M.O.P., had a career season largely thanks to the protection and time he was afforded. An offensive line anchored by LT Derek Dennis and RG Spencer Wilson, the Stamps allowed a league-low 20 sacks and boasted the league’s leading rusher, Jerome Messam.

Defensively, rookie defensive coordinator DeVone Claybrooks maintained the philosophy of Stubler, his predecessor. The Stamps weren’t blitz-heavy, instead relying on their loaded front-four to bring pressure – and Charleston Hughes, Ja’Gared Davis, Cordarro Law and Micah Johnson took care of that. Calgary’s secondary ran through its veteran triangle of safety Josh Bell and halfbacks Jamar Wall and Brandon Smith, who tackled most of the more difficult mental responsibilities, which allowed for young corners Tommie Campbell and Ciante Evans to play a simpler game with less thinking. It’s a zone-heavy scheme that’s not much different from that of Richie Hall or Mark Nelson. The difference is that the Stamps are outstandingly disciplined in their communication and tackle extremely well.

The 2016 Stamps were a team with no weaknesses. The Grey Cup was simply a complete team meltdown, as Mitchell was unable to adjust to some surprising wrinkles in the Ottawa defense – he threw three interceptions despite throwing just 8 all season – the offensive line gave up more pressure to Canadians Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Connor Williams than they have all season, and the secondary lacked communication and made a lot of mental errors. Wall, specifically, made a couple huge mistakes in coverage, while Campbell simply struggled in his one-on-one match-ups. In the end, though, despite the Stamps bringing their ‘D’ game against Ottawa’s ‘A’ game, the 104th Grey Cup was decided on a third-down play in overtime.

Regardless, without a championship banner, the 2016 Calgary Stampeders, like the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders, were ultimately unsuccessful.

2. BC Lions
Projected record: 10-8, 2nd in West
Actual record: 12-6, 2nd in West

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca
Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

One of the biggest moves of the off-season was an internal move in the Lions’ organisation – handing the coaching reigns back to Wally Buono. There was a complete culture turn-around in the Lions’ locker-room that seemed so drastic it was hard to believe that this team was not yet one year removed from a tumultuous 2015 season under an uncommitted coach, Jeff Tedford.

The Lions were re-fueled with Jonathon Jennings, who came on strong as a rookie, entering training camp as the day-one starting quarterback. Jennings was a huge spark for the entire organisation and the team wouldn’t be a 12-win team without him. With that being said, having a young, inexperienced quarterback was the main reason why the Lions couldn’t overcome the league’s elite teams on a consistent basis. Jennings went through many growing pains – he was pulled in a week 7 loss to the Argos, threw just 10 completions in 60 minutes in a week nine loss, and turned the ball over 7 times in 3 games against the Bombers – but certainly showed that his rookie season was no fluke and that he has all the tools needed to be an elite quarterback in the future.

The Lions’ defense was much aided by the recovery of LB Soloman Elimimian from a career-threatening achilles injury. He had the best season of his career, winning his second-career Most Outstanding Defensive Player. Thanks to a bounce-back season from Alex Bazzie, who notched 11 sacks in his third campaign, the Lions tied the Stamps for a league-leading 52 sacks. With Adam Bighill staying healthy and flying all over the field, the Lions were strong inside the box. They were the league’s worst team at creating turnovers, though, despite allowing the fourth-least amount of passing yards – a testament to Mark Washington’s defensive scheme. With a plethora of young defensive backs starting – as well as the Lions being without CB Ronnie Yell down the stretch – BC left plenty of room for improvement in their defensive backfield.

Jennings’ inexperience and growing pains – coupled with some occasionally shoddy pass-protection, pass-defense and field goal kicking- ultimately prevented the Lions from competing with the Stamps in the West Final.

3. Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Projected record: 10-8, 3rd in West
Actual record: 11-7, 3rd in West

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15) celebrates his touchdown against the Saskatchewan Roughriders during the second half of CFL Banjo Bowl action in Winnipeg Saturday, September 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15) celebrates his touchdown against the Saskatchewan Roughriders during the second half of CFL Banjo Bowl action in Winnipeg Saturday, September 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Matt Nichols was a revelation for the Blue Bombers, who started 1-4 with Drew Willy at quarterback. The Bombers are an easy team to identify, feasting off turnovers, great offensive line play, the tutelage of Andrew Harris and game-managing play under-center. Oh, and the kicking – how could we forget the kicking?

