2015 CFL Preview: West Division

west_preview

Last year was, to many, evidence that the West and East divisions should be abolished in favour of one large group.

The reason for that lay in the West division with the new five-team division dominating all season.

It wasn’t expected to be that way at the start of the season as the West held two of the worst teams from the season before.

With the Ottawa REDBLACKS entering the league the CFL re-organized each division taking the Winnipeg Blue Bombers out of the East and moving them to the West.

That brought the worst team in the league to the Western Division for 2014 to join with the second worst team in Edmonton.

The west now had the two worst teams in the league and it seemed like they were set for a great battle at the top of the division with some terrible teams at the bottom of the division.

Overall it wasn’t supposed to change all that much between the two divisions as the east had some great talent that could match the west.

Then the season began and all of that potential for the West being normal went out of the window.

The Eskimos and Bombers had found new coaches and new quarterbacks to lead the way. Their decisions turned out to be the best choices for both teams as they came out of the gate firing on all cylinders.

They started to dominate the league and for the east that meant they were beginning to fall quickly behind.

The Bombers and Esks were making the west a much better division than usual and they started to put pressure on the teams that had ruled for years.

The Stampeders and Roughriders were feeling the heat but they remained two of the best teams in the league and continued a tight battle throughout the season.

The Lions followed up behind with some great performances and some not so good ones as their starting quarterback did not start the season.

Overall the west was clearly the best as improved teams meant that the east suffered plenty of losses and so the debate over the destruction of divisions began in earnest.

The east could not win against the west at the start of the season and the west became the stronger division.

The Bombers did fade at the end of the year putting them out of contention but the Eskimos stayed in the hunt.

The Riders lost their star quarterback and began to fall leaving the Battle of Alberta to decide the west’s best team.

Still the Riders were too good at the start of the year to be eliminated and the Lions had done just enough to earn the crossover giving the west four playoff teams and limited the east to two teams in the playoffs.

The West enters another season looking to do the same thing as they hope to dominate the league once again.

They may just be able to do it as well with the Eskimos and Bombers getting another year under new coaches.

The Stampeders will once again be strong with much of the same group that won the Grey Cup last year.

The Lions will see their quarterback return after a year recovering from shoulder surgery. The Roughriders will have their quarterback to start the year and will once again be a strong threat.

The West continues to be a strong division and they might be able to beat up on the east again as long as they can get through their own division unscathed.

bc-lions

The BC Lions were once the team to beat in the CFL as they had a young quarterback in Travis Lulay and a great defence to help him out. When Mike Benevides took over for Wally Buono it seemed like he was set up with a great chance to continue their dominance that is not exactly what happened though. He ended 2013 in second place and last year finished with 9-9 record that earned the Lions a crossover into the east and first round exit. The lack of results cost Benevides his job and now the Lions enter a new year with former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford. The new head coach will try to fix the inconsistent offence that plagued the Lions last year. With Kevin Glenn at the helm the Lions struggled to find a good pass game while an injury to Andrew Harris gave a blow to the run game. Tedford and the return of both Lulay and Harris from injury could change their fortunes this year as they look for some consistency on offence. Lulay will return with some familiar faces in Marco Ianuzzi, Emmanuel Arceneaux, and Shawn Gore leading the receiving corps. New addition Austin Collie looks to make a comeback from concussions that ended his NFL career and make an impact. With Harris back the running game is a little more solid even with Tim Brown and Stefan Logan gone, which will affect the return game more than the running game. Backing Harris up, just in case, are two younger backs in Paschal Lochard and 2015 draft pick Shaquille Murray-Lawrence. All of the returns and additions will be for not if the line cannot protect Lulay as he will likely be the key to any success this year. The concentration of improvements have been on offence because the defence of the Lions is in good hands. With last year’s MOP Soloman Elimimian and his partner Adam Bighill, affectionately known as Team 100, continuing to lead the Lions are in good hands. They did lose Khalif Mitchell in the line but that could be a blessing as he continues to be more trouble off of the field than he is worth. The defensive backfield was porous at times but young defensive backs like Ronnie Yell and Josh Johnson looked better at the end of last year and will be better in their second year. The Lions do not need to worry about their defence as it will remain one of the best but the offence is the question. They will love to see Harris and Lulay back but this team will only go as far as either of those players can carry them, as long as they don’t get hurt again. They are still in the midst of a slight rebuild and their defence may carry them to a playoff berth but the offence needs to step up to get any further.

