2018 CFL Preview: East Division

eastdivisionThere has been a growing concern over the division in the CFL between the East and the West as it has begun to get ugly.

It seems like every year the only games that the eastern teams have a chance of winning are the ones against other east teams.

When these teams face off against those in the west it is like they are playing a different game and recently it has led to an outcry to take the divisions away.

For some, the fact that there are only 9 teams in the entire league makes divisions an unnecessary practice.

The west beating up on the east only proves that the divisions aren’t necessary because too many good teams are missing out on the playoffs.

Over the last few years winning teams have been unable to find their way to the playoffs because they finish last in the west.

Meanwhile, the east is a war of attrition with teams only barely getting a winning record or even a losing one and hosting the eastern final.

The people arguing for a single division will say that the best teams should always get into the playoffs regardless of anything else.

New commissioner, Randy Ambrosie has decided to consider it but there are no plans right now to change the way things are done.

Beyond the business reason for keeping the two divisions, the eastern conference is throwing their own argument at the problem.

They may not have been the best teams in the regular season as both of the last two years they have only been able to take two playoff spots.

Even in the playoffs, they haven’t been the best teams as both of the last two years saw a western team make the eastern final with the crossover.

That is where the dominance has ended though as in both of those years it wasn’t a western team hoisting the Grey Cup.

Instead, the eastern champions have been able to take home the championships despite the fact that all of them struggled in the regular season.

In both years the Calgary Stampeders took the loss in the Grey Cup but every team they faced an eastern team it was almost an automatic win in the regular season.

The regular season continues to see struggles but at the end of each season, the fact is two eastern teams are standing on top.

Although they have struggled it seems like teams are far more evenly matched than first thought.

When it mattered most the east took the wins but the competitiveness is still a concern through the regular season.

It is a concern that the eastern teams will try to take away this year with some big questions for every team.

There is the defending champs and a couple teams making some big changes in order to compete but nobody has the inside track right now.

They will look to compete to get those playoff spots and try to become the third straight eastern Grey Cup champion while also trying to fend off those western teams.

ham-tiger-cats

It may go down as the most dramatic off-season in CFL history as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were in the centre of the biggest story of the winter. They were the team holding the rights to the biggest name to consider entering the league in years. Johnny Manziel was considering a comeback and the CFL was the only league willing to sign him. It took plenty of convincing as the commissioner took some time to approve the move and then the Ti-Cats had to go about trying to sign a former college star turned NFL washout. Manziel and his agent criticized them and the rules of the CFL as he wasn’t going to get ham-tigercatspaid enough and would have to sign a two-year deal despite the fact that Hamilton was always supposed to be a temporary stop. After all of the back and forth the Ti-Cats eventually did sign him and the circus began as Manziel will be the most talked about player in the CFL. After struggling last year with major injuries and the continued decline of Zach Collaros they didn’t have the firepower to keep up. This year they are hoping that they can find a quarterback to help them rise through the ranks and Manziel might be that guy. He likely won’t get a great chance to start the season as he continues to learn the league and so Hamilton will be looking to Jeremiah Masoli under center. He performed well last year after Collaros’ struggles and earned the right to get a chance as the starter. He will be working with a good group of receivers as Brandon Banks returns and continues to take a bigger role in the passing game. Alongside Terence Tolliver and Luke Tasker, Masoli has targets to keep him in the starter as long as he can hit them. In the backfield they will look to Alex Taylor to take most of the touches but Mercer Timmis could play a bigger role especially as a Canadian. The defence is led by the combination of Justin Capicciotti and Ted Laurent who provide good pressure up front. As usual the most vocal leader for the Ti-Cats is Simoni Lawrence and he continued to back up all of his talk. Canadian Nick Shortill will look to take on a bigger role in the linebacking corps this year. Courtney Stephen leads from the secondary as the veteran presence along with Mike Daly in a group without a lot of other certain things. The Ti-Cats are not a team without talent as there are plenty of great players but they might not have enough to compete. They just need that guy that make everyone better and whether Masoli or Manziel is that guy remains to be seen.

mtl-alouettes

It has been a long road for the Alouettes after essentially falling off of a cliff in the last few years. They went from being the most feared team in the east to the worst team in the league. There is one clear reason and that has been the ability to replace the greatest CFL quarterback ever, Anthony Calvillo. No matter how many people they put under centre nobody seems to work out for any number of reasons. Sometimes they just aren’t up to the task while other times the impatience of the constant rotating door of coaches has done more harm than good. This year they were hoping they found the guy after mtl-alouettessigning Josh Freeman but he never seemed to get the nuances of the game and retired before the end of training camp. That means that the newest member of a growing club of Montreal quarterbacks will be Drew Willy. He was there for another bad season last year but never took the majority of snaps which is what will happen this year. He leads an offence that has struggled with a lack of depth and a constant change in offensive strategy. New head coach Mike Sherman has made his name by designing offences so he might be the one to bring them out of the basement. Both Sherman and Willy will rely heavily on Chris Williams and Ernest Jackson to provide the targets in the passing game. Tyrell Sutton looks to lead the running game again this year with Stefan Logan serving as a change of pace back and a great kick returner. The offence hasn’t been the best for the Als but they have had some good moments on defence that have kept them in games. It all starts up front with John Bowman who returns after considering retirement last year. He will be joined by Jamaal Westerman in what should be a pretty potent pass rush. In the second level, the addition of Kyle Knox is a good one as he will play alongside Henoc Muamba and Chip Cox who only decided to return just before the start of the season. Another addition in the secondary could be big as Joe Burnett provides some needed support for Dominique Ellis at defensive back. The Alouettes have made some pretty good moves on defence that should keep that part of their team their biggest strength. The question remains whether or not the offence can give the defence a lead to play with. If Willy can bring back the days when he was one of the best young QBs in the league the Als could surprise but that is a big question mark for the season.

