2016 CFL Preview: West Division

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According to many the west is the division with the most talent and the best teams in the CFL and if some had their way they wouldn’t even be in their own division.

Only a two years ago the suggestion was thrown out to join both divisions, essentially a move to give the west more chances to earn playoff spots.

The thought never gained much traction and last year I disappeared when the east improved from the year before and gave the west a challenge in games.

Still the attitude is there and it is based in a lot of truth as the west is home to a lot of talent.

That has been the basis of the last three Grey Cups that have all been given to western teams.

Over the last two years, the division has been run by the Battle of Alberta as the Eskimos and Stampedes have been the two best teams in the league for the last two years.

Each have also taken home a Grey Cup in that time with Calgary winning in 2014 and Edmonton taking the 103rd Grey Cup last year.

These teams are where two of the best quarterbacks in the league play and as most know the CFL is highly reliant on quarterback play.

With the dominance in the west though there is an assumption that this year will be much of the same as western teams are expected to make it four in a row.

The east is an improved group though and for the first time in three years, the Grey Cup will be in the east.

The west still has a good shot but all of their success has bred an interesting season for the division.

That is largely because success has created demand for services from every team and a need to be better.

That demand for services means that players are constantly changing teams.

Not only that but coaches are changing and moving cities in order to gain more control after some teams try to get some of the success in their own cities.football-sidebar

Some teams are simply making a change to try to turn things around while others are forced to make a change.

Overall the west will see changes on the sidelines for four of the five teams as only Winnipeg remains the same from a year ago, at least on the sidelines.

In BC a legendary coach returns to try and pull them out of the basement and back to the Grey Cup.

In Calgary, a legend on the field replaces a legend on the sidelines and tries to keep the dominance of the Stamps going.

In Saskatchewan, a Grey Cup winning coach joins a team that has suffered in the past few years after being given complete control of the team.

In Edmonton, they are dealing with the loss of that Grey Cup winning coach and bringing back a former fan-favourite quarterback to take over the defending champions.

It is a lot of change for a lot of teams and that is not always a great thing. These teams have been used to doing things a certain way and inevitably some things will change.

Trying to get used to that change can take some time but in the west time is not something that any team has.

If all of these teams struggle Winnipeg could overtake them quickly as they look like an improved team from a year ago.

If they all get used to the change quick it could be a shootout to make the playoffs and to make the Grey Cup in Toronto.

Once again the west is an interesting division with plenty to talk about as the season is set to begin.

bc-lions

The BC Lions were, not long ago, a force to be reckoned with as they had a young QB who looked like he could take over the league and a great defence. Not only that but they had the best running back in the league which all led them to a Grey Cup championship in 2011. After that time though the team began to fall apart as their young QB was injured and their running game wasn’t utilised. Many pointed to the retirement of Wally Buono from coaching after winning the Grey Cup. With Mike Benevides and Jeff Tedford both unsuccessful in keeping the Lions at the top, Buono decided to return for the 2016 season as he rejoins the sidelines with a different looking team. On offence, the receivers remain a strength of this team with Emmanuel Arceneaux leading the way alongside Shawn Gore, Marco Ianuzzi, and some young stars in Terence Jeffres-Harris along with rookie Shaq Johnson. The problem with the offence is the uncertainty under centre and the change in the backfield. Under centre, the Lions hope to see Travis Lulay finally return to full strength after his last two seasons were shortened by injuries. In his absence last year, the Lions found Jonathan Jennings who could be the future of the position for the Lions, especially if Lulay can’t return to form. Meanwhile, behind the QB one of the league’s best Canadian running backs is gone as Andrew Harris is now in Winnipeg. There are plenty of replacements for the Lions as Chris Rainey and Jeremiah Johnson are both great CFL running backs. Anthony Allen could take over though as he showed flashes in Saskatchewan and hopes to take the starting job. One defence not much has changed which is a good thing as they have been one of the best defences in the past few years. It all starts with “Team 100” in the linebacking corps as Soloman Elimimian and Adam Bighill make for a very tough second level. In front of them, new addition Bryant Turner will join Alex Bazzie in the middle of the line to create plenty of issues. In the defensive backfield, the Lions are started to see the payoff in their young group that includes Ronnie Yell, T.J. Lee, and new addition Brandon Stewart. The Lions are a team that once again could make some noise but it has been about injury luck and execution more than talent. If Buono is the answer the Lions could be a challenger for the top spot but it seems more likely they will fight for a playoff spot.

