To say the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense is feeling really good following a season-high 560 yards from scrimmage against the no. 1 defense in the CFL would be an extreme understatement.
With the entire offence leaping into the end-zone stands after major scores and QB Matt Nichols getting down with little touchdown dances of his own, it’s evident the Bombers are more confident than ever after knocking off the 7-0 Edmonton Eskimos with a 33-26 win on home turf. Andrew Harris, who racked up a ridiculous 225 yards from scrimmage on the night, had a very telling quote to reporters following the game, perfectly summing up how the offense was able to be so successful while simultaneously expressing a form of confidence the Bombers have earned the right to carry.
“We’re the best team in the league at the no-huddle. We put teams in the position where they have too many guys or the wrong personnel. We’re going to continue to expand that. It’s good to mix in throughout the game.”
Harris hit the nail on the head with that statement and explanation. The Bombers displayed one of the quickest, most efficient no-huddle offenses against Edmonton, consistently getting the ball snapped merely moments after the play is whistled in by the officials. As a result of this efficiency, the Bombers were able to consistently catch Edmonton before they were ready.
When watching this game, it’s clear Bombers’ offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice wanted to take advantage of Edmonton’s excessive defensive personnel substitutions by going no-huddle. Eskimos defensive coordinator Mike Benevides changes personnel groupings in-game more than any defensive coordinator in the league. In Thursday’s game against the Bombers, the Eskimos were constantly flipping between their base and nickel personnel (DB #42 Cauchy Muamba subs in at WILL linebacker) packages throughout the game, attempting to put faster, more natural cover players in space in passing situations.
Leading up to this huge week nine showdown, Lapolice and the Bombers’ staff clearly believed they could catch the Eskimos with either the wrong personnel on the field or without enough time to communicate everyone’s assignments after making personnel changes – and they were right. The Bombers had tremendous success with their no-huddle offence in this game.
It might sound hard to believe, but only 12 of the Bombers’ 73 offensive plays against Edmonton were actually ran from the no-huddle. It was the Bombers’ effectiveness on those 12 plays and the stress they put on the Eskimos, however, that made them seem to be more frequent.
The Bombers achieved a first down on a whopping 9 of those 12 no-huddle plays. They averaged 12.6 yards/attempt when passing the football with the no-huddle, which comes out to 15.8 yards-per-completion. The most mind-boggling statistic from this week nine game, however, is that the Eskimos took four illegal substitution penalties for having too many men on the field – all of which happened when the Bombers were in no-huddle.
The Bombers especially exploited Edmonton’s personnel groupings and substitutions by going no-huddle after explosion plays or big second-and-long conversions. On a 2nd-and-10 with 10:05 left in the fourth quarter, the Eskimos bring out their dime personnel to stop the pass, substituting linebackers Christophe Mulumba and Alex Hoffman-Ellis for defensive backs Cauchy Muamba and Chris Edwards. After gaining 14 yards on a slip screen to slot-back TJ Thorpe, however, the Bombers are able to gain a fresh set of downs and, knowing Edmonton is stuck with 8 defensive backs on the field on 1st-&-10, Lapolice is licking his chops up in the coach’s booth. The Bombers go no-huddle, giving Edmonton no time to substitute their linebackers back in the game, and pound the ball with Harris, gaining seven yards on the play. Benevides actually tried to rush his linebackers onto the field while Nichols aligned his offence, but it was too late. In fact, Edmonton was called for illegal substitution (too many men) to add salt to the wound, as Hoffman-Ellis couldn’t get back off the field in time after trying to sub back into the game.
Edmonton scrambling to make personnel changes while the Bombers go no-huddle after converting second-downs was a massive reason for Winnipeg’s success on first-and-10. After allowing Andrew Harris to be wide open down the seam for 20 yards on 2nd-&-10 in the second quarter, the Eskimos attempt to substitute out of their base defense and into their 43 nickel personnel package, while also substituting Canadian pass-rusher Kwaku Boateng into the game for international DE Mike Moore. Once again, the Bombers’ are too quick getting to the ball for Edmonton, and the Eskimos take an illegal substitution penalty for too many men while also giving up 17 yards in the air to Clarence Denmark. In the below GIF, you can see Moore still walking off the field as the Bombers get the snap off with :17 seconds left on the play-clock.
With Matt Nichols quickly communicating the play and getting the ball snapped 2-4 seconds after play is whistled in, Edmonton defenders were routinely late getting to their spots and rarely had time to observe what the Bombers were doing pre-snap, struggling just to get their own play-call communicated and called out.