Justin Medlock put together one of the greatest kicking seasons ever, booting through 88.2% of his kicks despite attempting more than any other kicker and having the longest average attempt. Medlock was perfect on his extra points, and accounted for the largest percentage of his team’s points of all kickers.

The Bombers’ down-fall came largely from a defense that was great during the middle of the season but faltered down the stretch. The Bombers’ pass-rush struggled, and the secondary struggled with discipline in communicating and executing their assignments in zone-coverage. Though Nichols didn’t always maintain his efficiency level down the stretch, he did everything he could have done to win the West Semi Final at BC Place. The Bombers’ offense put up two field goal drives in the second half, which should have been more than good enough for an offense playing with the lead and entering the third quarter with a three-score lead.

The Bombers’ defense will need to be addressed in the off-season, as the turnover-rate they maintained likely won’t carry over into next season. And where would this defense be without their ridiculous ability to create turnovers?

4. Edmonton Eskimos
Projected record: 8-10, 4th in West
Actual record: 10-8, 4th in West

Frank Woods/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Frank Woods/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Eskimos’ season went exactly according to plan, and it should be seen as a positive year for a rebuilding team. Unsurprisingly, the Eskimos started the season tremendously slow on defense. What else did you expect out of a team that didn’t have one returning coach from the previous year? But, as the back half of the season rolled around, the Eskimos got their ground game rolling and their defense began to gel and play respectable football. Ultimately, they were legitimate contenders come November. That’s a great accomplishment considering the massive turnover this organisation experienced in the personnel department.

Very few people saw the defending Grey Cup champions regressing in 2016, and they were right – at least in terms of the offense. Their defense never resembled the stingy unit that Chris Jones led over the previous two seasons. Again, that should have been expected considering their losses of Jones, Aaron Grymes, CB John Ojo, DE Willie Jefferson and LB Dexter McCoil.

Though I’m still not sure if I believe in Mike Benevides, Edmonton’s defense did improve as the year progressed. That’s largely thanks to the play of their defensive line featuring Almondo Sewell, Odell Willis and Philip Hunt, a huge late-season addition. The Esks still have some uncertainty in the secondary, however, as boundary defenders Patrick Watkins and Marcell Young have reached their expiry dates.

In the end, the Eskimos ran through their offensive prowess. Despite mediocre pass-protection at left tackle and right tackle, Mike Reilly had another outstanding season. Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker combined for 229 catches, 3350 yards and 19 touchdowns, likely making them the greatest single-season duo in CFL history. John White and Shakir Bell brought life to the ground-game as the days got colder behind the steady play of Justin Sorensen, who continues to rebound nicely after a failed stint in Winnipeg. With Brandon Zylstra also stepping up down the stretch, the Esks had all the makings of a championship offense.

Their pass-protection and defense, however, were not on the same level.

5. Saskatchewan Roughriders
Projected record: 5-13, 5th in West
Actual record: 5-13, 5th in West

darian-durant

I’ll never be able to fathom how even the most sane Riders’ fans thought this team would compete for a playoff spot in year one of the biggest rebuild I’ve ever seen. The Riders brought in a completely new coaching staff – be it one with a championship pedigree – and almost no continuity from the previous year.

Overall, the Riders weren’t nearly good enough – it’s really that simple. They had absolutely porous Canadian talent all the way across the board, and while they they discovered some quality international talent near the end of the season that will make them more competitive next season, they shuffled through far too many players to be competitive.

The Riders’ offensive line, in particular, was horrendous. First-round pick Josiah St. John had a rough start to his career compared to other first-round offensive linemen this year, and Darian Durant payed the price for his offensive line’s incompetence. With Shawn Lemon, Justin Capicciotti and Jonathon Newsom proving to be busts, the Riders’ defensive line was nearly as bad. Henoc Muamba and Willie Jefferson were game-changing late-season additions, but there’s still plenty of work to do on the defensive side of the ball and with the Canadian content.

The Kevin Francis project failed, and the Riders hurt themselves drastically by keeping the rookie converted receiver at safety for so long. It took the Riders until the last few weeks to discover a quality running back in Joe McKnight, and Durant seemed to have a different group of receivers every game.

When a team sets a record for the most players used in a season, its not a good recipe for success. Reaching five wins, with most coming in the last third of the season, Chris Jones probably overachieved in his first season in Saskatchewan based on the talent on his roster. The Riders have a bright future, but Jones and Co. need more time.

