2015 CFL Preview: East Division

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The Eastern Division has become a strange place since last year as the teams have often been potentially great and yet have fallen far under the standard set by the West.

Last year meant a massive change in the make-up of the division when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers left the division to go to the West.

The reason for that was the addition of the Ottawa REDBLACKS who gave Ottawa a CFL team for the first time since 2006.

Last year the East was in transition in a big way but still ended up very surprising for a few of the teams.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats signed a new quarterback in Zach Collaros who was supposed to be the saviour of the team who came within one game of winning the Grey Cup a year before.

The Montreal Alouettes were going into a season without Anthony Calvillo for the first time ever and had a new coach for the second time in two years.

The Ottawa REDBLACKS were starting from scratch with a new team looking to make an impact in their first year in the CFL.

The Toronto Argonauts were the only team that seemed steady heading into the season with the same coach and star cast as the year before and it seemed like they could be the team to beat.

As the season unfolded the Ticats struggled to get going with a porous offensive line that eventually led to an injury to their newest addition in Collaros.

The Alouettes could not find a starting quarterback that was solid enough to help them back to being competitive.

Ottawa had their typical issues that every expansion team has with great talent in some spots but simply not enough.

The Argos struggled to stay healthy losing some of their best players including Chad Owens, Andre Durie, and first round draft pick Anthony Coombs all within the start of the season.

It was a tough go for every team in the East to start the season but eventually things began to steady for some of the teams.

The Ticats got Collaros back and began to move up the rankings proving to be the best team in the division.

The Alouettes found Jonathan Crompton to be a suitable starter while the rest of the team settled in under Tom Higgins to move up.

The Argos did what they could with most of their top players hurt and remained in the hunt until the end.

Ottawa remained a team that could not get everything right as a defence played well but the offence was fraught with mistakes.

In the end the Ticats rose to the top while an injury to Ricky Ray seemed to be the last straw for the Argos who missed the playoffs seeing their rival, Montreal, take the second and final spot.

Through the playoffs the Tiger-Cats proved once again to the best in the East and moved on to the Grey Cup for the second time in two seasons.

Now these four teams enter another season looking to have a slightly steadier season than a year ago.

Almost every team will enter the new season with less to deal with than a year ago and all will be looking to show that the East is not weaker than the West.

They will try to prove that the East has a reason for being there and that they can truly compete with the best in the West and that they can take home another Grey Cup.

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The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are entering a season with a very familiar position as they once again enter a new season after disappointment. The Ticats have gone to the Grey Cup two years in a row and both times have returned empty-handed. There weren’t any major changes this year for the Ticats as they focused on taking much of the same team into another season with hopes that some early struggles from last year will not repeat. The previous season was all about the addition of Collaros as the new pivot for the Ticats but he was hurt early on and didn’t return until Labour Day giving the Ticats a lot to battle in the first half. This year they will hope to have a healthy year from their starting quarterback and from their top receiver Andy Fantuz who suffered a concussion in pre-season and spent the season dealing with those issues. Collaros will need to look for some new targets though as Samuel Giguere and Greg Ellingson have left while Luke Tasker, Terrell Sinkfield, and Bakari Grant try to fill those holes. The running back situation will be the biggest debate though as the Ticats enter the season with Nic Grigsby and Mossis Madu fighting for reps while C.J. Gable recovers from another injury. On defence the Ticats hope to remain one of the best in the league and will do so with some new faces. The draft saw the Ticats take Byron Archambault and Jonathan Langa, two of the best CIS linebackers from 2014, they will fight for time behind Simoni Lawrence and Marc Beswick in what is shaping up to be one of the best linebacker corps. The defensive line received two very big blows early this year when Lyndon Gaydosh went down with an Achilles injury and Brian Bulcke hurt his ACL. Both will miss the entire season leaving Bryan Hall, Ted Laurent, Justin Hickman, and Eric Norwood to lead a still solid line. Meanwhile the defensive backs also saw a blow when Delvin Breaux left for the NFL. To fill his shoes the Ticats will rely on some younger players including Emanuel Davis and Ed Gainey along with new addition Johnny Sears Jr. trying to fill his shoes. One of the more positive pieces of news for the Ticats this year has been that Brandon Banks will return in the special teams for Hamilton. Banks was the sparkplug for the Ticats all season and he returns trying to play that same role as one of the most dangerous returners in the CFL. The Ticats have once again assembled a strong team and although a few questions have risen about the defence they remain a strong contender for another year. Getting to the Grey Cup again might be a challenge but it is not out of the realm of possibility for the Tabbies who will once again be in the fight for the top of the East when the season is done.