On this second-and-7 in the fourth quarter, Lapolice puts his offence in no-huddle mode after a modest three-yard pickup on first down. With neither team making personnel changes, Edmonton should be able to get their play called and everyone properly aligned, but Nichols and Co. are simply too fast. The Bombers catch Edmonton off guard with a rare empty set in the backfield, and the Eskimos simply do not have time to adjust accordingly with the ball being snapped with :16 seconds still on the play-clock. Edmonton is late getting lined up and TJ Thorpe is left with a free first-down worth of real estate ahead of him.
The Bombers’ tempo offence is also a big reason for their success in short-yardage situations. Nichols scored on a QB Dive from 1 yard out in the third quarter to make the score 23-10 after the Bombers went no-huddle and gave the Eskimos no time to bring out their goal-line personnel. The Bombers gained 10 yards and an automatic first down again in the fourth quarter by hurrying to the ball in a short-yardage situation, creating all types of confusion and disorganization for the Eskimos.
Despite the officials taking the time to bring out the sticks and measure, Winnipeg is in no-huddle mode. Seeing as the game was stopped for the measurement, Edmonton is not expecting the Bombers to rush to the ball as soon as the play is whistled in. Rather, they’re expecting the Bombers to call a play in the huddle after finding out they didn’t have the first down, or to substitute in their short-yardage personnel. But the Bombers do neither, instead using no-huddle verbiage in almost a “pretend” huddle to catch the Eskimos in mediation, waiting for the Bombers to declare whether they’re bringing out their short-yardage team or not. Edmonton is stunned to see the Bombers rush to the ball, and are stuck between having their base personnel and short-yardage personnel on the field. The Eskimos not only align offside, but are flagged for their fourth illegal substitution penalty for too many men on the night.
On what will be seen as a catastrophic night for Mike Benevides and his unit whom, on top of taking four illegal substitution penalties, missed countless tackles as well, Lapolice and the Bombers’ offence deserve full remarks for their game-plan and execution. Nichols routinely had the offence ready to snap the ball before even the officials – let alone the opposing defense – was ready.
Coming off their best offensive performance of the season, look for the Bombers to expand their no-huddle offense, as Harris suggests. Considering the success the Bombers’ no-huddle offense had on such limited snaps against the no. 1 defense in the CFL, upcoming defensive coordinators should be having nightmares about having to face this up-tempo Lapolice attack.
It was no secret entering week five that Andrew Harris was the heartbeat of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense, but in a match-up against a well-respected defense where the Bombers needed him most, Harris rose to the occasion and reminded the league of his value to the blue and gold.
Harris finished Thursday night’s contest as the Bombers’ leading receiver with nine catches for 93 yards, increasing his season receiving totals out of the backfield to 37 receptions for 298 yards (59.6 yards/game), with a whopping 249 of those yards coming after the catch.
Harris’ eye-popping receiving totals aren’t the result of anything extraordinary from offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice. He hasn’t been lining up as a slot-back in two tail-back personnel sets like he did in 2013 with the BC Lions in his younger, shiftier days. Rather, with the way defenses are defending Matt Nichols, Harris is being fed the ball on simple check-down throws. And with the consistency of which Harris is converting these check-downs into first downs, Nichols owes a lot of thanks to the 30-year-old local product.
Without Harris’ clutch yards-after-the-catch, the Bombers lose to Montreal and fall to 2-3 on the season. The Alouettes and defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe prepared the perfect game-plan for Nichols, and with the exception of a couple nice plays in the final minute such as his 15-yard scramble to set up the game-winning score, Nichols struggled mightily to solve Montreal’s vaunted defense.
Thorpe, who heavily reinvented his defensive system this off-season – which I believe is the reason behind Bear Woods’ release – played to Nichols’ achilles heal: his lack of decisiveness against deep-dropping linebackers as well as 8 and 9-man coverages. With four linebackers and three defensive linemen as their personnel grouping of choice, the Alouettes tempted Nichols into checking the ball down. With Harris slipping out of pocket, however, the Bombers had a fantastic option to lean on when their quarterback could not solve the coverage.
All night Nichols looked uncomfortable in the pocket, hesitating before releasing the football knowing the threshold for error against so many defenders in coverage and tight windows is very small. Excluding all hitch screens, RPO bubble screens and broken plays (2 resulted in sacks), Nichols’ passing numbers sans Harris – who’s numbers are separate on the right of the chart – and garbage time emphasize how anemic the Bombers’ passing offense would have been without the Winnipeg product generating excellent YAC on check-down throws.
Evidently, with Montreal sending zone-blitzes to create five-men pressure with three defensive linemen, dropping the remaining two or three linebackers (depending on if a defensive back was one of two blitzers) deep, Nichols struggled to find his targets downfield. With cornerbacks playing loose-lock press-bail with LB help underneath and help over the top from the halfback, the windows in between defenders were very small. The Alouettes did a great job disguising which linebackers were coming and which were dropping into coverage, too, making Nichols very anxious in the pocket, resulting in several errant throws on short passes.
