What light thru yonder window breaks? It is the CFL East as the dawn of a new season arrives. The division houses a stacked defending champion, an arch rival that should be in lock step with them, a formidable challenger in search of a return to glory, and another that has its challenges in trying to escape the basement. Question is: Who will be the sun in 2018?
2017 record: 9-9
The Grey Cup champions do not have the luxury of low expectations this season, which was the case a year ago when they began what turned out to be a surprise trip to the top. One of the great challenges for Toronto will be measuring up to a more lofty outlook.
The master is back at quarterback and among a number of things proven by Toronto in 2017 was that they could keep Ricky Ray protected and healthy. They’ll want to do that again in 2018, as there is lots of potential behind Ray on the depth chart but not a lot of game experience. If the Argos need to turn to either James Franklin or McLeod Bethel-Thompson at pivot, it is not certain that they can carry on smoothly.
The offence is in good receiving hands, led by the sublime S.J. Green and the clutch Armanti Edwards, along with fifth-year man Anthony Coombs, who can be utilized as a slot receiver or out of the backfield as a threat to run. Second-year running back James Wilder Jr. looks to follow up on his impressive rookie campaign and if the Argos make him the main engine on offence, an MOP type of year could be in the cards. Where Toronto needs an answer most is at wide receiver, after the departure of Grey Cup MVP DeVier Posey, who is trying his skills with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. Right now, it looks like they’ll go with veteran Brian Tyms, who was signed by Toronto last September after being released by Hamilton.
Just like the offence, the Argos’ defence has depth and veteran knowledge in abundance, even more now after last weekend’s trade with Hamilton brought them defensive back Abdul Kanneh. While vets like Mitchell White and Rico Murray left via free agency, Toronto added suitable replacements in Ronnie Yell and T.J. Heath. There seem to be linebackers as far as the eye can see on this team, but they do have injuries to deal with in the middle. Bear Woods will miss the early portion of the season after having back surgery, and free agent signing Taylor Reed has missed practice time this week, meaning the likes of Akeem Jordan, Khalil Bass and Terrance Plummer will need to take up the slack for now at least. A key loss on defence was the resignation of coordinator Corey Chamblin, who helped turn a terrible defence from 2016 into a very, very good one the following year. Mike Archer is the man tasked with continuing the defensive domination as Chamblin’s replacement.
QUESTION: After winning the job over Swayze Waters, is Ronnie Pfeffer ready to be a primetime CFL kicker and punter?
OUTLOOK: The defending champions are deep at most every position and look set for another run at first place, even if it does seem that first place will take a bunch more than nine wins this year.
2017 record: 6-12
As a rule of thumb, losing your first eight games of the season means you’re terrible and not likely to turn things around. That was not the case with the Hamilton Ticats a year ago as a mid-season coaching change spurred a competitive second half of the season. Coupled with the roster continuity seen this past off-season, you get reason for optimism in The Hammer.
While Johnny Manziel gets the headlines, it will be quarterback Jeremiah Masoli’s job to lose in 2018, after earning the trust and admiration of Head Coach June Jones during Hamilton’s late season surge last autumn. Nevertheless, the Ticats’ quarterback question is one of the league’s most intriguing storylines heading into the season and Masoli will have to deal with added scrutiny with Manziel right behind him.
Masoli will be throwing to a fleet of terrific receivers once again. The Ticats re-signed Luke Tasker, one of the pre-eminent second down conversion targets in the CFL, and he will pair with Brandon Banks as game-changers who will get lots of attention from opposing defenders. Those defenders will ignore Jalen Saunders at their peril, though, as the second-year man had 1,170 yards in catches during his rookie campaign. Veteran Terrence Toliver, who missed virtually all of last season with a knee injury, is due to be back in the line-up in the next few weeks and that will make the Hamilton offence even more dangerous. It looks like Alex Green gets his first shot at an entire season as a feature back, however former Eskimo running back John White was just recently signed and added to the practice roster.
Defensively, the Ticats scored big time when they lured their former defensive coordinator, Orlondo Steinauer, back into the fold after a season away. He is not the DC this time around, but if the man who holds that position – Jerry Glanville – is smart, he will take Steinauer’s input seriously. On the field, there is continuity, athleticism and veteran savvy, with the likes of Simoni Lawrence and Larry Dean anchoring the linebacking corps, and Ted Laurent gluing together the D-line along with quarterback-disruptor Adrian Tracy. Richard Leonard, the ball-hawk who could easily have been named the CFL’s Rookie of the Year in 2017, can play the secondary or strong side linebacker and he does both of those things very well. That the club traded Abdul Kanneh away at the end of camp suggests that the Ticat brain trust believes they have a youngster ready to step up in the secondary.
Punter/placekicker Lirim Hajrullahu, who left Toronto as a free agent, gives the ‘Cats peace of mind in the kicking game.
QUESTION: How will Masoli take to having Manziel peering over his shoulder?
OUTLOOK: Consistency of roster from last year and proof that they could compete over the second half of 2017 mean the Ticats should be taken seriously as a threat for first.