ott-redblacks.fw

The REDBLACKS came into 2017 as an unexpected defending champion with their first title in only the first few years in the league. Not only that but the REDBLACKs had a losing record in that year and still were able to beat the Calgary Stampeders in the Grey Cup. Heading into a new year it seemed clear that they were going to be a team to beat in the new season. That didn’t happen as they finished with the exact same record as a year before but the Argos had passed them for first in the east. Even with that the hopes were alive until they were upset in the Eastern Semi-Final against the Saskatchewan ott-redblacksRoughriders. The disappointing end to the season led to some major changes in the nation’s capital with a lot of players leaving town. The talent that left was good but it wasn’t necessarily earth-shattering as the REDBLACKS are just looking for a new direction. Like any team that direction all starts with the quarterback and the REDBLACKS are hoping that they have theirs to start the season. Trevor Harris is one of the best in the league but a pre-season injury has left the start of his season in doubt. They will have Week 1 off so he gets more time to recover but to be successful Ottawa needs him to stay healthy, something he has struggled to do in recent years. If he can come back he has some talent to throw to as Greg Ellingson is among the most elite receivers in the game. Ellingson, Brad Sinopoli, Diontae Spencer and new addition Julian Feoli-Gudino make up a very deep group. The offence will also get some support in the backfield as William Powell looks to build on his 1,000+ yard season last year with Mossis Madu Jr. playing the backup role. The defence needs to be better and Noel Thorpe is hoping to do what he did in Montreal for years. He brought a big-time player with him to Ottawa as Kyries Hebert joins the REDBLACKS and will be the focal point of this new defence. Thorpe has some other talent to play with though as Antoine Pruneau is one of the top defensive backs in the league while there is potential on the line with Ettore Lattanzio and Michael Klassen. The passing game will be the strength for this team as long as Harris stays healthy but that defence remains a question. If Thrope can work his magic they will rise to the top of the division but that is a big task although regardless they can still fight for the top spot but that defence will determine how deep a playoff run they can make.

tor-argonauts

In 2016 the Argos got some stability with a new ownership group and stadium but they fell far short of expectations for that season. The new owners brought in Jim Popp and Marc Trestman, the duo who made Montreal into a force in the east to try to turn things around in 2017. They did that and more making massive changes to the roster and breathing new life into the team taking that to their league-leading 17th Grey Cup title. Now they head into a new season with high expectations but one major question hanging over the entire team. That question is all about age and how much some of these to-argonautsplayers have left in the tank. The player everyone is wondering about is Ricky Ray who had a resurgent season under Trestman and was the Eastern nominee for the MOP. That type of season brought him back for another year, what is likely his last, but can he continue that resurgence for another year. That question moves into the passing game as Ray’s favourite new addition from last year is also back but nearing the end of his time in the CFL. S.J. Green was a constant target for Ray and always came up big but like Ray he is close to the end and everyone wonders how much he has left. If both of them can be the same as last year it is a great combination and is only boosted with Armanti Edwards and Llevi Noel. In the backfield the drama is over and James Wilder Jr. is back after a breakout year in 2017. Even if he isn’t entirely happy in his situation if he can improve on his rookie season he can be one of the top backs in the league. On the defence the changes continued from a year ago with a real focus on the secondary. This year they brought back T.J. Heath who was traded away in 2016 and became an all-star as well as Abdul Kanneh and Ronnie Yell.  It is a crowded group that already included Matt Black, Jermaine Gabriel, Cassius Vaughn and Johnny Sears Jr. Trying to find time for all of them is going to be tough but the depth is some of the best in the league. Bear Woods and Marcus Ball return as a scary group in the middle while new addition Taylor Reed hopes to make an impact. Up front Cleyon Laing and Shawn Lemon form a great pass rush duo who were able to get to the QB 10 times total last year. The Argos seem to be the most talented team in the east but those age questions hang over some very important players. They can win the division and return to the Grey Cup but it is not necessarily a guarantee.

Prediction:
The east may still be the worst of the two divisions as there is a lot of work to be done on a few of the teams. The Alouettes are still looking for a quarterback and without that position being figured out there are too many questions to think that they can find their way out of the basement. Quarterback question will also dominate the Ti-Cats who have talent but not enough to keep up with other teams. If Manziel or Masoli turn out to be the type of player that can make everyone around them better they could fight for first or at least fend off the crossover. Ottawa and Toronto remain the most talented teams in the division and they will fight for the top spot. The REDBLACKs just don’t have the defence to keep up with Toronto who will take the top spot and could make a deep run again. There are some big questions for every team and the answers could change everything in what seems like another war of attrition in the east.

eastprediction

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