Fortunately Nichols could rely on Harris to keep the offense on the field when he struggled to solve the defense. Late in the second half, Montreal’s linebackers no longer wanted to take on Harris in the open-field, engaging on the powerful ‘back with arm tackles.
In the end, Harris finished as the Bombers’ leading receiver on top of scoring the game-winning rushing touchdown with no time on the clock. With how productive Harris has been on converting check-down throws in first downs, it won’t be long until teams defenses start keying on Harris coming out of the backfield, opening up the coverage downfield for Nichols.
Evidently, his effect on the Blue Bombers’ offense is tremendous.
No CFL team has won back-to-back Grey Cups since the Montreal Alouettes in 2009-2010.
But when was the last time someone correctly predicted the CFL standings correctly from top to bottom for two consecutive seasons? In the 2017 CFL season, I’m going for the repeat after nailing my predictions last season. While the East Division seems fairly predictable, the West is completely up in the air. And that’s where we start.
Despite once again losing several key players in the off-season, with reigning CFL Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell at the helm, the Stampeders are destined to once again overcome their losses. The Stamps have the best group of Canadian content in the league, and with players such as international receivers DaVaris Daniels, Kamar Jorden and Marquay McDaniel, the Grey Cup runner ups have no shortage of offensive weapons.
The most concerning area on Calgary’s roster is the depth behind Mitchell at QB. Rooting interest aside, it’s hard to imagine the Stamps’ offense not falling off with Andrew Buckley or Ricky Stanzi at quarterback, as it often did with veteran Drew Tate at the controls. The Stamps have avoided long-term injury to Mitchell in his three years as their starter, but that can – and hopefully does not – change in one play. With All-Star LT Derek Dennis now in Saskatchewan, Calgary’s potentially All-Canadian offensive line needs to keep Mitchell off the turf as much as possible.
Versatile swing-man Spencer Wilson will likely fill Dennis’ void at left tackle, pushing fourth-year veteran Brad Erdos into the starting lineup at right guard. Even after losing 2015 first-round pick Karl Lavoie to off-season retirement, Calgary still boasts solid offensive line depth. Look for Cam Thorn to start the season as the sixth-man, while Canadians Wilson, Erdos, Shane Bergman, Pierre Lavertu and Dan Federkeil make up the starting five. That’s a good group of Canadians.
Defensively, Calgary’s entire secondary is returning. After having all off-season drug charges dropped, sophomore Tommie Campbell will resume his post at boundary corner and maintain one of the league’s top CB duo with Ciante Evans, who had a breakout 2016 season. Veterans Jamar Wall and Brandon Smith, meanwhile, are still two of the league’s top halfbacks, while FS Josh Bell and SAM LB Joe Burnett are among the league’s best at their respective positions. Supplying the pass-rush for this secondary, look for DE Ja’Gared Davis to have a monster sophomore year with Cordarro Law done for the season with a broken ankle.
Bottom Line: Calgary has the elite quarterback, Canadian content and defense to get back to the Grey Cup, but they’ll be in trouble if Mitchell goes down. The West Division continues to get better, which would drop the Stamps’ win total down from 15 to 13, but they’re still the top-dogs of the CFL.
Matt Nichols started his first and only playoff game in 2016, going 26/40 for 390 yards, two TDs and 0 interceptions. Clearly, the Bombers have something good in the 30-year-old quarterback. If Nichols proves to be the field-general he looked to be in the 2016 West Semi-Final, it’s going to be a great year for the Bombers.
The Bombers enter the season will tremendous continuity on their roster. Offensively, receiver Ryan Lankord, who beat out veteran Kenny Stafford in training camp, is the lone new face in the starting lineup. DE Tristan Okpalaugo, DT Drake Nevis and CB Brian Alexander, meanwhile, are the lone newcomers in the defensive lineup. Alexander, a 23-year-old CB out of a great college program in UCF, is the only rookie starter on the entire roster when everyone is healthy.
Nichols has all the pieces in place to shatter what is left of the game-manager label on his forehead. Darvin Adams is ready to explode if he stays healthy – the Auburn product had 690 yards and 6 touchdowns in only 8 games last season – while RB Andrew Harris looks to be extending the prime of his career into his 30s. Offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice should still be expected to operate a run-heavy offense despite an aerial attack that oozes with potential. Along with All-Star rookie Travis Bond at left guard, the Bombers have two of the best young and physical interior Canadian offensive linemen in Mathias Goossen and Sukh Chungh to run behind. Andrew Harris will be a happy ball-carrier in his 8th season.