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mtl-alouettes

The Montreal Alouettes entered some unknown ground in 2014 when they started a season without Anthony Calvillo for the first time since 1998. Along with that they went in with a new coach for the second time in two seasons as Tom Higgins took over after the failed Dan Hawkins experiment. It was a lot of transition for the Alouettes and they showed it with the results of the season. The search for a quarterback lasted much of the first half of the season until they found Jonathan Crompton who steadied the ship. They enter a new season with a lot more figured out this time around as Crompton returns as the starting QB. He might get some pressure from Tanner Marsh or new addition Brandon Bridge if he falters but as of right now he is the starter. He will need to find a new favourite target though as Duron Carter left for the NFL leaving a huge hole in the receiving corps. To fill that hole the Als have added a number of potential game breakers including Fred Stamps, Nik Lewis, and Sam Giguere. Lewis and Stamps have been stars in the CFL for a long time and along with S.J. Green they make up one of the best slot groups in the league. At wideout the Als are a little thinner as Giguere should add some help but other than him there are a lot of unproven receivers. In the backfield the Alouettes will be changing some things as Brandon Whitaker is gone leaving Tyrell Sutton and new addition Stefan Logan, who is sure to make an impact on special teams, to fight for reps. The defence will continue to be a strength for the Als as they lost nothing and gained a few potential stars. Bear Woods remains the cornerstone of the defence and will join Chip Cox for another year in the linebacking corps while Nicholas Shorthill could make an impact this year. In the defensive backfield the Als will be without Geoff Tisdale while Andrew Lue looks to take on a bigger role in his second year alongside Jerald Brown, Billy Parker, and Mike Edem. The defensive line is stacked and although failed attempts at adding some extra playmakers in Khalif Mitchell and Michael Sam went by the wayside they will still bring back Gabriel Knapton, John Bowman, and Alan-Michael Cash to a deep line that is sure to bring plenty of pressure to their opponents. The Alouettes found their way to the playoffs last year as they used the first half of the year trying to figure things out. This year everything is more stable and that could mean a better showing but they still have some major questions to answer. If they can stay stable and improve they may find their way back to the playoffs with a better shot at the Grey Cup, then again when does everything go right for any team.

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Last year was an exciting year for Ottawa but also a year that should have been expected as the REDBLACKS were not very successful. They were possibly the most successful team off of the field as they sold out every game with a great crowd at TD Place every week they were home. On the field it was a different story though as they only took two games the entire year and looked like they were outmatched in most games. No matter how much work is put in through the off-season an expansion team rarely has enough time to truly create a great team. For the REDBLACKS it was in the receiving corps where they had numerous dropped passes that led their offence to stall. This year they went about trying to correct that flaw with the addition of five new receivers. Greg Ellingson, Ernest Jackson, Brad Sinopoli, and Maurice Price were all added after good years on other teams. The REDBLACKS will also get a bosst with Chris Williams who returns to the CFL after a stint in the NFL. Williams is one of the greatest returners in CFL history and should provide a great special teams boost along with a good option on offence. To get the ball in the hands of all of these new additions will be Henry Burris who returns for another season in the CFL, one that could be his last due to visa issues. In the backfield the REDBLACKS had plenty of success but saw a lot of injuries that kept them on their toes. Chevon Walker hopes to return to full health and show that he can be great for a full year while Jeremiah Johnson could join him to create a great two-headed monster. The defence was the shining star of the 2014 season as they were the main reason that the REDBLACKS were even somewhat close in many games. Most of the defence has remained intact from a year ago but the loss of Jasper Simmons, their MVP candidate a year ago, is sure to hurt. Antoine Pruneau and Abdul Kanneh will be given a bigger role with Simmons gone while Jovon Johnson returns as the veteran leader. Justin Capicciotti and Keith Shologan hold down the fort on the defensive line while a host of linebackers will play a big role at the second level. The REDBLACKS have made some big changes and focused on their biggest need in the offseason which is a great move for a team still developing. That development takes a lot longer than simply two years though and the REDBLACKS still have a lot of holes to fill specifically in the depth of the team. A few key injuries could derail their season and bring them back to only a few wins. They will have a better shot this year but they are not ready for the playoff push just yet but they are heading in the right direction.

