2016 CFL Preview: East Division

 

 

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The CFL has a clear division between the east and the west with most believing that the west is simply the better group of teams.

It is hard to argue as the last three years have seen western teams win the Grey Cup with the eastern teams coming up just short.

It may not necessarily be that the east is the worse division but rather that they have been more inconsistent recently.

In 2014 the Ottawa REDBLACKS were added and Winnipeg left the east causing quite a bit of a shift in the division.

The introduction of the REDBLACKS seemed to affect the east more than the west after the expansion draft and free agency.

For whatever reason the east took bigger hits and that created a terrible season for the entire division.

Wins against the west were rare and the teams in the east simply fought amongst themselves to try and get two playoff spots.

The bad season brought even more people out to talk about joining the divisions allowing the best teams in the league to play in the playoffs.

Essentially, the argument was that the east didn’t deserve even the two spots that were up for grabs with the west being so much better.

Of course, the other side was telling people to be patient and wait for the adjustment with the new team before jumping to conclusions.

In the end, the BC Lions crossed over and lost to the Montreal Alouettes in the semi-finals while the Hamilton Tiger-Cats went to the Grey Cup for the second year in a row.

The Stampeders came out on top in that year as Hamilton took their second straight Grey Cup loss.football-sidebar

For the sake of the east, the 2015 season needed to be better and it was like night and day.

The east was far better in 2015 and that included the second-year franchise from Ottawa who gave the rest of the east a run for their money.All of a sudden all four eastern teams looked good and looked like if they got things going they any could make a run at the Grey Cup.

The east was night and day from the year before and the talk of merging two divisions into one disappeared.

Still the east couldn’t take home the Grey Cup as the REDBLACKS found their way to their first Grey Cup in their second year as a team but couldn’t beat the Edmonton Eskimos in the big game.

The east had a far better showing than a year before but it wasn’t enough to end the western winning streak.

A new year is here and the east is trying to find that Grey Cup that has been elusive in the last three years.

As the Grey Cup travels back to the east for only the second time in eight years the eastern teams are hoping to celebrate closer to home.

The last time an eastern team won was the Toronto Argonauts who took the 100th Grey Cup in 2012 in front of a home crowd.

They will try to do the same thing this year as they move to a new stadium in BMO Field who will play host to the 104th Grey Cup.

Ottawa and Hamilton will look for an in-province Grey Cup while the Alouettes look to travel to a rival city and put another stamp on the game.

The east may have struggled in 2014 but after a recovery in 2015 and the return of some big players along with key additions 2016 might be the year that the east take back the Grey Cup.

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There is little question that the Ti-Cats have been one of the most formidable teams in the last few years. Regardless of the division they have been a constant contender for the Grey Cup and yet in those years they have never taken home the prize. The biggest reason is the simple fact that their best player has yet to play a full season since moving to Hamilton. Zach Collaros has been the linchpin for the Ti-Cats offence but knee injuries have shortened his three seasons in Hamilton. That trend will continue this year as a knee injury suffered at the end of last year will keep him out for the start of the season. That leaves Hamilton with Jake Matthews and Jeremiah Masoli under centre and in relief of Collaros in the past neither have been that impressive. They will have another weapon to help out through as Chad Owens has followed Collaros from Toronto to Hamilton and is sure to be a big part of the offence. When, or if, Collaros returns the pair should be a big boost to the offence as they were when they played together with the Argos. Along with C.J. Gable, Anthony Woodson, and Canadian Mercer Timmis in the backfield, the offence looks good. The problem is at quarterback where they need to stay afloat until Collaros can return. To help them do that the defence will need to step up, which they have in the past when Collaros has been out. The difference this year is that some of their depth is gone. Particularly on the line where a handful of their starters moved on to Toronto in the off-season. They did find reinforcements though as they signed John Chick who had some great years in Saskatchewan and immediately becomes a leader of this group. Ted Laurent returns and will set the tone for the defensive line. Simoni Lawrence continues to be the emotional leader of the defence while Courtney Stephen leads from the defensive backfield. One of the secret weapons of the Ti-Cats over the last few years has been the special teams with the great kicking and better kick returners. Brandon Banks is back to try to continue his break-out ability but the T0Cats will wonder into the unknown with Cody Mandell as the steady Justin Medlock is now kicking for Winnipeg. The Ti-Cats could once again be the team to beat in the east but the question will be if and when Collaros can return to make them a true force.

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mtl-alouettes

The Montreal Alouettes have been a team that perfectly expresses just how important the quarterback position is in the CFL. For years, they were the best team in the league with Anthony Calvillo running an offence that not many could stop. Since Calvillo retired, the Als have had a tough time finding a replacement and this year doesn’t seem to be going any different. In training camp, the Als dressed eight quarterbacks looking for someone that could impress enough to take over. Kevin Glenn seems to be the starter but Canadian Brandon Bridge is on his heals while NCAA star Vernon Adams from Oregon could take over at any point in the season. When they figure this out the Als will be in a better spot but for now, it is going to be tough to get consistency from a team without a true starter. Without that starter, there may be some waste of talent, especially with some returning players. The biggest name was the return of Duron Carter who was one of the best receivers in the CFL before leaving for the NFL. Along with Nik Lewis, S.J. Green, and Kenny Stafford the Als have a great receiving corps that can give teams fits. In the backfield, the Als have more decisions to make as Tyrell Sutton, Brandon Rutley, and Stefan Logan have all proven to be effective but only one can get the majority of the carries. Along with those decisions, Montreal will have to replace much of the line as many of their all-Canadian line left in the off-season. On defence, there are fewer decisions with some key additions likely to make a big impact. In the defensive backfield veteran, Jovon Johnson joins Billy Parker and Mitchell White for a good set of DBs. The linebacking corps is a formidable group as well with Chip Cox and Winston Venable leading the way and Bear Woods looking to recapture his 2014 season when he was the east nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive player. In front of them will be the sack leader from a year ago Jon Bowman who continues to play an ageless game while the Als added Vaughn Martin who was considered a top prospect year ago before he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers and spent time in the NFL. The Alouettes are a talented team but like the past few years, they need to figure out their quarterback position because continued instability will only keep them out of the playoffs this year.