Defensively, while Winnipeg’s second preseason had fans stressing over their pass defense, there’s reason for Bomber fans to have faith in the secondary. With an improved pass-rush thanks to the additions of Drake Nevis and Tristan Okpalaugo, Winnipeg’s ever-talented secondary might not need to rely on the turnover to cover up egregious amounts of passing yards surrendered. Chris Randle, who I believe was the Bombers’ top defender in 2016, TJ Heath, Maurice Leggett, Taylor Loffler, Bruce Johnson and Kevin Fogg – that’s a good group of veterans.
Bottom Line: The Bombers are an experienced team that underwent very little turnover. They have a decent schedule – the Bombers’ play BC and Saskatchewan three times each, so it could be a lot worse – and a quarterback who wants to prove the rest of the league wrong in his first full season as a starter, but some questions remain: can they stop the run with Canadians Jake Thomas and Sam Hurl getting a second lease on starter life in the CFL? Can Taylor Loffler avoid a sophomore slump after a nearly too-good-to-be-true rookie campaign? Can the defense succeed without forcing ridiculous turnover numbers?
Edmonton’s slow start to the 2016 season was completely inevitable – they lost their entire coaching staff and half a dozen of their best players, such as HB Aaron Grymes, DE Willie Jefferson and LB Dexter McCoil. In year two of the post-Chris Jones regime, however, the Edmonton Eskimos should continue the momentum they built near the end of the season and start 2017 on the right foot.
Edmonton has the best quarterback room in the CFL. Despite losing Derel Walker to the NFL, Mike Reilly should be in the MOP race all year, while James Franklin is clearly ready to lead a team on his own to success.
The Eskimos picked up a couple former Redblacks this off-season that could be difference-makers in the City of Champions. RT Colin Kelly, who spent the 2016 season in the NFL after starting all 18 games for Ottawa in 2015, solidifies Edmonton’s pass-protection, replacing D’Anthony Batiste in the starting lineup. Forrest Hightower, meanwhile, emerged as one of the CFL’s top halfbacks in 2016 and will form a terrific duo with his former teammate, Brandyn Thompson. And if boundary CB Johnny Adams can return to his old-self, Edmonton’s secondary will be something to reckon.
The Eskimos should have the West Divisions’ best pass-rush in 2017. After cutting national Eddie Steele and replacing him with Euclid Cummings, the Eskimos are going all-american along the defensive line. Cummings, who had 8 sacks in 2015 playing alongside Cleyon Laing in Toronto, should have a bounce-back season playing beside another elite nose tackle in Almondo Sewell.
Bottom Line: Jason Maas is no longer a rookie head coach. The Eskimos have already driven over the speed bumps associated with flipping an entire organisation upside-down over one off-season. Along with Adarius Bowman, Mike Reilly has some intriguing young play-makers in D’haquille Williams and Bryant Mitchell, not to mention newcomer Vidal Hazelton and sophomore pass-catcher Brandon Zylstra. It could take some time to gell, but Edmonton’s secondary is promising and their defensive line should be dominant. Having to play Calgary and BC three times each will slightly drop their record. Eskimos finish third in the West.
4. BC Lions
2016 record: 12-6
2017 projected record: 9-9
Last year, my bold prediction in the West was the Lions flipping a disappointing one-year stint under Jeff Tedford into a top-2 finish in the West with Wally Buono back on the sidelines and Jonathon Jennings in his second season. This year, although Buono is still head coach and Jennings should only continue to build on each passing season, I see the Lions slightly regressing due to the losses suffered on defense and their lack of Canadian talent.
The Lions could have one of the worst defensive lines in the league. After losing Alex Bazzie to the NFL in the off-season, the Lions are without a dynamic edge-rusher. Canadian David Menard will likely be thrusted into the starting lineup as the Lions scrounge to find seven Canadian starters. Mic’hael Brooks is a dominant force at nose tackle, but Bryant Turner Jr.’s prime is long in the past, and Craig Roh likely has a ceiling of 7-10 annual sacks. As for the rest of front seven, the loss of Adam Bighill cannot be understanding. Free agent signing Tony Burnett, who’ll start the season as Bighill’s successor, brings similar athleticism to the Lions’ linebacker crops, but too often does he get lost as a run defender. Keep mind, Burnett played corner and safety in college for the USC Trojans.
The Lions’ offense is going to be prolific. Although I have my doubts with Hunter Steward moving back outside to play tackle with Jovon Olafioye now in Montreal, Jonathon Jennings is going to flourish with Emmanuel Arceneaux, Chris Williams and Bryan Burnhan running downfield. For ratio implications, the Lions will likely have start two Canadians at receiver many times in the season, but the aforementioned trio of weapons will overwhelm many defenses in 2017.
