Can New Faces Topple the Beasts of the East?

The Eastern Conference has been ruled by the Montreal Alouettes for years but last year that changed when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers took the Eastern Division Title. This year the Bombers and Alouettes will look to battle it out again but the two Ontario teams have different thoughts. For the Hamilton Tiger Cats and the Toronto Argonauts this season is more important than any other season before. This is the season where the Toronto Argonauts host the Grey Cup again but not only the Grey Cup the 100th Grey Cup. For the Hamilton Ti-Cats and Toronto Argonauts the Grey Cup in Toronto means a chance for a home game in the championship. The Argonauts would be playing at home if they made the Grey Cup while the Tiger-Cats will only have to travel an hour down the QEW if they can make it. This chance for these two teams to play what would essentially be a home game for the historic championship was not lost on these two teams either. Both Hamilton and Toronto were the two busiest teams in the CFL this offseason as they both added some top talent in order to compete for the title. For the Hamilton Tiger-Cats they made two very big moves that made them fast favorites in the East. They started when they added the top free agent in the offseason signing wide receiver Andy Fantuz and moving him east away from his longtime home in Saskatchewan. Then the Ti-Cats got someone to throw to Fantuz as they were able to trade for Henry Burris giving them one of the top three QBs in the CFL. Both moves quickly got the attention of most people in the CFL as they were able to land two very good players along with a number of other additions. Not to be outdone the Argos were able to make the biggest splash in the offseason as they traded for Ricky Ray, a player that many people believed would never move from Edmonton. Along with that they added Maurice Mann and Jason Barnes to their receiving corps in order to provide some more power in their offence. Both teams made these moves for one reason and that was to go all out for the chance to play in Toronto at the 100th Grey Cup. Of course they will need to get by the defence of the defending Eastern Division champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the offence of the Montreal Alouettes led by Anthony Calvillo. The Blue Bombers are back after losing in the 99th Grey Cup and they are looking for revenge. They did not make many moves but are still a threat with a shut down defence that even without the unofficial mayor is scary. Firth East the Montreal Alouettes are out to prove that last season’s second place finish was a fluke. Anthony Calvillo struggled last year but even with the struggle broke three major passing records. He will be looking to show that his best years are not behind him as he tries to guide the Als back to the Grey Cup. The East was already a strong division but this year could be another year where all four teams take a playoff spot. They are all very good teams and with the Tiger-Cats and Argonauts added some major talent the entire division has become dangerous. It will be a wild season in the East yet again as every team has a chance but only one will win even if all four teams do make the playoffs.

 

Hamilton Tiger Cats

 

 

 

 

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats had a very up and down season last year as they began the season with an 0-2 run but came back to make the playoffs. Before the beginning of the season there was not a lot of hope as the Tigers Cats had just finished two straight 9-9 seasons. Many believed that the lack of change on the team would mean another disappointing season. They really didn’t go against that prediction in the regular season as they limped through earning wins against mainly weaker teams. They could not challenge the top teams though as Montreal remained a thorn in their side and the Blue Bombers continue their run. Finishing 8-10 the Ti-Cats were saved by a terrible performance by the Toronto Argonauts and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. They made the playoffs and went against the Montreal Alouettes in what looked like a major mismatch. Instead the Ti-Cats were able to get past the Als in an all-out offensive battle as they moved on to the Eastern Finals with a 52-44 win. In the finals the Ti-Cats offence was gone as they were shut down by the Blue Bombers in a 19-3 loss. This year they look to take the momentum from a great playoff run into a new season with a new look offence.

 

