June 30, 2010

CFL Preview: Team-by-team breakdown


B.C. Lions

Last season: 8-10-0; fourth in West, lost in East final.

Head coach: Wally Buono.

Arrivals: Assistants Rich Stubler, Travis Moore and Barron Miles; RB Jamal Robertson, DE Keron Williams, CB Davis Sanchez, WR Derick Armstrong.

Departures: Assistants Mike Roach and Steff Kruck, LB JoJuan Armour, LB Javier Glatt, RB Martell Mallett, FB Rolly Lumbala, DE Ricky Foley, RB/KR Ian Smart, WR/KR Ryan Grice-Mullen, CB LaVar Glover, DB Darren Toney, FB Lyle Green, OL Daren Heerspink, OL Jason Jimenez, S Barron Miles.

Newcomer to watch: A day after the CFL free-agency period began, the Lions acquired defensive lineman Keron Williams from Montreal. Williams had eight sacks as a defensive tackle last season but will be used at defensive end, in a three-man rotation with veteran Brent Johnson and rookie Dominie Pittman.

Veteran to watch: Unwanted by any CFL team a year ago, the Lions re-acquired Casey Printers, the league’s outstanding player in 2004, in September because of injuries to quarterbacks Buck Pierce, Travis Lulay and Jarious Jackson. Printers went 1-4 as a starter, with his only victory coming in the East semi-final, but the Lions signed him to an extension.

Strengths: Coaching. Stubler, a former Argos head coach and the defensive co-ordinator in the Lions’ 2000 Grey Cup year, becomes an overqualified defensive line coach, replacing Roach, and, he will be a sounding board for second-year defensive co-ordinator Mike Benevides. Jacques Chapdelaine takes over sole responsibility as offensive co-ordinator.

Weaknesses: The Lions will have an all-new look on the offensive line. Damane Duckett, with one CFL start, replaces Heerspink at left tackle. Unproven Andrew Jones and Jon Hameister-Ries are competing at left guard. Dean Valli will start ahead of veteran Angus Reid at centre. Rookie Jovan Olafioye, 22, is at  right guard and backup Justin Sorensen, 24, replaces Sherko Haji-Rasouli (knee) at right tackle.

Reason for optimism: Buono claims this is the most talented group of running backs he has seen in 21 years. Jamal Robertson is the feature back. Canadian Jamall Lee could push him.

Cause for concern:
Backup quarterback Jarious Jackson’s shoulder has been slow to come around after off-season surgery, so the Lions have only two healthy quarterbacks — Printers and Travis Lulay — to start the season.

Bottom line: B.C. has more speed and depth, especially at linebacker, running back and receiver, but likley will not return to the 12-win level Buono was accustomed to before last season.

Calgary Stampeders

Last season:
10-7-1; second in West, lost West final.

Head coach:
John Hufnagel.

DB Taurean Allen, OL Dan Comiskey, R Johnny Forzani, DB Eric Fraser, OL Edwin Harrison, R Ron Kelly, K Rob Maver, QB Cody Pickett, SB P.K. Sam.

Departures: LB Dwaine Carpenter, SB Jeremaine Copeland, DL Jim Davis, K Sandro DeAngelis, DB John Eubanks, LB Shannon James, LB Tim Johnson, R/Ret Markus Howell, QB Barrick Nealy, OL Jesse Newman, OL Jeff Pilon, R Brett Ralph, RB Demetris Summers, OL Dimitri Tsoumpas.

Newcomer to watch: When Pilon, the veteran right tackle, retired in the off-season, the Stampeders looked south for a replacement, and hope they have found him in Harrison. The former Colorado Buffalo was hurt in the pre-season, but he should be ready for opening night.

Veteran to watch: Milt Collins ended last season as the starting safety, opened training camp as a linebacker, then was shifted to the troublesome defensive halfback spot that has been a revolving door in recent seasons for the Stamps. The coaches hope his blend of speed and punishing hits will fill a hole.

Strengths: Stability on offence, with quarterback Henry Burris, running back Joffrey Reynolds and receiver Nik Lewis all returning. Receivers Romby Bryant and Arjei Franklin also have a full training camp under their belts after last season’s trade from Winnipeg. And Ken-Yon Rambo, the CFL’s top receiver in 2008, is nearly back at full health.