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cgy-stampeders

The season could not have gone much better for the Stampeders last year as they were the best team throughout the year. They rarely showed signs of weakness in 2014 as they lost all of three games throughout the season. That winning continued into the playoffs as they took out everyone on their way to the Grey Cup. One of the biggest questions heading into 2014 was the quarterback race as neither Bo Levi Mitchell nor Drew Tate had really solidified their spot as the #1 quarterback. Mitchell got the chance to prove what many believed and he did it in a big way. He made his mark and ended any debate becoming one of the best in the league and adding a Grey Cup MOP award to his young career. He returns for another season and will be without some familiar faces as Brad Sinopoli, Maurice Price, and team leader Nik Lewis all left Calgary in the off-season. Other options did emerge last year as Joe West, Eric Rogers, and Sederrik Cunningham all had impressive moments. These three receivers will attempt to be more consistent this year and help to lead the receiving corps back to the Grey Cup. There has never been a question behind Mitchell as Jon Cornish returns for another year but hopes to avoid another injury this year. Their biggest concern might be the line that blocks for Cornish and Mitchell though as Stanley Bryant and last year’s most outstanding lineman Brett Jones are gone leaving some major holes to fill. The losses of those two lineman leaves the Stamps with some young options on the line. Brander Craighead and Pierre Lavertu will take on bigger roles from last year while draftee Karl Lavoie could be put on the line early. There is plenty of promise among those young lineman, Craighead and Lavertu showed it last year, but they are still inexperienced and will need to step up this season. They are still strong on offence and the same can be said about their defence. They will have to overcome some major losses as Shawn Lemon, the second leading sacker in 2014, left for the NFL. The addition of Brandon Boudreaux will likely soften that blow as he fills in alongside Charleston Hughes who came into camp in much better shape. The defensive backfield also suffered a loss with Quincy Butler leaving the team but the emergence of Jamar Wall last year makes the loss hurt a lot less as he returns with Brandon Smith who showed promise in 2014. The team will also receive some extra motivation this year as head coach John Hufnagel will start his last season as head coach giving way to offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson. They will look to repeat for their coach while Dickenson continues to learn the ropes as he receives more responsibility this year with a team that looks almost as good as last year’s as they will be contenders for the Grey cup once again.

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edm-eskimos

The Edmonton Eskimos are in love with their second year coach and that is entirely understandable. Chris Jones came from helping the Argonauts to the Grey Cup to take over a team that had all of four wins in 2013. It was expected to be a bit of a rebuild but in only a year, Jones had the Eskimos in second place and almost to the Grey Cup. He did it by doing what he does best, creating a stifling and aggressive defence. The Eskimos had one of the best defences in the league last year led by the rushing of Odell Willis and the steady second level led by JC Sherritt and rookie of the year Dexter McCoil. Now Jones returns as head coach with a contract extension earned this off-season and tries to take the Esks one step further than last year. Once again the defence is the concentration for the Esks as the top players from a year ago return on that side of the ball. Willis returns to lead the line while McCoil and Sherritt are also back to help this team dominate offences. The loss of Joe Burnett will hurt the defensive backfield but Aaron Grymes and Ryan Hinds are ready to take on a bigger role. The only thing they need is for the offence to keep up with their defence. Led by Mike Reilly they were very much improved from 2013 but in 2014 they will be without one of the biggest parts of that offence. John White ruptured his Achilles tendon during training camp taking away a running back that could have challenged for the rushing title given a full season. It will be a tough hole to fix but the Eskimos will look to new addition Chad Simpson to take over the rushing game. The Eskimos will also have to do without Fred Stamps who left for Montreal in the off-season. Luckily for the Esks Stamps’ had a smaller role in 2014 thanks to Adarius Bowman’s great season. Bowman returns and will be joined by Cory Watson in the slot. On the outside the Esks will look to their young receivers in Nate Coehoorn, Devon Bailey, and Shamawd Chambers alongside new additions Wallace Miles and Kenny Stafford to give Reilly plenty of options. The biggest rebuild for the Esks was on the offensive line where they added four offensive lineman this year along with drafting two young promising lineman. The offensive itself may be better with some consistency as they have kept the same offensive coordinator for the first time in years. The Eskimos are coming into a new season with more consistency than ever before and for a team that finished second last year that is a great thing. This consistency on offence will only help Reilly to keep up with the defence this year and if they can put everything together throughout the season there is plenty of promise to give hope to the Esks.