Bottom Line: Loucheiz Purifoy is one of the best young players in the league, while Soloman Elimimian is a two-time defensive player of the year and one-time Most Outstanding Player. BC has a solid secondary and an electric receiving corps, but their defensive line and Canadian content is quite concerning. Adam Bighill is irreplaceable, too. The Lions have talent on paper, but in a gut feeling, I think the Eskimos surpass the Eskimos in 2017.
Plain and simple, the Riders don’t have a quarterback. Kevin Glenn – bless his soul – can only get you so far. Brandon Bridge is promising, but he’s not there yet. The Riders, although they’ve made some tremendous improvements on their roster during this rebuild, still boast the fifth-best QB stable in a 5-team division.
Naaman Roosevelt, Duron Carter, Caleb Holley, Ricky Collins Jr., Bakari Grant and Chad Owens – the Riders have a tremendously talented receiving corps. It was a no-brainer to add the league’s top left tackle, Derek Dennis, in free agency. Willie Jefferson is one of the CFL’s best pass-rushers, while Eddie Steele, who the Riders scooped up after Edmonton cut ties with the veteran Canadian, is a serviceable three-technique. The Riders have talent at some key positions.
But where the Riders lack talent, they are serious question marks. I like Kacy Rodgers at cornerback, and Ed Gainey really broke out at boundary HB in 2016, but there are serious questions at the wide-side of the defensive backfield, including at the strong-side linebacker position. Zach Minter, meanwhile, doesn’t inspire at ton of confidence at nose tackle, and along with Peter Dyakowski at right guard and Mike Edem at free safety, can be considered below-average at his respective position. The Riders have yet to prove they have a legitimate edge-rush threat opposite Willie Jefferson, while Cam Marshall seems to a mediocre option at running back after his sample size from Winnipeg.
Bottom Line: The Riders have some nice pieces in place such as Roosevelt, Carter, Dennis, Jefferson, Muamba and Gainey, but there are too many question marks and a severe lack of depth across their roster. And they still don’t have an elite quarterback at the moment, which is required to knock off the Bo Levi Mitchell’s and Mike Reilly’s of the division. They’re on the rise, and should be competitive this season, but still lack that quarterback. 2017 will show us if Brandon Bridge is the guy.
You want to draft a good player, but not too good of a player. The NFL has been keeping tabs on Canadian Football more than it ever has, while football in the North is producing better and better prospects each year. Draft too good of a player, and the NFL will lure them away in an instant for a couple years (or for their career – just ask Bombers’ fans).
The top-ranked players in the CFL Scouting Players often spend at least their first year of professional football in the NFL – and sometimes longer. Mississippi State OT Justin Senior, the top-ranked player in both the September and December rankings, will be no different. CFL on TSN colour commentator Duane Forde began nicknaming late-season match-ups between the league’s basement-dwellers the “Senior Bowl” in reference to them competing for the number one overall pick and the opportunity to draft Senior, but that won’t be the case. Senior is NFL-bound, and could be a late-round pick in the NFL Draft if he shows well in the upcoming East-West Shrine Game.
Senior has not been given the hype he deserves for just how good of a prospect he is. The Montreal, Que. native started three seasons at right tackle in arguably the top college football conference in the NCAA, and was the 2016 recipient of the Kent Hull Trophy, awarded annually to the top offensive lineman in the state of Mississippi. Senior was selected as one of two offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus’ 1st-team SEC All-Star team.
The 22-year-old is a tackle prospect through and through, which increases his NFL stock even more. Legitimate Canadian tackle prospects are usually scooped up quickly by the NFL – see Boyko, Brett and Foucalt, David.
I’ve watched four of Senior’s games – Auburn, BYU, LSU and Texas A&M. He’s a complete player by CFL draft standards, although his functional strength, hand speed and run-blocking technique will be detractors for his NFL stock. But as a witness of just how dominant of a player he was during his time at Mississippi State, and just how weak of an offensive line class it is, it’s hard to imagine Senior not joining an NFL club on day-3 of the draft.
Senior held his own against two premier SEC pass-rushers in Auburn’s Carl Lawson and Texas A&M’s Daeshon Hall. Senior had no problem using quick-sets against Lawson, who’ll likely be a first or early second round pick in the 2017 draft – despite the defensive ends quickness and burst. It was hard to tell that Lawson is a highly-coveted edge-bender with the way Senior consistently arrived on time at the junction point in regular pass-sets. The 22-year-old dealt with the power of Hall – the sixth ranked EDGE in the 2017 draft – quite well in Mississippi State’s huge upset win over the Aggies, too.
