2019 CFL Preview: West Division

westdivisionThe west has been the stronger of the divisions for years but in the last few years that strength has taken on a new role.

They are the teams that everyone needs to watch as every season progresses as they are the teams with the most talent.

They have completely outclassed the east in the last few seasons but the success in the Grey Cup has not reflected that.

For being as dominant as they have been they have only won two of the last four titles despite coming into the Grey Cup as the favourites.

In the east, the conversation is surrounding the questions about who can get through the biggest doubts that surround every team.

It is a war of attrition in the east with teams just looking to outlast each other and take a slight winning record into the eastern final.

The west has a different path though as teams are not looking to outlast but rather survive in a schedule that is full of talent.

Every week is tougher and tougher for teams in the west as they have to constantly play the best teams in the country.

To come through on top is a testament to just how deep and talented a team is as beating out the depth of the other western teams is not an easy task.

That makes the west the toughest division in the league and often a winning record is not enough to make the playoffs.

Over the last few years, the crossover has come into effect giving four teams a chance at the playoffs.

It leaves one team out every year and being that one team is a tough thing as you can be good but just not good enough.

Last year it was the Edmonton Eskimos who finished with a 9-9 record and tied with BC but due to the head to head the Esks took a back seat.football-sidebar

A .500 record might not seem like the best but when considering that only one team in the east had a better record.

It is a tough division to win and there are plenty of teams who can do it especially with the number of changes that will highlight this season.

The team to watch has always been the Stampeders who have ruled over the west with an unbelievable stretch of solid play.

The BC Lions are going to make a serious run this year after bringing in a familiar face to lead the team.

Winnipeg has always seemed to be right on the cusp of being a true competitor and after their playoff appearance last year they are hoping to build on the momentum.

The Roughriders surprised a lot of people last year and with a reloaded roster will look to make their run back to the Grey Cup.

After years of being the thorn in the side of the Stampeders, the Eskimos are in a strange spot hoping that the loss of their leader isn’t enough to take them out of the running.

As usual, the division will be a battle to figure out who can come out on top with teams making a lot of moves to try to unseat the Stamps.

If a team can do it they will likely head into the Grey Cup but as has been shown nothing is guaranteed when you get there.

bclions

The BC Lions spent much of the last few seasons as a team that had a lot of potential depending on how things turned out. They spent a lot of time in that potential phase as Jonathan Jennings seemed like he was the future of the quarterback position. He had all of the sills that were needed to take the Lions to the playoffs and eventually to the Grey Cup. With a strong defence and plenty of offensive weapons, it was just a matter of time before Jennings took control and led the Lions to a title. That wasn’t the case though as Jennings never seemed to meet that expectation and the Lions remained a team sitting just outside of their potential. They did well enough with the talent that surrounded the team but could never find that consistency at quarterback with Travis Lulay injured off and on while Jennings struggled to find his footing. That all might change this year as the Lions made one of the biggest offseason moves to solidify the quarterback position. They landed the biggest free agent in the league when they signed Mike Reilly bringing him back to the team he began his career win. Reilly is one of the best quarterbacks playing right now as he is consistently in the running for MOP and regularly put up over 5,000 yards passing while with the Eskimos. He takes over the Lions and gives them a sure starter for the first time in a while and with him in place, the Lions made sure they gathered talent to work with. Although they lost DeVier Posey and Emmanuel Arceneaux they brought in Lemar Durant and Duron Carter to go along with Bryan Burnham. That is a solid corps of receivers who will only be boosted by the guy throwing to them. In the backfield, the Lions will likely lean on the tandem of Brandon Rutley and John White who both have that ability to drive a team on the ground and give some support to their quarterback. The defence of the Lions will see the biggest change as the leader of the defence is gone when the team cut Solomon Elimimian. Replacing him is going to be a big task but Adam Konar hopes to be up to it as he takes over the position. The leadership role will now be played by Odell Willis who continues to be one of the scariest pass rushers in the league. The Lions continue to have one of the best defensive backfield that only got better with the addition of Aaron Grymes who joins a group with T.J. Lee and Chris Edwards. The biggest influence on the defence though will come with their new head coach DeVone Claybrooks who takes his first head coaching role after years as the defensive coordinator in Calgary. The talent is there and with stability under centre, this could be the year for a serious run at the Grey Cup.