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cgy-stampeders

The Calgary Stampeders have been one of the most consistent teams over the last few years sitting among the best in the league. They have done that with a deep team both on offence and defence along with one of the best quarterbacks in the league. All of that came together under future hall of famer John Hufnagel but last year he announced he would no longer the coach and would hand the reigns to offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson. He will have some help in keeping the run going though as Mitchell returns for another year as one of the best in the game and everyone knows how important it is to have a great QB. What will change, though, is the usually deep receiving corps that lost two of their biggest stars. Jeff Fuller and CFL’s leading receiver last year, Eric Rogers signed with NFL teams and will try to make an impact south of the border. That puts more pressure on Marquay McDaniel to lead the way while new addition Bakari Grant tries to recover from a bad 2015 to help soften the loss of two great receivers. In the backfield the Stamps will also see a big change as 3-time Most Outstanding Canadian and former CFL MOP, Jon Cornish decided to retire after being limited by multiple concussions in the past few years. In his place, the Stamps made sure they were prepared, adding Jerome Messam last year. The running back job is Messam’s now and he looks to show what he can do when he is the top back on the team. On defence, the team’s motor is at the front with Junior Turner, Quinn Smith, Derek Wiggans, and Charleston Hughes all putting plenty of pressure on the opposition. They will have to do it without Rich Stubler who left for Toronto but despite the change in coordinator they still plan on being a pressure defence.  The linebackers are led by Deron Mayo while new arrival from Hamilton, Taylor Reed, hopes to have an impact this year. In the defensive backfield, the Stamps will see a big loss in Keon Raymond, who followed his coordinator east, but Jamar Wall and Joe Burnett hope to continue their development and lessen the blow. The Stamps are still full of talent despite some key losses but the question will be if Dickenson can make the same impact as a head coach in his first year. Everything is there for him and the Stamps aren’t likely to miss the playoffs but a Grey Cup might not be in the cards.

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Things couldn’t have ended any better than they did for the Edmonton Eskimos last year as they ended their season on top of the league. The Eskimos finally got back to the top and took a Grey Cup home for the first time since 2005. The party for the team didn’t last too long though as soon after the Grey Cup head coach Chris Jones left for Saskatchewan. Now they move on with former Edmonton quarterback and Argos’ offensive coordinator Jason Maas taking over while Mike Benevides takes over as defensive coordinator. The new brain trust will have a lot to live up to and with some players following Jones to Saskatchewan they may have a tough time winning another Grey Cup. The effect of Jones leaving will be seen on defence more than anything but a lot of talent is still there. The heart of this defence remains as Odell Willis stayed with the team alongside Almondo Sewell, and Eddie Steele. Although they might not be as pressure-focused without Jones they will still cause problems. In the second level, the Eskimos will miss Otha Foster but they will look to J.C. Sherritt to get back to his record-breaking ways while Deon Lacy takes a bigger role this year. The defensive backs will get a boost with the addition of Cord Parks who will need to fill the shoes of Aaron Grymes who left for the NFL in the off-season. This defence will look different but Benevides was a successful coordinator in BC and looks to keep the dominance of this defence going. On offence, the Eskimos might enjoy the addition of Maas as Mike Reilly leads the way again, this time, hoping to stay on the field the entire season. He will have a great receiving corps to work with throughout the season including some additions that will only help him. As always, Adarius Bowman is the leader in the passing game but most outstanding rookie Derel Walker looks to take another step in his development and new addition Chris Getzlaf provides another CFL veteran to find. In the backfield, the loss of John White for most of the last season wasn’t great but this year he returns hoping to win the rushing title as the starting back. They won’t have the same depth as Kendial Lawrence left to join Jones in Saskatchewan leaving Shakir Bell as the back-up. There is talent on the team but they will learn how important Jones was to their Grey Cup last year although a playoff appearance seems likely.