With ideal size and build at 6’5″ and 310-lbs, Senior is undoubtedly the top player in the 2017 CFL Draft class. But that’s not to say he’s a guaranteed first round pick. Senior will likely be drafted later than UNLV’s Brett Boyko was in 2015 (round 2, pick 14), especially if he performs well at the Shrine Game.
Like many recent no. 1 rated Canadian prospects, Senior is just simply too good to warrant spending a first-round pick on a player with no timeline projecting when he’ll actually come to the CFL.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Whether its on special-teams or defense, Bombers’ rookie corner Kevin Fogg has done nothing but continuously spark the team since he became the second-most experienced player in the secondary due to a slew of injuries.
The Bombers’ offense was struggling out of the gate in week 8 at BMO Field, with constant two-&-outs and short drives courtesy of bad field position. The struggles reached a climax when QB Matt Nichols threw a bad interception to Argos’ FS Thomas Gordon early in the second quarter.
But, as they’ve done quite frequently this season, the defense responded on the very next play. Fogg picked off QB Logan Kilgore for his first interception of the night – he’d go on to throw four more – on a great break on the ball from the 1st-year halfback. Middle linebacker Khalil Bass went on to intercept Kilgore on the next possession, and the offense finally punched it in for six. The Bombers would go on to lay a beat-down, defeating the Argos in their own barn by a score of 34-17.
The Bombers were in cover-3 on Fogg’s interception at the 11:08 mark of the second quarter. It was 1st-&-10, and defensive coordinator Richie Hall had called a relatively common, conservative zone coverage.
Fogg was responsible for a deep-third of the field – Fogg (#23), FS Taylor Loffler (#16) and CB Terrance Frederick (#35) split the field into three deep zones – while weak-side linebacker Ian Wild and SAM linebacker Maurice Leggett dropped underneath to middle-hook zones.
Boundary cornerback CJ Roberts (#17) is in a curl-to-flat zone, while field halfback Bruce Johnson (#25) is guarding the flats. Roberts is taking away any corner-route or deep out-route from the no. 3 receiver in the boundary, while cautiously eyeing the flats.
Break-out slotback Kenny Shaw is the intended receiver on the play. The second-year Argo ran a post-corner, meaning he stemmed on a 45-degree angle to the corner before redirecting and breaking inside on a post-route. Seeing as Shaw is the primary receiver on the play, Kilgore’s first read is on the WILL, Ian Wild, to see if a window would open up to throw a strike down the seam. The young quarterback probably thought the SAM linebacker, Moe Leggett, would bail to the flats or use trail coverage on Shaw – a rookie mistake of pre-determining.
Kilgore’s eyes probably lit up when he watched Wild bail to the left, thinking there’d be a huge window to throw the ball to the post-corner. That would’ve been correct except Leggett hadn’t actually fled for the flats as he anticipated, and would have made the interception if he wasn’t eyeing the hook-route of the no. 2 receiver in the boundary.
In the end, Kilgore made a fine decision on the play; he really only needed one linebacker to vacate, and that came into fruition. The interception was simply a great play from Wild and Fogg, who saw Shaw cross his face on the corner-route and immediately crashed downhill to the receiver. Wild, meanwhile, showed off his incredible range on the play. Despite dropping towards the wide-side of the field, the fourth-year veteran redirected when he saw Kilgore ready to release the ball. He flipped his hips and flew over towards Shaw, covering a lot of ground in the process. Wild delivered a bone-crushing hit as the ball arrived, keeping the recipient on the ground for a few minutes. Essentially, Shaw had no chance to catch that pass.
Fogg would finish the game with two interceptions, a sack, a fumble recovery and a 17.2 yard punt-return average, earning Player of the Week honors.
His first interception, though, would be his finest play of the night.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Toronto Argonauts Thursday, June 23: 8:00 PM ET
With the arch-rival Ti-Cats in town to open BMO Field in the opening game of the 2016 season, this game has all the makings of an emotional, high-scoring classic. While taking Jeremiah Masoli on the road over Ricky Ray could be breaking the archaic code of Canadian football, Toronto’s defensive backfield is, once again, very inexperienced. Three starters in the secondary from last season won’t be in the lineup, as AJ Jefferson is injured, Devin Smith retired and Travis Hawkins was released. I can’t see that secondary being aided from the defense line, either, as while the Argos spent money in free agency to upgrade their pass-rush, I can imagine a scenario where those signings disappoint. Chad Owens, making his return to Toronto in his first game with the Black & Gold, could have a huge day, as Jeremiah Masoli will hold his own at quarterback with an impressive supporting cast.