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tor-argonauts

The Argos have assembled one of the more talented groups in the CFL but they have a problem that comes back year after year, they can’t keep that talent on the field. Last year they saw Chad Owens, Andre Durie, and first round pick Anthony Coombs all miss time. Meanwhile when they needed everyone the most in a tight playoff battle, Ricky Ray went down with a shoulder injury. This year the injury bug has bitten against as Ricky Ray’s injury led to off-season shoulder surgery and a spot on the 6-game injury list to start 2015. Trevor Harris will take over and has some help this year as Owens and Durie return as the true playmakers of the offence. The receivers remain a question much like last year with Jon Chiles, Jason Barnes, and Spencer Watt all gone and a group of new receivers taking over. New addition Aaron Kelly looks to provide a deep threat for Harris while Dave Stala looks to move from the practice roster to the main roster soon and provide another weapon downfield. The backfield got very muddy at the end of training camp as Curtis Steele looked to be the #1 starter until he hurt his knee and was placed on the 6-game injured list. That leaves second year back Coombs and rookie Henry Josey, who had an impressive pre-season, to man the backfield. The Argos made some last-minute additions as well with Chad Kackert and Brandon Whitaker getting practice roster spots just before the season. If either can make the main roster and if Steele can return it will make for a very crowded backfield with a lot of option. On defence the Argos were forced to adjust quickly when defensive coordinator Tim Burke left the team for personal issues and Casey Creehan taking over. Creehan has experience as a defensive coordinator so the transition should be somewhat simpler. The Argos will also welcome back Ricky Foley, the Grey Cup Canadian MVP in 2012 with the Argos, to the defensive line along with rookie Daryl Waud, 2014 rookie of year nominee Tristan Okpalaugo, and new addition Jason Vega. The linebackers lost a leader in Shea Emry as the Argos now look to Cory Greenwood who will act as the QB of the defence and will join Herve Tonye-Tonye in another new-look linebacking corps. The biggest issue on defence for the Argos last year was their defensive backfield but they did nothing to improve as they hope that another year means more experience for the inexperienced group. The Argos once again have some of the best players in the CFL but once again they will not all be on the field at the same time, at least for the start of the season. If they can stay healthy beyond the return of Ray they will fight for the East but if the injury bug comes again they may be fighting just to get into the playoffs.

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Prediction:
The East is more stable than it was a year ago and that should mean a much better showing this year. The REDBLACKS might be the only team to resemble the instability of last year as they are an improved team but still not deep enough to make the playoffs. Meanwhile the Alouettes are a much more stable team than a year ago but they have some major questions and although they will stay in the fight for first they will fall to third. That being said they still will make the playoff fending off the low Western teams to prevent a crossover. The Argos and Ticats will resume their rivalry to fight for the top but a slow start without Ricky Ray will push the Argos to second place while the Ticats will have a much better record than 9-9 in taking the east again. The division will return to being a competitive division after a year of uncertainty turns into a year with plenty of competition, even with the West.

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