cgys

They’ve been the measuring stick for the last few years as they are the franchise that everyone wants to be. The dominance and consistency has rarely been seen in the CFL with two seasons of 15 wins since 2014 and a constant chance at the Grey Cup. For the last three seasons, the Stamps have been the western representative at the Grey Cup. They may have only taken one title in those three years but they are the team that are constantly the favourites among the CFL. This offseason brought some uncertainty though as their superstar, Bo Levi Mitchell had a choice to make. After years of being one of the best quarterbacks in the league, Mitchell was set to enter free agency alongside Mike Reilly. There was interest from the NFL as Mitchell headed south to workout with a number of NFL teams. The two-time MOP was also getting interest from every QB-needy team in the CFL looking to grab a superstar. In the end, Mitchell did not get what he wanted from the NFL and decided to stay with the Stamps signing a four-year deal. It makes Mitchell the current and future leader of the Stamps who look to continue their run as the best team in the CFL. Mitchell will have to make do without two of his favourite targets as DaVaris Daniels left in free agency and Kamar Jorden starts the season on the 6-game injured list. Those losses mean that Eric Rogers will likely take the top spots while Juwan Brescacin will have to take a bigger role in the passing game. In the backfield, Terry Williams likely takes over as the starter but with a total of five backs on the roster, it seems as though the Stamps are happy seeing who can take over throughout the season. The biggest change for the Stamps might just be the loss of their defensive coordinator as DeVone Claybrooks is now in BC. They will also need to replace some big players as Micah Johnson, Ciante Evans, Brandon Smith and Jamar Wall are all on other teams this year. Up front, it means that Junior Turner will be leaned on alongside Derek Wiggan to get the pressure up front. At the second level  Cory Greenwood will likely be the leader of the group while in the backfield the addition of Courtney Stephen makes up for the loss of some of the more solid pieces that left. The Stamps are a changed team with new players taking on bigger roles but they are still the model franchise in the country. This is a team that has made the most out of the players they have and they will likely do so again. With Mitchell leading the way it is hard to think that they won’t find a way to the top of the division for another year.  They have the skill to win and head to a fourth straight Grey cup but with other teams rebuilding and adding more talent it might be tougher for them to walk away with this one even if they are in the hunt all year.

edme

While their rivals took over the west, the Eskimos were right behind them making life difficult and being a thorn in their side. Alberta had taken over the west and the Eskimos were a big part of that as they looked like a team that could beat Calgary every year. Then things began to change as they lost Chris Jones and the defence began to fall off. They were still a great team with a chance at the Cup as Mike Reilly was at the helm giving them and a potent offence a chance to win games every week. It all came crashing down last year though as the Esks could only manage nine wins on the season. It was their first nonwinning season in five years and it marked the end of an era in the city. The end of the era became official when Reilly decided to leave and head to the west coast with the Lions. It left the Eskimos without their star quarterback and the man who drove the team to all of those winning seasons. It is a big loss but the Esks did their best to try to limit the damage when they signed another big free agent in Trevor Harris. He was a major reason for the success in Ottawa and although injury issues kept him off of the field in recent years he is a good option to replace Reilly. The unfortunate part for Harris is that the deep threat that helped Reilly find some success in another 5,000+ yard season is now gone. Derel Walker left for Toronto but the Eskimos made sure to not only replace him but bring in even more targets. One of Harris’ favourite targets made the move with him to Edmonton as Greg Ellingson will likely become the top target although new addition DaVaris Daniels, Anthony Parker along with returning Eskimo Kenny Stafford provide plenty of additional targets for Harris. Behind Harris will be C.J. Gable who takes control of the running game which has always been a key part to Jason Maas’ offensive plans. On defence the Esks will be without longtime star Aaron Grymes but like on offence the Esks reloaded to help replace him. Anthony Orange and Josh Johnson were brought in to solidify the defensive backfield. The retirement of JC Sherritt is a big blow as well but Korey Jones and new addition Larry Dean look to make up for that loss as well. On the line, Alex Bazzie and Kwaku Boateng look to continue their work up front getting pressure. The Eskimos are almost a brand new team but where they lost they gained in a major way adding more talent than they lost. The big question will be whether or not they can put it together and get back to their winning ways. If this team can come together they will fight for the top spot and could help define another legendary chapter in the Battle of Alberta.