This year the Ti-Cats were one of the teams who were extremely active in the offseason as they created an almost completely new offence. The biggest move is really a toss-up between the All-Star QB or the All-Star wider receiver. Henry Burris was with the Calgary Stampeders for 12 seasons and was the face of the franchise. Burris did not want to be a backup in Calgary and asked to be traded. The Ti-Cats gave the Stampeders quarterback Kevin Glenn, offensive lineman Mark Dewit, and a conditional draft pick and received one of the most consistent and one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Burris will look to establish himself in a new city and to do so the Tiger-Cats built a solid team around him. This included the other major addition as the Ti-Cats were able to sign free agent Andy Fantuz and take another face of the franchise away from his team. Fantuz has been one of the top receivers in the CFL for years as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders but in the offseason the Ti-Cats made him a great offer that pulled him away from his longtime home. They will also get a former draft pick back from the NFL in speedy receiver Samuel Giguere and brought back Avon Cobourne who was retired and selling insurance in Florida this offseason. On defence it was not about the additions as much as it was about the subtractions. Most notably the Ti-Cats defensive line was gutted when Justin Hickman left for the NFL and the team cut Stevie Baggs. There are not any impact players to replace these two great rushers but Shawn Crable and Brandon Boudreaux will hope that they can fill the hole. The Ti-Cats were able to add some help on defence in Kevin Eiben who can provide a solid leadership role alongside Markeith Knowlton in the linebacking corps. On special teams the losses were dramatic as they will not have All-Star kicker Justin Medlock or explosive return man Marcus Thigpen who both left for the NFL. This year the Ti-Cats are very improved on the offence but the rest of the team has been devastated by losses. In the time the Ti-Cats spent looking for a better offence they did not seem to work on their defence which could be a major issue for them. It will depend on the replacements as the Ti-Cats will need some breakout performances to have a chance at the Grey Cup this year but their offence seems too good to not make the playoffs.

 

Key Addition:

Henry Burris, QB

– It is really a debate to which signing was the better one but the Ti-Cats have been looking for a top-tier QB for years and Kevin Glenn was not it but Burris will give them this QB threat as he ranks among the top three QBs in the league

 

Key Loss:

Marcus Thigpen, KR

– In the East the special teams have become essential to winning and the loss of one of the best return men in the game will definitely hurt the team as they will need to try to replace him to try to find that impact player

 

Who to Watch:

Samuel Giguere, WR

– He has never played in the CFL but comes in after a few years in the NFL and will be a starter in week 1 who will be able to add some blazing speed to the offence that will be a welcomed sight for Henry Burris

 

Montreal Alouettes

 

 

 

The Alouettes have been the beasts of the east for years in the CFL but last year was not their best performance as they struggled throughout the season. Of course struggling throughout the season for the Alouettes is not the same as struggling throughout the season for other teams. The Alouettes were not bad in 2011 as they simply were not the dominant force they used to be. Anthony Calvillo was great again as he went on to break three major passing records including the most passing yards in pro football. Still Calvillo was not the QB he was in 2010 as he looked to be beatable and looked to be able to be shaken if you could get into his face. With this in mind the Winnipeg Blue Bombers took advantage and were able to usurp the Als and take the top spot in the East. For the Als this was a disappointment after being the team to beat in the past few years. Still they had the chance to make it back to the Grey Cup but they were disappointed again when they lost to the Hamilton Ti-Cats who outperformed their offence. This year the Als stayed relatively quiet with so much action around them and will look to show that they are still the team to beat in the East.

The Als had all of the pieces flying around them this offseason but they continued to forge ahead with their successful plan. They still could not help but losing some key pieces including their offensive coordinator as Scott Milanovich left to become the head coach of the Toronto Argonauts. Still their offence will move on with their leader Anthony Calvillo who is out to prove that he has not lost a step. For Calvillo there will be no adjustment period as the Alouettes will have the same offensive powers as last year. At receiver the Als will go back to S.J. Green, Jamel Richardson, and Brandon London as the targets for Calvillo. The Als will be without a fourth proven receiver though as Kerry Watkins retired from the CFL and will make a hole that Eric Deslauriers will likely fill. In the backfield it will be Brandon Whittaker again as he proved that he is good enough to be an impact player in this offence. For the defence there were a lot more moves as the Als lost a number of key contributors from last year. First to be let go was Anwar Stewart who was part of the first cuts of the Als in training camp. Stewart was a leader on defence with two outstanding defensive player of the year awards. Stewart was not alone at the end of the line though as the Als also released Etienne Boulay and Diamond Ferri. For Montreal the decision could have been a way to make room for more solid players that  the Als clearly thought were better. The Alouettes replaced Ferri with fourth year player Rod Davis and Stewart was replaced by CFL All-Star Aaron Hunt. These two signings were not the most talked about but both were great signings that could turn out to be worth the exodus. Of course there are still some Alouettes remaining to provide leadership including Chip Cox and Shea Emry avoiding the cuts and remaining with the Alouettes. On the special teams not much has changed either as they will continue to lean on Sean Whyte and his stable leg. The Als did not get remarkably better this year but they also did not get remarkably worse. The players they lost were replaced by other impact players that will perform the same if not better than those who left. So again the Als will be in the playoffs with a strong team that will likely get out to an early lead thanks to familiarity but may need to fend off some strong competition down the stretch if they hope to win the division.