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Last year the REDBLACKS had a season that nobody could have imagined except for the men in the locker room at TD Place. In only their second year as a franchise, the REDBLACKS rose to the top of the east and made it to Winnipeg to play in the Grey Cup. The issue in 2016 is pretty simple for Ottawa, can they get the same level of performance from players that were not expected to be as good as they were. The biggest question lies with Henry Burris who is now 41-years-old and had his greatest season ever a year ago. He carried the team but there are questions about when his age will catch up with him as he can only play for so long. It may not be this year but just in case, the REDBLACKS are prepared as they signed Trevor Harris who played most of last season with the Toronto Argonauts with Ricky Ray injured. The REDBLACKS enjoyed a massive upgrade in their receiving corps last year and will see much of the same group return. Greg Ellingson, Ernest Jackson, Chris Williams, and the constantly developing Brad Sinopoli are set to give Burris every opportunity to have the same numbers as a year ago. The constant rotation behind Burris continues this year as starting running back William Powell will miss the season with an injury suffered in their first preseason game. In his place will be CFL rookie Travon Van as the REDBLACKS have struggled to find a solid starting running back and the search could continue throughout the year. On defence, the REDBLACKS are going to miss Justin Capicciotti who left in free agency but they will hope that Ettore Lattanzio can step in to keep the ratio stable. Capicciotti was a big part of the line last year but not the only one as Moton Hopkins and Zack Evans return while new addition Arnaud Gascon-Nadon hopes to make an impact. The linebacking corps was a better group last year but they are changed this year with Damaso Munoz and David Hinds two of the few returning players in the group. In the defensive backfield, the REDBLACKS lean on more Canadian talent in Antoine Pruneau alongside Jerrell Gavins and Abdul Kanneh to great a good group. The REDBLACKS were a great team a year ago but a lot of that was great performances from good players. For Ottawa, it is all a matter of if that is the new norm or if it was just a one-year abnormality although either way they will likely still be in the playoffs.

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The Argos are playing in a new stadium but more importantly they are now under stable ownership. That is huge for the team as they can simply concentrate on playing and winning games rather than going on long road trips and wondering if anyone was going to own the team the next year. On offence, they will see Ricky Ray return after shoulder surgery kept him out most of last year and they hope to keep him on the field with an upgraded line that includes Josh Bourke. He will be without one of his favourite targets in Chad Owens and as a result, the offence will have to adjust. For that, the Argos have a group of young receivers that should be through their growing pains. Vidal Hazelton, Kevin Bradfield, Kenny Shaw, and Tori Gurley all started their CFL careers last year in Toronto and now if they develop like some think they could be a force on the field. Meanwhile, Andre Durie, who hopes for an injury-free season, and Anthony Coombs look to replace Owens while rookie Canadian, Brian Jones tries to make his own impact on the receiving corps. In the backfield, Brandon Whitaker gets his first full season with the Argos while Coombs will likely see time. For the offence, it seems more about the hope of development while on defence it was an entire change. It started with the hiring of a veteran CFL defensive coach, Rich Stubler, and continued with plenty of signings. That included taking a good chunk of a productive defensive line from Hamilton in Bryan Hall, Justin Hickman, and Brian Bulcke along with the re-addition of Rickey Foley who was with the team when they won the Grey Cup in 2012. In the linebacking corps, the Argos signed CFL veteran Keon Raymond while they look to Cory Greenwood to continue developing in his second full year in his home country. The defensive backfield is the one spot that remains relatively unchanged as Matt Black and Jermaine Gabriel lead a group that has had issues in the past. The changes also reached to special teams where the Argos said goodbye to Swayze Waters and signed Canadian Lirim Hajrullahu who has struggled recently but was once the best kicker in the league. The Argos made their intentions clear as they are going for another home Grey Cup win with a much-improved defence. The question will be if these new parts can gel and if the development from their offence actually comes through as good as they expect.

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Prediction:
The east seems a little more wide open this year simply because there are some many questions to be answered. Most of the teams could end up on the top if certain things go right but they need to go right and quickly to get there. The Argos seem to be the most improved with what looks like a great defence but if their receivers don’t develop like they expect they could fall quickly. Ottawa seems like a good team for another year but if they can’t get the same performances as a year ago from key players they may every well fall too. For Hamilton, it is as simple as how early can Collaros return to the starting role. If he can recover quickly they will finish first if not they will bring up the back end of the playoff teams but could be a team to watch in November. Instability is the biggest issue in Montreal as the QB carousel continues to spin and that will help nobody as the Als suffer despite having a tough team unless they find that solid starting QB that can lead them all year and can be given room to make mistakes. The east is going to be a battle and things need to go right for every team if they hope to find their way to the Grey Cup in Toronto in late November.

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