East Division

1. Ottawa Redblacks
Projected record: 12-6, 1st in East
Actual record: 8-9-1, 1st in East

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn.

For a Grey Cup winning team, the Redblacks sure had a lot of flaws. Like the Eskimos, they had not issues replicating their offensive success from 2015, but the defense took several steps back to start the season. In the end, though, Mark Nelson’s defense clicked in time for the second half of the season, and the Redblacks played beyond their week-to-week capabilities in the biggest game of the season. Credit to Rick Campbell for getting the absolute best out of his players in the Grey Cup.

Ottawa’s a talented team, no doubt, and their execution was absolutely outstanding, but I will say that the X-factor in the Grey Cup was how coordinators Jaime Elizondo and Mark Nelson out-schemed the Stampeders. Without these new wrinkles, Calgary likely wins that game – they’re simply that good. Instead, defensively, Nelson gave Bo Levi Mitchell something he hadn’t seen and couldn’t seem to counter-punch. Ottawa played their pass coverage zones looser than usual, resulting in Mitchell’s hesitation and his tendency to confusingly press the same read for so long. Elizondo, meanwhile, used a plethora of horizontal motion that had the Stamps hesitating along the edge, opening up the middle for Ottawa running backs and buying Henry Burris extra time.

Dominance at quarterback has been the story of the Redblacks this season. Trevor Harris was spectacular in filling in for Burris, who suffered a finger injury in week one, and frankly, he probably never should have been relegated to being the backup again. For the second straight season, Ottawa had four 1,000-yard receivers, and each of their roles seemed to be more understood this season. Despite quite a few injuries along the offensive line – both starting tackles, SirVincent Rogers and Jake Silas, missed the Grey Cup – Ottawa’s pass-protection was solid. (It helps having Burris – the most fluent rover in the pocket – back there).

It took a while for the Redblacks’ secondary to find themselves without the likes of Jovon Johnson and Brandyn Thompson, two huge contributors to their success in 2015. Eventually, though, Jonathon Rose settled in and Abdul Kanneh regained his elite form. Injuries didn’t do this defense any favors either, as they spent stretches without Canadian pass-rushers Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Connor Williams. Zach Evans was heart of the defense, and the mid-season addition of bruising middle linebacker Taylor Reed addressed a missing dimension in the group.

A team that battled injuries and lost a lot of close games, the Redblacks were always better than the 8-9-1 record they posted. Still, Calgary was the league’s best team in 2016, but Ottawa won the games when they mattered – and credit them for that.

2. Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Projected record: 11-7, 2nd in East
Actual record: 7-11, 2nd in East

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca
Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Hamilton’s season will be remembered for the amount of injuries they went through, but they ultimately weren’t good enough and certainly didn’t have the adequate enough depth needed- and that’s the bottom line. Franchise quarterback Zach Collaros was limited to 10 games – he began the season recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season, and missed a chunk of games later in the year with a shoulder injury – but even in the games Collaros played when Hamilton was relatively healthy offensively, he just didn’t seem to resemble the quarterback that lit the league on fire last summer.

Some of that can be put on the offensive line, and some of that can attributed to the loss of offensive coordinator Tommy Condell before training camp – an underrated loss that was far more noticeable than most anticipated. But some of that can be blamed on Kent Austin, who for the second-straight year, turned a blind eye to CJ Gable and the run-game. The Cats’ offensive line was in no way dominant – they can’t find an adequate left tackle, and Pete Dyakowski’s end is near – but offensive lineman are in an awfully disadvantageous position when everyone and their dog knows that they’re dropping into their pass-sets on Hamilton’s next play.

John Chick and Adrian Tracy were both revelations on defense, while Ted Laurent and Drake Nevis could be the league’s best interior duo. The play of the secondary overshadowed Hamilton’s stout defensive line, however. Hamilton had a slew of injuries on the back-end, as Johnny Sears and Rico Murray missed virtually the entire season, while Craig Butler could not recover from an off-season knee injury in time to re-join the team late in the season. Regardless, it was still shocking to see just how porous the Ticats’ depth proved to be at defensive back.

While I’m sure Ticats fans would like to be able to forget this season and start new without the injuries, the harsh reality is that this team may not get another chance. Key personnel like Orlando Steinauer and Andy Fantuz may not return to Steeltown.