sskr

Among all of the action in the west the Roughriders somewhat quietly found their way near the top of the division last year. They were impressive throughout the season and despite many waiting for them to fall off, they stayed with it. That wouldn’t translate into success in the playoffs as they lost in the western semi-final but it did start a momentum shift for a team that has struggled. When Chris Jones was handed the reigns to one of the most popular franchises in the league a lot was expected. After all, he had made the Eskimos a consistent contender and was widely considered one of the best defensive minds in the game. It was going to be a long rebuild but Jones seemed to be the right person to do it and in 2018 he showed that the decision was going to pay off. For his efforts, he earned a two-year extension at the end of the year and was set to build on the momentum heading into 2019. Then Jones resigned and took a job with the Cleveland Browns leaving the Riders in a strange spot. They had to make the right decision to continue to build on the momentum that was going to make them a team to watch in 2019. In the offseason, the Riders decided on Craig Dickenson who had spent the last three seasons as Jones’ special teams coach. His task now is to take what they had built a year ago and build on that success to get back to the playoffs and back to the Grey Cup. A big part of that will come with the health of their quarterback as Zach Collaros has proven to be great when he is on the field. Collaros has never played more than fourteen games in a season as injuries have often kept him off of the field. When he plays, he is the stable leader they need under centre and if healthy he can be the difference maker. The Riders passing offence is a committee as they tend to throw the ball around more than some teams. This year could be different with the addition of veteran Emmanuel Arceneaux who can take over games all by himself. His addition along with the addition of Cory Watson should give Collaros even more targets alongside Shaq Evans and Namaan Roosevelt. The backfield will feature plenty of different options as William Powell, Kienan LaFrance and Marcus Thigpen all provide different speeds and can give the Riders a chance to change things up. On defence, Micah Johnson joins a former teammate in Charleston Hughes and hopes to have the same success side by side as they had in Calgary for years, which could be scary for opposing teams. The late addition of Solomon Elimimian gives the Riders another great linebacker as when he is healthy he received MOP consideration and could do the same alongside Sam Hurl. Ed Gainey will patrol the defensive backfield as usual and remains the veteran leader of the defence. The Riders are a changed team but they could very well be changed for the better making them a real team to watch as long as Collaros can stay healthy throughout the season.

wpgbb

The Blue Bombers have been another team in the west who have slowly crawled up to being true contenders year after year. Much like those other teams though they have one big problem and it is under centre. Matt Nichols has proven to be the quarterback that they had been looking for after years of never having that one guy who can lead the team. For all of his successes though he seems to be snake bitten as he struggles to play a full season and more often than not that injury comes at a bad time. In a number of seasons, Nichols went down right at the end of the year leaving the Bombers without their best player as they headed into the playoff race and the playoffs themselves. Without Nichols, they are not the same team but with him, they can compete with the other teams in the west. He hopes to stay healthy this time around and tries to lead the Bombers for the full season as they try to build on their 10-win season from a year ago. Although Nichols is an important part of this offence the real engine that drives the team is in the backfield. Andrew Harris has had three 1,000+ yard seasons in the last four years and as he goes, so do the Bombers. Harris is the ratio buster that every team wishes they have and he continues to push this offence as a rush-first team. With Harris putting up big numbers it opens up the passing game allowing Nichols to attack defences through the air. To be more competitive they will need more contributions from more receivers as Darvin Adams was the main target a year ago but the next closest was almost 400 yards away. New additions Lucky Whitehead and Chris Matthews hope to add to the targets for Nichols and provide more options. On defence, the loss of Kevin Fogg is a big one as he was a star on special teams and in the backfield. Replacing him is going to be tough but Jeff Hecht is more than up to the task and will get support from Anthony Gaitor and Brandon Alexander. Another big loss is at linebacker where Ian Wild is now in Toronto but the linebacking corps runs through Adam Bighill more than anyone else and he continues to put up big numbers. Up front, Jackson Jeffcoat and Willie Jefferson should provide plenty of pressure even without some of their top rushers last year. The Bombers were on their way to achieving great things but were often held back by key injuries at the wrong time. This year they have talent although have also lost a lot of key players on defence. If they can overcome those injuries the additions they made on offence should make them more competitive than last year. Whether or not they can actually make good on those changes in a division that seems to be only getting better will be the bigger question.

Prediction:
The west is always a battle and it is the team that comes in with the fewest questions that ends up being the favourites from the start. This year that is once again the Calgary Stampeders who come in with a number of changes but are still a franchise with plenty to look forward to. They will likely be the team to beat in the west this year but there are a lot of teams making serious runs towards the top spot. The BC Lions are a rebuilt team with a star under centre and plenty of talent surrounding him. Meanwhile, in Saskatchewan, the key additions they made have given a team developing into a contender more potential to compete. The Eskimos struggled last year which forced changes that may have just made them better. These three teams could be in a big fight for the final two spots with the loser of that battle likely finding their way to the east with the crossover. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers could be a part of that battle but with key losses to the defence they might not have what it takes to keep up with the rest of the teams in the west.

westpred

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