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June 19, 2017

One defence stands out above all others

Only one defence/special teams unit merits top-tier status as we enter the regular season. Of the five defensive categories (fewest points allowed, sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles and pass knockdowns), the Stampeders topped the field in all but forced fumbles and interception. Calgary also had the league’s top kickoff return average and was fourth in punt return average, putting the Stamps clearly ahead of the pack when it comes to choosing a defence/special teams unit in Fantasy play.

Top Tier 

About the only thing the Stamps’ defence couldn’t do was grab interceptions at a steady clip, as it managed just 11 last season. If the defensive line can continue to harass opposing passers as it did in 2016, those numbers will likely go up. The key to Calgary’s success is an extensive pass rush that netted 52 sacks, which helped the Stampeders also top the league with just 369 points allowed.

Veteran end Charleston Hughes had 16 sacks to lead the league, and at age 33, the 10th year pro has found his stride. Last season marked the second straight year (and fourth out of the last five) in which the International standout has had double-digit sacks. Another season of such production could put him over the century plateau in the category. Micah Johnson and Ja’Gared Davis each had seven sacks, as the trio were among 13 players on the Stamps’ roster to grab at least one sack.

Micah Johnson’s decision to re-up with Calgary should provide yet another boost for the Stamps (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

Return specialist Roy Finch makes an already good D/ST even better. The former University of Oklahoma star amassed 2,256 yards in returns last season including a punt return for a touchdown. In a league filled with explosive return men, Finch has quickly established himself among the upper crust.

Second Tier

Like the Stampeders, the Lions could not intercept the ball. BC finished last in the league with just nine picks, a number that off-set the fact that the defence finished third in points allowed and shared the league lead in sacks with Calgary. That number could go higher this season, as the Lions added former Oklahoma University star end Frank Alexander, who also played four years with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

Adding Alexander to a pass rush that already includes tackle Alex Bazzie (11 sacks), linebacker Solomon Eliminian (eight) and end Craig Roh (seven), should make Fantasy owners feel confident in using this imposing front line. Chris Rainey remains one of the league’s best return men after coming off a season in which he led the league with 1,342 kickoff return yards and was second in punt return yardage with 942.

The Blue Bombers were ball hawks last season, easily topping the league with 30 interceptions. Winnipeg brings back its top thieves in the form of T.J. Heath and Maurice Leggett, who shared the CFL lead with seven interceptions each. Leggett has a nose for the end zone, having returned three of his picks for touchdowns. The unit was also second in forced fumbles with 25, and if their modest pass rush can improve on its 38 total sacks, they could push their way into more prominence among Fantasy owners. To that end, the Blue Bombers added physical tackle Drake Nevis, who had five sacks and 29 tackles with the Tiger-Cats in his first year in the league.

Winnipeg also had the only player to return a kickoff for a touchdown in 2016, a feat return specialist Quincy McDuffie pulled off twice. Kevin Fogg enhances the value of the Blue Bombers D/ST with his 14.6 yard average on punt returns, placing him fourth in the league.

Kevin Fogg will look to continue his emergence as a premiere return man in the CFL (Jason Halstead/CFL.ca)

The Alouettes’ inability to stop opponents wasn’t an issue in 2016. Instead, the Als had one of the more solid defensive units in the league, finishing second in fewest points allowed (415) while leading the league with 26 forced fumbles. Montreal can bring pressure on the passer, as evident in a total of 47 sacks that placed the Als fourth in that category. Losing linebackers Winston Venable and Bear Woods hurt, but the Alouettes brought back top pass rusher John Bowman (10 sacks) and promising sack master Gabriel Knapton (29 sacks in his first three seasons). Jovan Johnson, who had three of the team’s 14 total interceptions last season, comes back as well.

Montreal led the league in punt return yards and average per return behind the play of specialist Stefan Logan, who doesn’t look like he’s lost much of his speed and elusiveness at age 36. If there is a team capable of climbing to the top rung of D/ST units, Montreal might be front and center.

Defensively, the Eskimos are a mixed bag. Edmonton finished eighth with just 33 sacks and had a league-low 13 forced fumbles, but the unit also was third in interceptions and fifth in fewest points allowed. The team’s biggest defensive move was the signing of free agent lineman Aston Whiteside after he recorded 10 sacks with the REDBLACKS over the past two seasons. Whiteside joins a defence that includes veterans Almondo Sewell, who led the team with eight sacks, and Odell Willis, who looks to record at least six sacks for a seventh straight season. While they only had just 15 interceptions, Edmonton made the most of their few picks by returning three for touchdowns.

Newcomer Kendial Lawrence could make this unit even better. The Eskimos’ new return specialist spent the off-season studying film of Hall of Fame return man Gizmo Williams and feels confident he can be just as good. If Lawrence lives up the lofty boast, this unit becomes more intriguing.

Despite finishing seventh in points allowed, the Tiger-Cats had a useful defence, finishing third with 50 sacks and second with 17 interceptions. Hamilton was also fourth in both forced fumbles and pass knockdowns. The team has a trio of pass rushers in John Chick, who led the way with 14 sacks, Ted Laurent and Adrian Tracy (seven sacks each). The secondary gets a major boost with the addition of free agent defensive back Abdul Kanneh, who was signed from Ottawa.

John Chick (left) and Ted Laurent (right) powered one of the CFL’s top defensive lines in 2016 (Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca)

Brandon Banks, who had 2,078 yards in returns last season, is a special teams coordinator’s nightmare. In just four seasons in the league, Banks has seven returns for touchdowns and is a strong bet to add to that total this year.

The Grey Cup Champion REDBLACKS were a modest sixth in points allowed, yet the defence showed its prowess by finishing fifth with 42 sacks and third with 16 interceptions. While they were seventh in forced fumbles and eighth in pass knockdowns, there is more than enough to merit having them as a middle of the road defence that won’t hurt Fantasy owners. Ottawa made two big improvements to its defence by adding Argonauts defensive back A.J. Jefferson, who had six interceptions in two seasons with Toronto, and linebacker Kahil Bass (four sacks, two interceptions) from the Blue Bombers. Losing defensive backs Kanneh and Mitchell White (NFL) stings the secondary, as does the current lack of a reliable return specialist.

Third Tier 

Much of the Roughriders’ off-season activity centred around improving the offence, which doesn’t help a defensive unit that was eighth in points allowed. Linebacker Cameron Judge, the second overall pick in the draft, will add some juice to the defence, which was last with 29 sacks and tied for seventh with 11 interceptions. Saskatchewan will be looking at the likes of end Willie Jefferson and defensive back Ed Gainey to join up with end A.C. Leonard to help turn the tide, while the addition of veteran return specialist Chad Owens is also expected to bring some life to a unit that was last in kickoff return average and seventh in punt return average.

Free-agent signees Cleyon Laing and Bear Woods are just two of the steps the Argonauts made toward improving a defence that was last in the league with 568 points allowed. Toronto was sixth in sacks and interceptions and was fifth in forced fumbles and pass knockdowns. East Division All-Star pass rusher Shawn Lemon had 14 of the Argos’ 38 sacks, and while adding Johnny Sears Jr. and Rico Murray was a step in the right direction, it off-set the loss of Jefferson in the secondary. The team will also be looking for a return specialist, with former NFL players Armanti Edwards and Devier Posey among the candidates.