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It has been a rough run for the most popular team in the CFL as they have gone three years as one of the worst teams in the league. It wasn’t so long ago that they won the grey Cup on home soil giving some of the biggest CFL fans plenty to cheer about. Right after though they ran into major issues in keeping their best players healthy and they sunk to the bottom of the league. They looked to change that by making a big splash this off-season as they went out and signed Grey Cup winning coach Chris Jones. He left just after winning the Grey Cup and took over head coaching and general manager duties. That control will make this turnaround all his if he can pull it off and he quickly went to work trying to begin that turnaround as soon as possible. On offence, the Riders have one clear mission, keep Darian Durant healthy. The last two years they lost Durant and as soon as they lost him the season went plummeting down. If he stays healthy they are a different team but if not they might find the bottom of the league again. The receiving corps will see the biggest change as stalwarts like Chris Getzlaf, Weston Dressler, and a new star in Ryan Smith are all gone. Jones brought in Shamawd Chambers and Kendial Lawrence from Edmonton while he also signed John Chiles who starred in Toronto before leaving for the NFL. The backfield will be entirely new as Matt Walter and Curtis Steele join the Riders and will likely share some carries throughout the year. The biggest change could be seen on defence as Jones has put together dominant defences everywhere he goes. There is no doubt that the players will have fun with his pressure-heavy defence and that could be huge for a player like Justin Capicciotti. He already looked good in Ottawa but now he joins Jones and could be a key piece to the defence opposite Shawn Lemon on the line. Linebackers have had career years under his system and Greg Jones hopes that continues while Otha Foster followed his coach and will fit in well with the defence. Tevaughn Campbell and Ed Gainey lead the way on in the defensive backfield as the whole defence looks to improve under a great coach. The Riders could be better this year but a Grey Cup might be a few more years away as the Riders dig out.

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wpg-blue-bombers

There has been optimism in Winnipeg for the last few years with Mike O’Shea and Kyle Walters making moves to improve the team. The only problem is that the rebuilding process in Winnipeg has been a long one that has only been hurt by big injuries at bad times. The Bombers continue to add great pieces to the team but it never seems like they can make a big enough difference to get them into the playoffs. This off-season was much of the same and the same questions will rise after a busy off-season. The biggest move came when the Bombers won the bidding battle to get one of the best Canadian running backs in the league in Andrew Harris. He will return to his hometown and look to provide a solid running game, something the Bombers have missed in the last few seasons. Whether he can do it behind a lesser line is going to be an issue but he has proven to be capable in the league. The Bombers will also hope that Drew Willy can stay healthy this year and play a full year under centre after only playing 7 games last year. They do have a capable back-up in Matt Nichols this year so the worry might not be as bad. To help both QBs out the Bombers got a boost in the receiving corps signing Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith from their rivals in Saskatchewan. They are going to need to be a big part of the offence as the rest of the receivers are good but don’t have the breakout ability of Smith or Dressler. One defence the Bombers have had some of their biggest struggles despite some bright spots. Last year Jamal Westerman led the league in sacks until the final weekend and he hopes to do the same this year. He will have help as Euclid Cummings and Keith Shologan join the line to add some pressure. The linebackers are young but promising as Sam Hurl and Ian Wild lead a group without one player over 30 years old. The defensive backfield the Bombers saw some big changes as Demond Washington and Craig Newman are gone leaving some big holes with two Canadians off of the roster. They will need to shuffle some things but Maurice Leggett will likely be the leader of a more inexperienced group. The Bombers are once again a better team but nobody knows just how improved they are and if it is enough. The defence is still a project but their offence might be able to hide it as they could make a run to the playoffs this year.

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Prediction:
The division will once again come down to the Battle of Alberta as they are still the two best teams in the west. Both are going through some major changes and they may not be as dominant as they were a year ago they still have too much talent. The Eskimos will have a little more of an adjustment this year with a brand new coaching staff and so they will fall just short of taking the division title. The Stamps have relatively the same staff and so the adjustment will be less giving them the inside track to winning the west. The BC Lions and Winnipeg Blue Bombers are both better this year but they are not guaranteed a playoff spot as they will fight the entire season. The Bombers’ defence is just not good enough right now for them to get past BC who will take the last western spot with Wally Buono back at the helm.  The Roughriders are heading in the right direction for the first time in a while but they aren’t there yet. Expect a couple more wins but the true impact of Chris Jones will come in the next few years but not right now. They will head into the playoffs looking to continue their Grey Cup streak with a great battle between all of the teams.

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