3. Montreal Alouettes
Projected record: 7-11, 3rd in East
Actual record: 7-11, 3rd in East

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Nelson.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Nelson.

Its almost impossible for one to wrap their head around how much damage Jim Popp did to the Alouettes this season. The Alouettes didn’t have a terrible roster – at least in relation to the East Division – but Popp’s inability to control the locker-room lead to him ruining many relationships between players and the club. Popp hit rock-bottom when he cut young, talented pass-catchers Duron Carter and Kenny Stafford, who no longer bought into their coach. And they weren’t alone.

If Jacques Chapdelaine – or anyone who could maintain a decent image among his players – had been head coach all season, Kevin Glenn likely would have never been shipped out, and the Alouettes would have made the playoffs. (Ultimately, though, that would have landed Montreal nowhere, as Vernon Adams Jr. needed reps, and they needed to part ways with Popp as a GM, too).

The Alouettes were in no one’s mind a Grey Cup contender. Their offensive line was the worst in the CFL, and while Adams showed promise for the future, and Glenn was serviceable before SJ Green went down, they obviously lacked a good quarterback. Anthony Calvillo was clearly not ready to be an offensive coordinator either.

The Alouettes’ defense did not have the talent level it had last season, as John Bowman and Gabriel Knapton were both quiet, and their trio of rookie CBs – Jonathon Mincy, Greg Henderson and Ethan Davis – all experienced very noticeable growing-pains. Despite the Angry Birds finishing near the bottom of the league in most defensive statistical categories, I maintain that Noel Thorpe’s system is excellent – Popp didn’t provide his long-time defensive coordinator with the young talent to succeed.

There is good news for Alouettes fans. Popp is finally out of the picture, and Adams Jr. is three-for-three as a starting quarterback in the league. All will be fine in Montreal if Adams comes as advertised, even if their the roster is filled with holes. Building a younger, more talented team will take a fraction of the time and effort it has taken the organization to find Calvillo’s successor.

4. Toronto Argonauts
Projected record: 6-12, last in the East
Actual record: 5-13, last in the East

A lot was expected  out of the Argos this season, both on the field and off it. Ricky Ray was finally healthy, and the Argos were under new ownership in a small, more intimate venue: BMO Field. More people than not had the Boatmen finishing at or near the top of the East Division, and were surprised to see the complete disaster that was the Argos’ season. Perhaps this warm, fuzzy feeling about the Argos heading into 2016 was simply in good spirits and to spread positivity. Otherwise, I simply don’t know what mislead the public into giving Michael Copeland’s Argos these lofty expectations in year one.

Ricky Ray was 36 heading into the season having and had well-deserved the injury-prone label. It’s well-versed that it takes two good quarterbacks to win in the CFL, and the Argos entered the season with no proven no.2 on the roster. Ray dressed in just nine games – an inevitable situation considering his age, recent history and the offensive lineman in front of him.

Knowing that protecting the now-fragile Ray was their top priority, the Argos’ big free-agent coup was Canadian right tackle Josh Bourke. But the Argos’ offensive line gave up 47 sacks, and Bourke’s decline continued from his last year in Montreal – he is, after all, 34-years-old. Father Time also continued to conquer fellow Canadian tackle Chris Van Zeyl, unfortunately. The Argos could be without both Canuck book-ends next season.

The addition of long-time Stamps defensive coordinator Rich Stubler was a step in the right direction for a notoriously porous defense, but the talent-level was simply not at an acceptable level. Less mentioned, however, was the absence of experienced defensive coaches, and there was an understanding that really only Stubler understood the defensive system out of all the coaches on his staff.

The Argos really missed interior defenders Cleyon Laing and Euclid Cummings, who combined for 16 sacks last year. Aside from Shawn Lemon, a great early-season acquisition from Saskatchewan, the Argos had no pass-rush. The Justin Hickman signing was a bust, and Ricky Foley showed he’s past his prime at 34-years-old.

Copeland is expected to make sweeping changes very soon to a team that evidently lacked leadership this year. Head coach Scott Milanovich was unable to control the locker-room and the attitudes inside it. Milanovich and GM Jim Barker released four upper-tier receivers mid-season – Vidal Hazelton, Tori Gurley, Kevin Elliott – and the players didn’t seem to stand by Milanovich’s decision to ride out the season with Drew Willy at quarterback.