2017 record: 8-9-1
After a sensational rise to a Grey Cup win in 2016, the Ottawa REDBLACKS found a repeat to be a difficult challenge, particularly with a defence that went from late-season dominance during the championship rise to merely average in 2017.
The off-season was spent working on that conundrum and there is new blood on Ottawa’s defence, led by the hiring of the team’s new defensive coordinator, Noel Thorpe. Thorpe needs no introduction to ardent followers of the CFL, but to those who are more casual, let’s just say this; He designed superb defences in Montreal during his tenure there and when it comes to the biggest free agent acquisitions from this past winter, you can find plenty of people who will say his signing was the biggest, on or off the field.
The expectation is that the Ottawa defence will be more aggressive with Thorpe toggling the controls and there is already surprising change afoot. Second year defensive back Sherrod Baltimore – who enjoyed a very good rookie year in 2016 – begins this season on the practice roster. The REDBLACKS added free agent defensive backs Rico Murray and Josh Johnson during the off-season, the latter returning to the CFL after spending a couple of seasons in the NFL. Johnson was a fine player with B.C. in 2014 and 2015; The REDBLACKS hope he picks up where he left off.
Ottawa added some zing to the pass rush by nabbing defensive end A.C. Leonard, too. In the linebacking corps, the hard-hitting Loucheiz Purifoy has been patrolling the strong side spot and veteran Kyries Hebert was signed during the winter; he will begin his twelfth CFL campaign when the REDBLACKS see their first action in Week Two. There’s a sizeable hole to fill at the centre of the defence with middle linebacker Taylor Reed (94 tackles in 2017) signing in Toronto.
On offence, quarterback Trevor Harris takes the reins once again and once again, he will try to parlay good regular season play into something more in post-season. When he suffered a leg injury two weeks ago, there was some initial panic. However, we’re told he’ll be good to go when the REDBLACKS fire things up and his understudy, former Blue Bomber Dominique Davis, has looked good in pre-season action. Once again the twin receiving threats of Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli will be highly targeted this season and second-year REDBLACK Diontae Spencer brings his game-breaking speed to both the wide receiver position and to special teams. You’ll see some new faces in the other receiving spots and just how well the newcomers can support the big three remains to be seen. Thousand-yard rusher William Powell is in the backfield again, to be spelled on occasion by the more than capable Mossis Madu.
Kicker Brett Maher signed with the Dallas Cowboys, so now the REDBLACKS could go with one of Richie Leone or rookie Lewis Ward, although this week they added 2017 Winnipeg draft pick Félix Ménard-Brière to the roster so, just like a thunderous punt, things are a bit up in the air.
QUESTION: Is Spencer poised for a combined yards season for the ages?
OUTLOOK: Solid and sound, the Ottawa REDBLACKS should benefit from being a team under the radar in 2018. A more aggressive defence could give them an edge they couldn’t grasp a season ago.
2017 record: 3-15
Nowhere to go but up, you’d assume, for the Montreal Alouettes but if that is to happen, a number of things need to come together and you can start right at the quarterback position.
When the club signed Josh Freeman over the off-season, they had hopes that the NFL vet would be a quick study in Canadian football and lead the Montreal offence to the promised land. Instead of quick study, Freeman provided a quick exit, retiring during the first week of training camp.
The Als are now left with the hopes that veteran Drew Willy can be the man who finally gets the offence in gear; an offence that has struggled to find an identity ever since the retirement of Anthony Calvillo in 2014.
Promising youngster Matthew Shiltz is on the injured list, while veteran free agent Jeff Mathews has been brought in as insurance. The Alouettes’ offence might be relying on running back Tyrell Sutton more in 2018, and gets a lift from receiver B.J. Cunningham, who some way, somehow finished eighth in receiving yards (1,128) in 2017, despite Montreal’s placing as the worst passing offence in the league. As well, speedster Chris Williams has joined the team, looking to bounce back from a poor, injury-riddled year in B.C. Let’s not forget that the dependable Ernest Jackson is in the corps, too. If the Alouettes get any kind of positive quarterback play, they have the potential to move the ball decently well. Then again, we’ve been saying that for awhile now.
New head coach Mike Sherman has a terrific resumé, including a stint as head coach/general manager of the Green Bay Packers between 2000 and 2005. He’ll have men with lots of CFL experience as his coordinators – Khari Jones on offence and Rich Stubler on defence – which is precisely the way successful head coaches making the transition to Canada have gone about it in the past.
The defence that Stubler will cobble together carries a couple of men who have been ageless wonders up to this point – quarterback rusher John Bowman and linebacker Chip Cox (added to the roster once again last week), as well as a trio of veteran newcomers that should add excitement. Middle linebacker Henoc Muamba and defensive end Jamaal Westerman – playing as a teammate of his brother Jabar this year – and corner Mitchell White are key acquisitions in 2018. Defensive backs Tommie Campbell and Joe Burnett are now aboard as well, so the Als do have potential on D.
The kicking is in fine shape with veteran Boris Bede.
QUESTION: Can Willy finally make good on the promise he showed when he first arrived in the CFL?
OUTLOOK: After a 3-15 campaign in 2017, the Alouettes should be able to start their climb back to respectability but a contending season might yet be another year away.