Weaknesses: The defensive secondary, specifically at the halfback spots. Calgary hopes Collins can make a smooth transition to a new position, and that Brandon Smith, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, can return to full health.

Reason for optimism:
The Stampeders had a terrific pre-season, arguably their best during the Hufnagel era. Their rebuilt offensive line, which was a massive question mark entering training camp, has come together nicely. And there is no shortage of motivation after a disappointing 2009 campaign.

Cause for concern: While that offensive line looks promising, the Stamps have concerns about their Canadian depth. Defensively, the linebacking corps, outside of Malik Jackson, is still a work in progress, with Juwan Simpson in the middle and Keon Raymond outside. And Calgary is relying on rookie kicker Rob Maver for some significant points.

Bottom line: There is a lingering disappointment at how last season went down, that perhaps there was a season-long Grey Cup hangover. The Stampeders are motivated now, far more than this time last year.

Edmonton Eskimos

Last season: 9-9-0; third in West, lost division semi-final.

Head coach: Richie Hall.

Arrivals: Assistant coach Mike Walker, DB Chris Thompson, DB Lenny Walls, DB Lawrence Gordon, LB Javier Glatt, DT Andre Coleman, DE Kenneth Pettway, SB Andre Talbot, SB Brad Smith, WR Kelly Campbell, WR/KR Tremayne Kirkland, RB Pascal Fils, RB Daniel Libre, S Saleem Borhot, S Corbin Sharun.

Departures: Assistant coach Jim Daley, DB Jonte Buhl, WR Kevin Challenger, RB Jesse Lumsden, WR Maurice Mann, DL Eric Taylor, OL John Comiskey, S Scott Gordon, LS Taylor Inglis, DB Kelly Malveaux, WR Jamaica Rector, DB Bradley Robinson, DB Lenny Williams, LB Greg Whelan.

Newcomer to watch: New, but old. After a year spent trying to latch on with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Campbell returns to the Eskimos and can be a deep threat. The receiving corps, which also includes Fred Stamps, Jason Barnes, Kamau Peterson, Talbot and Brad Smith, should be a force.

Veteran to watch: Quarterback Ricky Ray was in fine form in the pre-season. With the added weapons in his receiving corps, he could be destined for a big year.

Strengths: New receivers Talbot and Smith add depth on offence and if the running game comes around with returnees Arkee Whitlock and Calvin McCarty the team could have plenty of balance. The return game is also solid with Skyler Green replacing injured Tristan Jackson to start the year.

Safety Elliott Richardson broke his wrist in the second pre-season game so the starting position likely goes to veteran Jason Nugent, who has not played there in more than a year. Borhot, the backup, has no pro experience; neither does Sharun, who is on the practice roster.

Reason for optimism:
Head coach Richie Hall takes over as defensive co-ordinator so it should be a more aggressive unit. The Eskimos need a big year out of middle linebacker Maurice Lloyd and its front four. Glatt adds experience and leadership at linebacker.

Cause for concern:
With so many changes to the defensive seco
ndary, will it require some time to jell? Veterans Chris Thompson, Lenny Walls and Lawrence Gordon make it a stronger unit, but will it take time to get on the same page in Hall’s book?

Bottom line: The Eskimos are hoping to take a run at the Grey Cup, which they will host on Nov. 28. This should be a talent-laden club; the big issues will be consistency in all three phases and playing better at home. Edmonton went just 5-4 at Commonwealth Stadium last season.

Saskatchewan Roughriders

Last season: 10-7-1; first in West, lost Grey Cup game.

Head coach: Ken Miller.

Arrivals: Assistant coaches Doug Berry, Tom Freeman, Bob Dyce and Jim Daley, OL Kelly Bates, RB-KR Dominique Dorsey, QB Ryan Dinwiddie, OT Dan Goodspeed, DE Brent Hawkins, WR Prechae Rodriguez, LB Barrin Simpson.