 

Assessing the Bombers’ Complicated Free Agents Situation

Thanks to GM Kyle Walters being on top of things and extending contracts early, the Winnipeg Football Club has been in favorable situations in terms of having a relatively small amount of pending free agents to re-sign in the off-season since he took over in 2013.

Despite having already extending key players such as Chris Randle and Mathias Goossen, Walters is still poised to face decisions regarding the most free agents he’s had since taking over the player personnel reigns from Joe Mack. Fortunately, the Bombers’ 19 pending free agents about represents an average number in the CFL.

The Bombers’ cap situation is quite interesting heading into the off-season. They’re now without the egregious contract of Drew Willy, but Nichols’ needed pay-raise – which will likely contain a base salary of at least $300,000 – erases much of the breathing room when you consider that both Khalil Bass and Darvin Adams after expected to go from making peanuts over the last two seasons to north of $100,000 annually.

There will be other pending free agents, of course, that will demand smaller pay-raises, but pay-raises nonetheless. Every penny counts for the Bombers this off-season considering the league’s minuscule salary cap of 5.1 million. Evidently, Walters can’t keep everyone. (Although it does make sense to wish for as much continuity as possible in order for this young team to build on a successful 2016 season). It would also be nice to have a little bit of free cap space for a change after the shopping spree that was the free agency spending last February.

As we look into who should stay and who should go regarding the club’s upcoming free agents, its important to consider that the Bombers will make other moves that will affect their re-sign phase that aren’t directly previewed at this time. The Bombers could be poised to release players with large cap hits such as Patrick Neufeld, which would completely change the way the re-sign phase is approached. For now, though, we’ll deal with the cards that are dealt.

The club released their free agents list on the official team website. Here’s my take on the team’s suspected current cap situation in relation to their upcoming free agents, and which of their 20 should be offered an extension.

Retain without hesitation…

QB Matt Nichols

Nichols has provided the Bombers with the most stability at the quarterback position since Kevin Glenn’s first stint in the blue and gold. As proven by the Montreal Alouettes and certainly the Bombers themselves, quality quarterbacks are not easy to come by. Whether they’re elite passers or lower-echelon game-managers, starting-caliber pivots are a must-resign when the free agent market is as weak as it will be this February. Negotiations won’t be easy between Nichols’ party and Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters, as Nichols has leverage thanks to both the free agent market and his 10-3 record as the starter in 2016. On the other hand, Walters must be careful with both the term and annual average value of the deal following the Drew Willy contract disaster, as well as Nichols’ unconvincing numbers that could regress next season. Regardless, this deal absolutely must get done as soon as possible. The Bombers need Matt Nichols.

WR Darvin Adams

All Adams did in 2016 was produce. Though his season was ravaged by a broken collarbone injury that limited the fourth-year veteran to just eight games, he was productive enough in limited action to warrant a significant pay-raise from the dollar figures he first signed for two off-seasons ago when he came over from the Toronto Argonauts with 261 career receiving yards. Adams accumulated 690 yards and six scores this season, and his phenomenal yards-per-game average of 86.3 yards puts him in the elite company of Adarius Bowman and Chris Williams. Don’t expect Adams to get paid like those two – the minuscule sample size is one of a few reasons – but he’ll still be benefiting financially from an extremely production season.

LB Khalil Bass

Bass’ value to the Bombers’ defense, despite only being a professional for two seasons, is often over-looked. He’s their much-needed bruiser between the tackles, eating blocks to free up his teammates and causing havoc at the point of attack like no one else on the defense does. He provides a steady back-side presence when the ball goes away from him, and is a surprisingly consistent tackler despite his willingness to deliver the bone-crushing hits. As the MIKE, the young ‘backer is depended on to shift his defensive lineman’s alignment and switch around assignments based on the offensive formation and motion, and as far as I can tell, Bass seems is quite reliable in that sense, too. At just 26-years-old, the Bombers need to keep around the Portland State product who’s stepped up and filled a key role in the defense in just his second season.

FB James Tuck

The Bombers were in no dire need to pick up other team’s Canadian training camp casualties, but they pounced on the opportunity to sign Tuck when the Argos released him – and for good reason. Tuck was a special-teams demon in 2016, and at the ripe age of 26, he should be around for awhile. While he falls into the category of a pure special-teamer who doesn’t necessarily have a regular position on offense or defense, Tuck does provide emergency depth at fullback, with Christophe Normand dressing as the Bombers’ lone fullback.