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ssk-roughriders

The Saskatchewan Roughriders had a strange season last year as they weren’t necessarily a dominant team but were far from a bad team. They started off the season well with their defence leading the way and John Chick dominating the line of scrimmage. Then came the Banjo Bowl and a major blow to the Riders’ hopes of winning another Grey Cup. Darian Durant went down and the Riders were without their leader while their issues on offence were exposed. All of last year the Riders depended on a great defence which disguised the fact that their offence could not support the defensive efforts. They couldn’t put up points and their passing game was almost non-existent. When Durant was injured all of these issues were exposed proving that Durant was the only thing holding this offence together. They began to struggle but the record they had built up served well and put them into the playoffs, although that was as far as they could go. This year Durant is back and hoping to lead the Riders once again into the playoffs. New offensive coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine will look to give the offence a more aggressive style and let Durant do what he does best, throw the ball. Last year they were a running team which worked well enough for a short time but in the CFL teams need to be good through the air. This year Durant will welcome back Weston Dressler for the entire year after he returned midway through the season after a stint in the NFL. Dressler is a part of a deep receiving corps that includes Taj Smith, Rob Bagg, Chris Getzlaf, and draftee Nic Demski. In the backfield Anthony Allen and Jerome Messam return in what was a great backfield last year and what could be a great one-two punch. The Riders’ defence was their saving grace last year and much of that team returns. Chick will be back to patrol the line along with Alex Hall who returns to the Riders to start the season. They will lose Ricky Foley this year as they traded him to Toronto for Shea Emry. The addition of Emry gives the Riders a veteran presence in the linebacking corps while the addition of Keenan MacDougall does the same for the defensive backfield. Expect the Riders to use a mix of young and veteran talent to fill out their defence that will bring the pressure like last year. The Riders will look to their defence to lead the way again and so far that has worked but this year there will be a difference. The offence will be changed this year as they will get more aggressive through the air and let Durant carry them. If it works out the Riders are set for a great run but they may have to suffer some growing pains the could put them behind the pack at the start of the season.

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wpg-blue-bombers

The Blue Bombers were a team that had much of the same type of season as Edmonton in 2014 with a massive turnaround from the year before. After only winning three games in 2013 the Bombers went about changing everything as they hired new head coach Mike O’Shea and signed Saskatchewan’s backup QB Drew Willy. The moves worked out right away as they started the season on a tear and moved up to the top of the division. Willy proved to be the quarterback they had been waiting for while O’Shea seemed to be the answer on the sidelines. Then it all fell apart as the Bombers lost eight of their last nine games and fell to the bottom of the division. Everything seemed to be figured out at the start of the season but in the end they finished last for another year. This year they return trying to finish the season like they started it last year as they try to take another step. The offence is once again led by Drew Willy who received a contract extension in the off-season after a great first year under centre for Winnipeg. He looks to be one of the promising young quarterbacks in the CFL and tries to be more consistent. He will be without some of his more experienced receivers as Aaron Kelly and Cory Watson left this off-season but the emergence of Rory Kohlert and Nick Moore soften that blow. Clarence Denmark also returns this year as the veteran presence for the receiving corps. In the backfield the Bombers had put their faith in Paris Cotton last year after a great start by Nic Grigsby faltered at the end of the year. The biggest improvements for the Bombers this year is on the line though as they added three new lineman including some great veterans. The additions of Dominic Picard and Stanley Bryant provide a good new-look. Those additions will look to keep Willy clean and give him the ability to drop back against some very tough defences in the west. Last year it wasn’t the offence that proved to be the Achilles heal though as the defence faltered and ended the season as the worst in the league. They allowed an average of 26.7 points per game last year and that needs to change if they want to make the playoffs. Two additions should go a long way to getting their though as Samuel Hurl and Jamaal Westerman should prove to be great veteran additions. The Bombers did good work in the off-season to improve in the areas that they needed to improve. Still they might have some work to do as Willy needs to perform for a full season and the defence needs to get better. They may get a better position in the standings this year but may need to depend on a crossover to make the playoffs as the top three in the west seem to be a lock.

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Prediction:
The west division is once again a strong one with plenty of Grey Cup contenders in the same division. The only difference between any of them will be if everything goes right or if something goes wrong. For the Lions things going wrong seem to be a sure thing and although they have rebuilt and will see their starting quarterback return they will have some growing pains under a new coaching staff that will affect their offence more than their defence. The Bombers will not finish last this time around but they won’t be far off as they once again struggle to keep things going through an entire season. Willy will get better protection and should be a better passer but the defence is not improved enough to put them into the playoffs. Meanwhile the top three will remain the top three and will fight a tough fight to earn the top. The Stampeders just seem to be too put together to lose that fight while the Eskimos’ defence will overcome the Roughriders. All three will make the playoffs though and turn out a great playoff run that could once again provide a Grey Cup champion.

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