Assistants Jamie Barresi, Paul LaPolice, Kavis Reed and Bob Wylie, WR Jason Armstead, DE Stevie Baggs, QB Dalton Bell, P Jamie Boreham, DE John Chick, DB Eddie Davis, QB Steven Jyles, WR Gerran Walker, LB Rey Williams.

Newcomer to watch: The departures of Chick and Baggs to the NFL created a huge hole along the defensive line. Hawkins has emerged as the best prospect at end. He had 23 tackles and 51⁄2 sacks with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2006 and 2007, and showed speed and leadership during training camp.

Veteran to watch: Simpson takes over as middle linebacker. At 32, he still has the speed to cover receivers and is familiar with the complex defence run by defensive co-ordinator Gary Etcheverry.

Strengths: The Riders boast one of the league’s best receiving corps. Rodriguez (6-foot-5) adds size at wide receiver and Rob Bagg continues to improve with each passing season. Slotbacks Weston Dressler, Andy Fantuz and Chris Getzlaf are among the league’s best.

Weaknesses: Hawkins hasn’t played a full season since 2007 and missed the first week of training camp with a knee injury. Non-import Luc Mullinder won the competition for the other defensive end spot. He is in his seventh season with the Riders but his first as a starter.

Reason for optimism: The continued development of Darian Durant, who was the West Division all-star quarterback. He is a student of the game and spends countless hours studying film.

Cause for concern:
Depth at quarterback. Durant is the only bona fide starter on the roster. Dinwiddie was a backup for three seasons with Winnipeg and Cole Bergquist hasn’t throw a pass in a regular-season game. Durant proved to be durable in 2009 when he started 18 regular-season and two playoff games.

Bottom line: If Durant remains healthy and the defensive ends turn out to be capable of replacing Baggs and Chick, the Riders are among the league’s elite teams. The leadership of Davis needs to be replaced but veteran Omarr Morgan can handle it. The Riders still have to prove they can rebound from a heartbreaking loss to the Montreal Alouettes in the 2009 Grey Cup game.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Last season: 7-11-0, third in East, missed playoffs.

Head coach:
Paul LaPolice.

LaPolice, and assistant coaches Jamie Barresi, Kavis Reed, Kyle Walers, Pat DelMonaco, Chris Wisehanz and Casey Creehan, QB Buck Pierce, QB Steven Jyles, CB LaVar Glover.

Head coach Mike Kelly, assistants Charlie Carpenter, Andy Cox, Mark Nelson, Rick Campbell and Donald Burrell, DB Lenny Walls, DE Gavin Walls, DB Jonathan Hefney, WR Dudley Guice, QB Michael Bishop, WR Titus Ryan, DE Fred Perry, LB Barrin Simpson, LB Siddeeq Shabazz, DB Steven Holness, OL Kelly Bates, LB Derrick Doggett, QB Ricky Santos, WR Otis Amey.

Newcomer to watch: The Bombers hope Pierce can bring some stability to the quarterback position after Stefan LeFors and Michael Bishop failed to get the job done last year. Given Pierce’s injury history — since 2007 he has been troubled by rib, toe, hand and shoulder injuries, and had concussion problems — expect backup Steven Jyles to see some action.

Veteran to watch: As the longest-tenured Bomber starter, defensive tackle Doug Brown is breaking in his fifth head coach since joining the team in 2001. Not only does he anchor the defensive line, he will be counted on to help rebuild a fractured locker room.

Strengths: The offensive backfield is set with Pierce at the controls and Fred Reid behind him as the feature back. Reid had 1,371 yards on the ground last season in his first full year as the starter, and could come out of the backfield more this year (he had 157 receiving yards in 2009). Reid will be spelled off by the dynamic Yvenson Bernard.

Terrence Edwards and Brock Ralph are the greybeards in an otherwise baby-faced receiving corps. Terence Jeffers-Harris, Cory Watson and David Ball are all unproven commodities and Adarius Bowman has just one year as a starter under his belt.

Reason for optimism: LaPolice and his coaching staff bring a winning attitude to the Bombers. Many of them were part of the staff that took the Saskatchewan Roughriders to the Grey Cup game. After the controversial Kelly, LaPolice won’t make waves.