 

Key Addition:

Aaron Hunt, DT

– With Anwar Stewart gone the Als decided to go with another veteran in Aaron Hunt to fill the hole on the defensive line and he could do just that as hunt is no slouch with a Grey Cup Championship to show for an impressive year in 2011

 

Key Loss:

Anwar Stewart, DE

– A defensive stalwart for the Als over the years Stalwart was cut in the first round of cuts at training camp and a big reason may have been his age but he is still a solid defensive player on the line that will be missed coming around the edge.

 

Who to Watch:

Chima Ihekwoaba, DE

– With Stewart being cut the Als clearly believed they had someone who could replace the former Outstanding Defensive Player of the Year as Ihekwoaba will need to show that he can get pressure with some big shoes to fill

 

 

Toronto Argonauts

 

 

 

 

 

The Toronto Argonauts have been in trouble for years as they have not been able to find a replacement for Damon Allen. Since Allen won a Grey Cup in 2004 the Argos went through countless numbers of QBs to get back to the top. In 2010 the Argos were able to squeek into the playoffs under Cleo Lemon providing some hope for 2011. It was not to be though as the 2011 season saw a massive step back rather than any movement forward. The Argos went with Cleo Lemon for the start of the season but finished the season with Stephen Jyles. Even though they tried to win with both QBs they could not seem to get anything going as the receivers dropped passes and the QBs could not deal with the pressure. The only positive for the Argos was that their defence seemed great again and if they had some offensive support they could have been much better. The Argos struggled throughout the year and never got into a groove with their offence. The Argos did happen to stay out of the basement of the league but they could not stay out of the basement of the Eastern Division and missed the playoffs. This year the Argos gutted the team as they look to make a serious run at the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto.

 

The Argos may not have been the busiest team in the CFL but they did make some very big moves as they look to make a real run at the Grey Cup. The first move for the Argos was to name a new head coach as Jim Barker decided to move into the office as the full-time General Manager. In his place on the sidelines came former Montreal Alouettes offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich. Milanovich was brought in to help at the QB position where he would use his experience in helping Anthony Calvillo to two MOP awards. The biggest move for the Argos though was when they traded quarterback Stephen Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a 2012 first round draft pick for the Eskimos longtime pivot Ricky Ray. Ray may be the solution to the Argos’ problems at QB but will need to adjust to his 7th offensive coordinator in 7 years while adjusting to new receivers. There will be one familiar face as the Argos signed former teammate Jason Barnes while also adding Maurice Mann. These two receivers will provide some good outside threats that will be a change from the inside small receivers like Spencer Watt and Chad Owens. In the backfield the Argos will again lean on Corey Boyd who looks to return to his 2010 form. Boyd will also take on a bigger role in the passing game under Milanovich who likes to use his running backs in all aspects of the game. The offence underwent an overhaul this year but like other teams they failed to look at their defence where they lost a number of big players. Two of these include veteran defensive backs Lin-J Shell who was cut and Byron Parker who was let go through free agency. This will make the backfield highly inexperienced as rookies Ahmad Carroll and T.J. Williams will take over on the corners. The Argos also let veteran defensive leader Kevin Eiben walk in free agency while Willie Pyle retired. On special teams the usual characters are back with Noel Prefontaine continuing to kick and Chad Owens looking to get back to his 2010 form as the return man. The Argos are making a push this year with a brand new offence but their defence will be the big challenge as they will depend on unproven rookies to help them win. This year could still be a successful one though as the East looks powerful enough to take four spots with the Argos likely fighting for the chance to stay in the east and not crossover.