Montreal Alouettes at Winnipeg Blue Bombers Thursday, June 24: 8:30 PM ET
The Bombers have simply had the Als’ number in recent years. Both secondaries will have two rookies in the starting lineup, while both defenses boast solid front-sevens. The lack of continuity in Montreal’s offense presents a great opportunity for Winnipeg’s starting offense to gain some traction after a shaky season. The Bombers should be able to force Kevin Glenn into some turnovers, too, as Jamaal Westerman and Euclid Cumming should have big days pass-rushing against two young, Canadian offensive lineman – Jacob Ruby at LT and rookie RG Philippe Gagnon. Expect a low-scoring affair that sees Paul Lapolice utilize Andrew Harris heavily as a pass-catcher.
Ottawa Redblacks at Edmonton Eskimos Saturday, June 25: 7:00 PM ET
The Eskimos have underwent some major roster turnover defensively, losing Dexter McCoil, Willie Jefferson and Aaron Grymes to the NFL. Field-side corner John Ojo, meanwhile, suffered a season-ending achilles injury. Mike Reilly will surely have a strong performance, but I’m taking Henry Burris and Co. against a rebuilding Edmonton defense sans Chris Jones in the Grey Cup rematch. The Eskimos’ defense simply won’t be the same unit this season.
Calgary Stampeders at BC Lions
Saturday, June 25: 10:00 PM ET
The Lions have a good opportunity in week one to make a statement game at home. Second-year quarterback Jon Jennings is expected to continue on his upwards trajectory in his development, potentially asserting himself as a top CFL passer in year two. While I think the Lions will surprise a lot of people this year, it won’t start early against the experienced Stampeders. While undergoing a lot of changes, the Stamps’ had succession plans in place for most of the veteran starters they moved away from – and that includes the transition from Jon Hufnagel at head coach to Dave Dickenson.
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.
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: Althoughthere 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: IfDarian 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.
The 2016 CFL College Draft was one of the most lopsided drafts in recent memory. As a direct result of the bad teams doing really bad, the good teams did exceptionally well.
While it is impossible to come to any final conclusions on a CFL draft for three to four years, it is reasonable to come away with an early, preliminary judgement of each team’s draft class using the consensus draft-stock of a prospect to discover reaches and value-picks; the balance of a team drafting for positional need and via best player available – there needs to be a balance of both; and some personal thoughts on select prospects.
1. Winnipeg Blue Bombers
The Bombers simply sat back, took the best player available and had an outstanding draft. Tenth overall pick Michael Couture, who needs time to develop, but will be a versatile starter down the road, fills a positional need and was also likely the best player available, similarly to Trent Corney. Corney and Taylor Loffler, who supplies excellent value in the third-round, are both relatively pro-ready defenders that could develop into elite Canadians. Loffler’s knees In the meantime, they can both make an immediate impact on special-teams, as will Laval linebacker Shayne Gauthier, who was one of the top pure special-teamers available. Sixth-rounder Rupert Butcher, who reaked havoc on the Combine, could be a steal in the sixth-round, while Zach Intzandt is the perfect project for Bob Wylie.
2. BC Lions
Wally Buono looked like a genius when he traded back in the 1st round only to have the player he thought would be gone in the top-2, Charles Vaillancourt, fall to him at fifth overall. Buono’s intentions all along were to likely trade back and get local product Michael Couture at five, but Vaillancourt can – and will – immediately step in and start at centre for the Lions. Although I don’t believe he was the top player at his position, Anthony Thompson fills a huge need at safety with the 12th pick and could be a solid special-teams contributor right away while pushing incumbent starter Eric Fraser for playing time. The Lions got Dillon Guy a round later than expected, while Brennan Van Nistlerooy, an underrated CJFL prospect, and Brett Blaszko fill needs and were taken in the appropriate round. BC came away with two solid picks in the closing rounds as well in Nate O’Halloran and Boyd Richardson.
3. Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Brandon Revenberg is a perfect fit for the Ti-Cats after bulking up his playing weight to 298-pounds over the off-season. Mercer Timmis has a very bright future as both a running back and a slot-back in Hamilton’s receiver-needy offense, while Mike Jones is a speedster who I believe is the most likely of another receiver drafted to develop into an effective starter. A former NCAA running back who only has one season as a starting linebacker under his belt, Terrell Davis is one of the draft’s best developmental players, while Felix Faubert-Lussier in the fifth round is one of the best value picks in the draft. One of the most underrated prospects in the draft, this testing monster will, at the very least, be a solid special-teamer and pass-catching fullback, but don’t rule out the potential of him becoming an effective, role-playing slot-back.