Cause for concern: The team came undone at the seams last year, both on and off the field. With the off-season house cleaning, will it be strong enough to survive the adversity inherent in a CFL season?

Bottom line:
The Bombers rebuild is still a few steps ahead of where the Argonauts are at, which means Winnipeg should be in contention for a playoff spot, but just like last year the Bombers must be wary of a possible crossover team from the West.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Last season: 9-9-0, second in East, lost division semi-final.

Head coach: Marcel Bellefeuille.

Arrivals: Assistant coaches Steve Buratto and Dwayne Cameron, P/K Sandro DeAngelis, DB Jerome Dennis, OL Mark Dewitt, LB Shannon James, OL Jason Jimenez, WR Maurice Mann, WR Adam Nicholson, K/P Justin Palardy, OL Brian Ramsay, TE/ LS Steve Schmidt, DB Jason Shivers, RB Marcus Thigpen.

Departures: Assistants Dennis Goldman, Travis Moore and Joe Hagins, DB Lewis Baker, WR Shawn Bayes, RB Terry Caulley, OL Dan Goodspeed, DB Lawrence Gordon, LB Dennis Haley, RB Kenton Keith, WR Kevin Robinson, WR Prechae Rodriguez, RB Tre Smith, P/K Nick Setta, WR Rodgeriqus Smith, LB Spencer Smith, DB Tyler Smith, DB Chris Thompson.

Newcomers to watch: DeAngelis is one of the CFL’s best clutch kickers and represents a major upgrade over the inconsistent Setta. DeAngelis isn’t a great punter, though, so Palardy, drafted out of St. Mary’s, will handle that side of the kicking game.

Veteran to watch: Unlike last season, when he started the year as Quinton Porter’s backup, Kevin Glenn is firmly entrenched as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. Porter, though, is still considered the quarterback of the future.

Strengths: The Ticats start the year with all their main offensive weapons — Arland Bruce, DeAndra’ Cobb and Glenn — healthy. Mann was acquired in a trade with Edmonton and should take some pressure off Bruce.

The secondary was a major question mark when training camp opened and the release of defensive back Will Poole yesterday for personal reasons will not help matters. Sandy Beveridge and
off-season acquisition Jason Shivers were injured during parts of the pre-season. Whoever the starters are, look for them to be tested early and often.

Reason for optimism: Both general manager Bob O’Billovich and Bellefeuille had their contracts extended during the off-season and the continuity on the field and in the front office should inspire confidence. Most of the starters from last year are back and the club has upgraded on special teams by bringing in one of the league’s most accurate kickers.

Cause for concern: There will be greater expectations this year, and greater pressure. If the team doesn’t fare well against Montreal, then the season will be considered a disappointment. There’s also the possibility a quarterback controversy if Glenn stumbles.

Bottom line: With Toronto and Winnipeg in full rebuilding mode, the Ticats should be able to once again secure a home playoff date. They may not be ready to dethrone the Alouettes, but a berth in the East final is a realistic goal.

Toronto Argonauts

Last season: 3-15-0, last in East, missed playoffs

Head coach: Jim Barker.

Arrivals: Barker and assistants Jamie Elizondo, Chip Garber, Cos DeMatteo, George Dyer, Stephen McAdoo, Orlando Steinauer and Greg Quick, LB Tang Bacheyie, QB Dalton Bell, P/K Jamie Boreham, RB Cory Boyd, DL Alex Buzbee, RB/SB Ryan Christian, WR Jeremaine Copeland, QB Ken Dorsey, OL Joe Eppele, OL Cedric Gagne-Marcoux, DE Ejiro Kuale, QB Cleo Lemon, WR Chad Owens, CB Byron Parker, WR Brandon Rideau, P/K Grant Shaw, OL Jonathan St-Pierre, DT Eric Taylor, WR Spencer Watt, WR Jeffery Webb.