LS Chad Rempel

Rempel’s name was rarely – if ever – brought up this season. As a long-snapper, that’s always a good thing. Rempel, 35, is truly one of the best in the business.

Should the price be favorable….

LB Tony Burnett

Burnett, 26, should be re-upped from his rookie deal with a one-year contract. With Ian Wild missing several games due to injuries, Burnett had the opportunities to prove himself on defense and did not look out of place. In fact, the drop-off from Wild to Burnett was hardly noticeable at all. The USC product is another good season away from being in high demand on the free agent market to fill a starting role next year. The Bombers won’t let him walk, however, if he unseats Wild for the starting job at weak-side linebacker in 2017 – a move that would make sense financially and potentially on the field, too. If he’s again a depth player behind Wild next season, Burnett will continue to be heavily-relied upon on special-teams as he gathers film for a trip to free agency in 2018.

QB Kevin Glenn

A proven backup quarterback is a must-have in the CFL. At this point in his career, Glenn, soon-to-be 38, is exactly that. Youngsters Dominique Davis and Bryan Bennett haven’t given the Bombers any reason to go young and cheap at the position. Glenn must be re-signed.

SB/KR Quincy McDuffie

McDuffie had a quietly good first season in Blue after three seasons in Hamilton as depth to Brandon Banks. He’s merely 26-years-old, and led the league in both major kick return categories: return average (27.7) and touchdowns (2). McDuffie will likely take over all return duties next year, as its not ideal to have a starting DB in Kevin Fogg returning punts full-time. And if Fogg does not earn a starting job in the secondary, there’s likely not a spot on the roster for him at all. McDuffie, meanwhile, looks to be a solid backup receiver when used properly, too. He’s well deserving of a slight pay-raise from the near-league minimum he likely earned in 2016.

LB Sam Hurl

Hurl is a very solid special-teamer and, despite the Bombers being destined to draft another linebacker in 2017 along with recent draftees Garrett Waggoner and Shayne Gauthier, it he would be a noticeable loss if he isn’t deemed affordable. Signed as a starter two seasons ago, Hurl will have to take a pay-cut after being demoted following his first season in Winnipeg.

QB Dominique Davis

Davis has had very few chances to show his skill in a real-game situation, and that could work in his favor. In terms of accuracy and ball-placement, Davis was clearly superior to fourth-string quarterback Bryan Bennett, who’s also a free agent, in the pre-season. The Bombers are looking for a young quarterback to move into the backup role and displace Glenn, and though they’ll likely add two new faces in the off-season, expect them to retain one of Davis and Bennett. The former, who kept his third-string job all season, should be the one.

SB Thomas Mayo

At minimum salary, the Bombers may as well bring back Mayo, who showed potential in his few opportunities, for training camp.

Worthy but likely not affordable…

DT Euclid Cummings

Cummings is an athletic specimen who’s statistics did not represent his effectiveness in his first season in the blue and gold. While his sack totals decreased from 8 in his unofficial rookie campaign to just three sacks in 2016, he remains an above average pass-rusher at a position largely centered on pass-rushing – the 3-technique. The 290-pounder provides versatility in that he can shift out to defensive end if needed, possessing the speed and some of the flexibility needed for playing on the edge. Regardless, as an international defensive tackle who was inconsistent against the run, the Bombers can’t break the bank for Cummings. I was surprised to read reports indicating Kyle Walters paid Cummings $140,000/year after really just one season in the league in 2015. He’ll request about the same money this year, and seeing as Darvin Adams and Khalil Bass will go from making pennies to well north of $100,000 this off-season, the Bombers may have to sacrifice Cummings, who could leave for the NFL regardless.

Clarence Denmark

There’s a decent chance the Bombers make room to bring back Denmark, which would likely come through releasing Tori Gurley, who has an official contract in place should he not defy the odds and earn another NFL shot. But the Bombers have to be weary in investing veteran money in international players. They certainly can’t keep both Denmark and Gurley along with Weston Dressler, Darvin Adams and Ryan Smith. For now, Denmark is the one without a contract for next year.