 

Key Addition:

Ricky Ray, QB

– The Argos have struggled to find their next QB after Damon Allen retired and Ricky Ray could be the one to finally replace the legend as he has proven to be one of the best QBs in the league but will need to adjust to a new team to be successful

 

Key Loss:

Byron Parker, DB

– The veteran defensive back was one of the leaders of the defence on the Argos and they let him walk away in free agency where he joined the BC Lions and took his experience west leaving the Argos with an inexperienced defensive backfield

 

Who to Watch:

Ahmad Carroll, DB

– Carroll will have a big role in the defence this year as the rookie will be looked to make up for the loss of CFL veteran Byron Parker and will need to be solid if the Argos hope to make an impact this year

 

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

 

 

 

 

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were one of the major surprises in 2011 as they broke out to unseat the Montreal Alouettes. The sudden rise was thanks to their defence led by a number of impact players. The defence was nicknamed Swaggerville as they claimed to have the swagger to beat other teams. It was a resurgence for the Bombers as their defence led them to a great year while their offence, led by Buck Pierce, was able to do enough to win games. The Bombers started the season with a 7-1 record before Labour Day. Once Labour Day hit the Bombers could not get back to their former dominance as they began dropping games that they should have won. In the end the Bombers finished with a 10-8 record tying them with the Alouettes but gaining the tiebreaker by beating Montreal. In the playoffs the Bombers earned the bye and faced the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the semi-finals. A defensive battle was won by the Bombers who moved on to the Grey Cup where they could not get past the hottest team in the league in the BC Lions. After losing in the finals last year the Bombers are looking to go one step further this year and win the Grey Cup with a very similar team.

 

The Blue Bombers were one of the quiet teams in the CFL this offseason as they looked to go back at it with the same stars in place. This means that Buck Pierce will be back under centre for the Bombers despite his reputation as an injury prone player. If he does go down though, the Bombers have a solid backup in Alex Brink giving them a little bit of relief. Whoever does end up behind centre for the majority of the year will have some of the key contributors back. That includes their slotbacks in Clarence Denmark and Terrence Edwards who will lead a new receiving corps. Chris Garrett had a breakout season as the running back last year but he will not have a chance to repeat as he tore his Achilles tendon in the first week of practice. This means that the Bombers will need to move on with Anthony Woodson or Chad Simpson to carry the running responsibilities. The defence last year was the reason that they were able to win the East but this year they will be without three of their stars from 2011. First they cut O’Dell Willis, the self-proclaimed mayor of “Swaggerville”, in training camp choosing not to deal with his off the field issues. Willis was an emotional leader for the defence and was one of the three major parts to the defence last year. He will not be missed as much as Joe Lobendahn though, as the unsung hero of the defence last year and the leader of the linebackers in Swaggerville was released in the offseason. If that wasn’t difficult enough veteran Doug Brown retired leaving another hole in the defensive line. The continuation of Swaggerville will fall on to the capable shoulders of Jovon Johnson, the defending CFL Defensive MOP. The Bombers will also look to fill the holes on defence with promising young talent that was seen in small doses last year. This includes Jason Vega (DE), Henoc Muamba (LB), and Bryant Turner (DT). On special teams the Bombers will have Justin Parady and Mike Renaud as solid kickers. The Bombers lost a lot and although they did look to reload on offence this year it may take a bit for the offence to get rolling, especially without Garrett. On defence the Bombers lost some major talent but are replacing it with good young talent that could bring in Swaggerville 2.0 in Winnipeg. In a tough Eastern Division the Bombers will likely fight for the top spot again and will be in the playoffs again this year.

 

Key Addition:

Nobody

– There were really no additions to the Blue Bombers roster this year as they stayed the same throughout the offseason showing that they believe in the Eastern Division championship team from last year

 

Key Loss:

O’Dell Willis, DE

– He may have been a distraction for some with off-the-field issues but he was one of the most vocal leaders in the defence and helped to create the Swaggerville concept which may sound ridiculous but helped the team gel as one and this will be missed in Winnipeg

 

Who to Watch:

Jovon Johnson, DB

– He is not a new or young player but Johnson is the most important person on the team this year as he will have the responsibility of leading the defence by himself and without Doug Brown, Joe Lobendahn, or O’Dell Wills and his ability to do so will help or hurt the defence

 

Prediction:

1. *Montreal Alouettes

2. *Winnipeg Blue Bombers

3. *Hamilton Tiger-Cats

4. *Toronto Argonauts

*playoff berth

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