Departures: Head coach Bart Andrus, assistants Peter Kuharchek, Mike Jones, Ron Heller, Ed O’Neil, Richard Kent, Steve Buratto, Rex Norris, Robert Hunt, DE Jonathan Brown, WR Obed Cetoute, DT Walter Curry, OL Mark Dewitt, RB Dominique Dorsey, DB Dovonte Edwards, LB James Green, DE Claude Harriott, K/P Eddie Johnson, QB Kerry Joseph, K/P Justin Medlock, LB Zeke Moreno, QB Cody Pickett, DB Will Poole, OL Brian Ramsay, QB Steven Reaves, RB Jamal Robertson, WR P.K. Sam, TE/LS Steve Schmidt, DB Jason Shivers, WR Brad Smith, WR Andre Talbot, WR Tyler Scott.

Newcomer to watch: The Argos are turning the offence over to Lemon, an NFL journeyman who was out of football last season. Barker likes Lemon’s leadership skills and praises his ability to make something out of nothing. But the 30-year-old struggled during the pre-season and his ability to adjust will go a long way in determining if the Argos can be competitive.

Veteran to watch:
Andre Durie will figure prominently in a hybrid slotback/running back position. It is basically the same  role Pinball Clemons played in the late 1990s when Barker was the team’s offensive co-ordinator.

Strengths: Defence, as usual. The linebackers and secondary should be solid; they will have to be to keep the Argos in games. Look for the group to be aggressive in forcing turnovers.

Weaknesses: None of the quarterbacks on the roster has ever thrown a pass in a CFL regular-season game. And the receivers, with the exception of Copeland, are unproven.

Reason for optimism:
Barker, unlike predecessor Bart Andrus, is long on CFL experience. His players appear to have bought into his system.

Cause for concern: Toronto has won just seven games during the last two seasons; it is unlikely the Argos can turn things around in one year. Mercurial defensive lineman Adriano Belli starts the season suspended and will have to be more disciplined.

Bottom line: The Argos will be better than last year, but a playoff spot is asking too much.

Montreal Alouettes

Last season: 15-3-0, first in East, won Grey Cup.

Head coach:
Marc Trestman.

QB Ricky Santos, SB O.J. Santiago; KR Tim Maypray; DE Pat MacDonald; LB Marc-Olivier Brouillette, DE Gavin Walls.

Departures: DT Keron Williams; CB Davis Sanchez, DT Darrell Campbell, C Bryan Chiu, WR Chad Owens.

Newcomer to watch: Maypray will probably begin the season as the Als’ primary kick returner — with Larry Taylor remaining with the NFL’s New York Jets and following the trade of Chad Owens, who would have been the guy, to Toronto. At 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, Maypray is perfectly built for the job. And he was a stud at Virginia Military Institute, completing his collegiate career with 39 touchdowns, including four on returns.

Veteran to watch: With any team, it begins and ends with the quarterback. Anthony Calvillo might be turning 38 in August, but he has been the CFL’s outstanding player the last two seasons (and three times in his career). He has thrown for more than 4,000 yards eight times with Montreal, including four 5,000-yard seasons and one 6,000-yard season (in 2004).Although Calvillo passed for a modest 4,639 yards in 2009, he threw a league-leading 26 TDs and was intercepted only six times — an excellent ratio.

Strengths: Even with Chiu’s retirement, the Alouettes remain a veteran-laden team in many key areas. Avon Cobourne rushed for more than 1,200 yards last year, and three receivers — Kerry Watkins, Jamel Richardson and Ben Cahoon — had 1,000-yard seasons. Together, the trio of receivers has combined for 16 1,000-yard seasons in their careers. Oh, and just in case you thought this team was all about offence, the Alouettes led the league in 21 of the 25 defensive statistics the CFL tracks.

Weaknesses: All of these veterans are another year older. Sooner or later, these guys have to start slowing down.

Reason for optimism: Whatever Trestman is putting in the punch, his players are drinking it. Montreal has won 26 regular-season games over two years since his arrival — 11-7 in 2008, 15-3 last season — and he seems to keep this team ahead of the curve. And, let’s face it, the Alouettes play in the CFL’s weaker division.

Cause for concern: The potential of complacency — see the 2009 Stampeders  — and the repeat jinx. No team since Toronto, in 1996 and 1997, has won consecutive Grey Cups.

Bottom line: It might not be a question of if the Alouettes will finish first, but when they will clinch the division. They finished six games in front of Hamilton last season, yet remained motivated and continued winning.