Time to move on from…

WR Rory Kohlert

After starting all 18 games for the third straight season – well, he missed one game last year –  Kohlert lost his starting position heading into the West semi-final, a move that was long overdue. Kohlert’s numbers have continually declined since a career-high 594 yards and three TDs in 2014. The Bombers are desperate for improved production from a Canadian at field-side wide receiver – Kohlert has shown that he’s no longer capable.

HB Julian Posey

The Bombers are loaded with faces at defensive back. There’s no reason to bring back a occasional-practice roster player that gave up an average of 41 receiving yards/game in six starts.

LB Jessie Briggs

Having drafted Canadian linebackers Garrett Waggoner and Shayne Gauthier in the last two years, the Bombers will likely choose between Briggs and Hurl in the coming months. Briggs is the cheaper option, but Hurl has significantly more starting experience. Though he played injured, Briggs had a poor season this year, riddled with penalties and missed tackles.

FS Teague Sherman

Though he was certainly legitimately injured at one point, the Bombers willingly kept Sherman off the active roster with the emergence of rookie FS Taylor Loffler. Fellow Canadian defensive backs Derek Jones and Brendan Morgan are already under contract for next season, leaving little room for the veteran. The University of Manitoba alumni should get another look elsewhere in the league.

QB Bryan Bennett

Seeing as they picked up Kevin Glenn mid-season, the Bombers certainly aren’t completely sold on Davis and Bennett for immediate returns. Glenn’s arrival could be irrelevant, but look for the Bombers to bring in a new arm next season to hopefully compete in the future for the no. 2 spot.

2016 CFL Awards Picks: Stamps’ Exceptional Season Should be Reflected at Awards

There’s a reason the Calgary Stampeders (15-2-1) will go down as one of the CFL’s best-ever teams if they deliver a championship, and the 2016 league awards will very likely reflect that.

The East Division-winning Ottawa REDBLACKS dominated the night last year in Winnipeg, with Henry Burris, SirVincent Rogers, Brad Sinopoli and head coach Rick Campbell all bringing home hardware. Don’t be surprised, however, if Calgary one-ups the REDBLACKS given the amount of well-deserving candidates that will be representing the Stamps at the ceremony in Toronto.

The following picks are not predictions, but rather who I think should win. Credit to SportsCentre anchor and CFL stats guru Derek Taylor for providing many of the advanced stats used in my justifications.

Let’s get into it.

Most Outstanding Player
QB Bo Levi Mitchell, Calgary Stampeders

This pick is a no-brainer. Mitchell quarterbacked the Stampeders to a 15-1-1 record (Drew Tate was the starter in Calgary’s week 19 loss), leading the CFL in most major statistical passing categories. Along with a league-leading 32 touchdown passes, Mitchell has the lowest interception percentage among starting quarterbacks at 1.3%. His exceptionally quick release and ability to process information quickly played a huge role in the Stamps allowing a league-best 20 sacks. For reference, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers allowed 71 sacks in 2014. Qualifying for a second championship in three years as a starter with a win in the West Final would absolutely eliminate any remaining questions as to who’s the league’s 2016 Most Outstanding Player, though there already shouldn’t be any doubt. Mitchell should win this award unanimously.

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Most Outstanding Defensive Player
DE Charleston Hughes, Calgary Stampeders

Hughes flew under the radar more dramatically in 2016 than in any other season in his nine year career – and that’s saying something considering three defensive ends opposite Hughes have received NFL contracts before he has. Hughes had the best season of his career in 2016, registering 55 pressures, 16 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 47 tackles. Hughes, somehow, has 18 more pressures than the next leading pass-rusher (John Chick, at 37) despite dropping into pass coverage more than any other pass-rusher in the top-5. Hughes’ next greatest competition for this award is British Columbia’s Soloman Elimimian, but when comparing the degree of which each of them stood out among their peers at their respective position groups, it’s clear enough that Hughes should be the winner.

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Most Outstanding Special-Teams Player
K/P Justin Medlock, Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Need any convincing that Medlock should be the unanimous choice for this award? You shouldn’t. The most accurate field goal kicker in CFL history, Medlock’s 2016 campaign was one for the ages. In his first season as a Bomber, Medlock has come one point shy with one game remaining of Troy Westwood’s club record for points in a season, and is three field goals away from tying Dave Ridgeway’s record of 59 successful field goals in a season. On top of all this, Medlock broke a club record on his first successful kick for longest field goal made at 58 yards. Oh, and he’s also, far and away, the only kicker to have not missed a convert. This season will go down in history as one of the best ever from a CFL kicker.