4. Calgary Stampeders
No current NFL aspirations for Alex Singleton means the Stampeders likely drafted Juwan Simpson’s immediate replacement at sixth overall. Juwan Brescacin might be close to his ceiling already – I don’t really see him developing into anything more than a field side wideout – but that’s not bad value at fifteenth overall. Roman Grozman in the fourth-round is far more acceptable than the 1st and 2nd round hype he was receiving, while Michael Kashak and Quinn Horton are both excellent value picks in the 7th and 8th rounds.
5. Ottawa Redblacks
With Canadian lineman Nolan Macmillan moving back to right tackle in the final year of his rookie contract, the Jason Lauzon-Seguin pick was perfect. The Laval product has quick, nimble feet as well as a future as a rare Canadian right tackle. The Mikael Charland selection was for need and strikingly reminds me of the Jake Harty selection last year – and that pick is starting to look good. He’ll be in the NFL next season, but Mehdi Abdesmad should come North soon after inking a priority free agent deal with the Tennessee Titans. He fills a need at defensive end with Arnaud Gascon-Nadon potentially starting this year, but he better projects in my view as a defensive tackle in my view, as the additional yard off the ball could affect his ability to turn the corner on pass-rushes. The rest of Ottawa’s picks were underwhelming, though.
6. Saskatchewan Roughriders
Saskatchewan needed immediate improvements to their league-worst Canadian talent, and they did exactly the opposite. With 25 picks in between their first and second choices, Saskatchewan made two “futures” picks despite having no business with drafting players that can’t come help their Canadian depth immediately. Elie Bouka will spend at least a year with the Arizona Cardinals, while David Onyemata may never come north. Saskatchewan didn’t exactly make up for it with the selection of Quinn Van Gylswyk, as even though he’s an excellent prospect and the Riders needed a punter, they had far too many holes to address elsewhere to select a kicker with their third pick. I really like the value of Alex McKay and Josh Stanford in the later rounds, however. Stanford could have a future in this league if he fixes his attitude, which was reportedly a big red-flag at the Combine.
7. Montreal Alouettes
I love the Philippe Gagnon pick. While his technique is unbelievable, Charles Vaillancourt’s slowness is worrisome, especially when disengaging off blocks to shift over and take a blitzing linebacker or stunting defender. Gagnon’s technique is slightly less refined, and he might not have all of Vaillancourt’s physical tools (but almost), he’s significantly quicker with his feet. The Wayne Moore pick, however, really hurts the Alouettes – it screams Steven Lumbala and the 2013 CFL Draft. Moore performed magnificently in the Combine one-on-ones as both a blocker and receiver, but tested quite poorly and projects as a fullback. Sean Jamieson would’ve been a nice third or fourth rounder for some teams, but the Alouettes have 10 offensive lineman under contract; yes, a handful are upcoming free agents, but the Alouettes already picked up Gagnon. Maiko Zepeda was a good value-pick at 56 – he runs a 4.57 and hits like a missile – but George Johnson was drafted too early and should not have been picked before Doug Corby.
8. Toronto Argonauts
The Argos’ best picks came in the fourth round. Both products of southern Ontario, Noel’s floor is as a capable special-teams contributor, while Cross was the far and away the class’ best fullback. Toronto’s decision to pass on Trent Corney in the first round could be a mistake, as the Argos have no depth for soon-to-be 34-year-old Ricky Foley. It was also head-scratching to not see Jim Barker look for a defensive end such as McMaster’s Michael Kashak in the later rounds instead of stocking up on huge-project offensive linemen. I’ve made it clear that I don’t really think Brian Jones will develop into anything special, and even while dismissing those beliefs for the consensus thoughts on Jones, it’s a slight reach to select him in the top-5. Selecting DJ Sackey in the second round was certainly a reach, though, seeing as he would’ve been available much later in the draft. A third consecutive reach, Jamal Campbell also would’ve been available later in the draft, I’m sure. Although I believe he has a high ceiling, the York product has some of the most under-developed technique I’ve seen. After spending a third-round pick on him, the Argonauts must be committed to developing Campbell without losing their patience and cutting him.
9. Edmonton Eskimos
Despite winning a Grey Cup, Edmonton’s Canadian content was middling. Yet Ed Hervey spent his first two picks on NFL-bound players, which is even more inexplicable when you consider the Eskimos had no picks in the third and fourth round. Tevaun Smith could bounce around practice rosters for awhile, and the Eskimos simply did not need need a receiver, with Devon Bailey, Nate Coehoorn and Chris Getzlaf around town. Arjen Colquhoun, similarly to Smith, could spend more than a year in the NFL, but it was a positional need for the Eskimos. Despite a porous first three selections that included selecting Josh Woodman, who I think will be cut in year one, the Eskimos may have closed the draft better than anyone else.