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Most Outstanding Canadian
RB Jerome Messam, Calgary Stampeders

This may have been Bombers’ RB Andrew Harris’ award had he not missed three games mid-season, but give credit where credit’s due – Messam had a tremendous season in his first full campaign in Calgary. And it’s hard not to be happy for him – playing in all 18 games and leading the league in rushing – after bouncing around from team to team year after year ever since he won this award back in 2011 with the Eskimos. Messam also recorded 485 receiving yards along with his 1,198 rushing yards in 2016, both of which are career-highs. While many will point to Calgary’s exceptional offensive line – dubbed the Great Wall of Calgary – for Messam’s success, his 2.8 average yards-before-contact only ranks sixth among eligible running backs. Evidently, Messam played a huge role in Calgary’s explosive run game, and has done more than enough to secure his second Most Outstanding Canadian award.

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Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman
LT Derek Dennis, Calgary Stampeders

Another rather no-brainer, the Stamps knew they had a great one in Derek Dennis before his second season kicked off, and they were more than right. Per TSN’s Derek Taylor, offensive tackles allowed more pressures than guards and centers combined in 2016, yet only four interior offensive lineman – and no tackles – have allowed less pressures than Dennis. With that being said, Dennis has started many more games than three of the four players ahead of him, further emphasizing his success in 2016. The Stamps unquestionably had the best offensive line in the league in 2016, and it’d be a farce if anyone but a Stamps’ lineman received this award. While Spencer Wilson had another great year, Dennis gets the nod.

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Most Outstanding Rookie
FS Taylor Loffler, Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Unlike every other award, picking the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie had me completely torn. In past seasons (before the league updated its criteria for illegal contact), 891 receiving yards and nine touchdowns would be a solid season for a receiver who played a full season. Stamps’ receiver Davaris Daniels, however, reached these totals in just 11 games – as a rookie, nonetheless. Loffler, meanwhile, took a starting spot from an American and never looked back, quickly becoming a player opposing offenses game-plan around as he increased his totals to four interceptions, five pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles and 21 run stops on a total of 59 tackles in just 12.5 starts. Seeing as their numbers are completely incomparable considering one plays offense and one plays defense, we must default to comparing their play to that of their peers at their respective positions. Loffler has the best numbers of any safety, and the only free safety that has a legitimate argument as to having a better 2016 season is Calgary’s Josh Bell. Meanwhile, Daniels’ 81.5 yards-per-game is just seventh in the league among receivers. Daniels does have a comparable catch percentage to All-Star receiver Derel Walker (68.9% to 70%), but Walker had 80 more targets. Loffler is completely deserving of this award despite the fact that the CFL doesn’t have an exceptionally strong list of starting safeties, having allowed just nine catches on 21 targets for 242 yards and only one touchdown. Loffler’s 12.8 yards-per-target is quite good for any safety, let alone a rookie Canadian third-round pick. Loffler’s range, closing speed, angle-taking and knack for making bone-crushing hits project the UBC product as a top Canadian for years to come.

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Coach of the Year
Mike O’Shea, Winnipeg Blue Bombers

There’s been little talk surrounding the Coach of the Year award. The league has a 15-2-1 team in the Stamps, but does Calgary’s exceptionally talented roster decrease rookie head coach Dave Dickenson’s credibility? Has Bombers’ boss Mike O’Shea done enough, recovering from a 1-4 start to making the play-offs, even if his club finishes fourth in the West or is one-and-done in the playoffs? And what about the CFL’s winningest coach, Wally Buono, who completely turned the Lions around in one season following the mess Jeff Tedford left? Though its close, and all three can be justified, O’Shea should get the nod for this reason: guiding his team to the play-offs with a middle-tier quarterback in Matt Nichols. Rather than elite-level QB play, the Bombers, with a never-say-die attitude, relied on turnovers, a solid-ground game, and the exceptional consistency of Justin Medlock to make the playoffs with a winning record. The Blue & Gold found ways to win, and went on a 7-game win-streak after starting 1-4 to vault themselves into the post-season for the first time since 2011. O’Shea’s defining moment, however, may not have come during the 7-game win streak, but rather in the Bombers’ crucial two-game sweep of the Lions in weeks 16 and 17. The Bombers were down two scores late in week 17 at BC Place before the O’Shea’s club scored 13 points in the last four minutes to win the season series.

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