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June 13, 2018

Nye: No clear front-runner in the West

Dave Chidley/CFL.ca

Usually, on CFL.ca, I’m putting my neck on the line with bold predictions or weekly picks that can be ridiculed and mocked at a later time. I’m so happy this isn’t one of those pieces because predicting the West Division could make you look like a genius this season or a no-nothing dimwit.

So I’ll hold my predictions for another day and instead break down why it’s so hard again this year to go 1-5 in the West Division.

Calgary lost veteran players to free agency or retirement, the Eskimos have the NFL to blame for losing some key pieces, Winnipeg is already behind the eight ball because of a freak injury to Matt Nichols in training camp, Saskatchewan appears to be in the middle of transitioning from pretender to contender in the division, though their preseason was poor, and BC has tried to get better immediately by bringing in talent from around the league at key positions.

I’m going out on a limb to say by Week 21, we’ll be no further ahead trying to predict which team makes the Grey Cup out of this division.

CALGARY STAMPEDERS
2017 record: 13-4-1

Bo Levi Mitchell walked off the field at TD Place Stadium after another heartbreaking loss in the Grey Cup. (The Canadian Press)

2018 will be another season the Stampeders come into with a bad taste in their mouths. They were the class of the league again until the second half of the Grey Cup, when the Toronto Argonauts came storming back and shocked the Stamps, heading Calgary another runner-up finish.

Bo Levi Mitchell wanted the ball in his hand in the Grey Cup and threw up a game-clinching interception. Mitchell is coming off a year in which a bad shoulder dropped the incredible numbers he put up in his MOP 2016 season. With a healthy arm, there should be no reason to believe Mitchell can’t hit the 5,000 plateau again and head to 30 touchdowns.

Mitchell’s supporting staff is a little different this season, though, with the signing of Eric Rogers, it could be a group that could see four receivers eclipse 1,000 yards. Kamar Jorden, like Mitchell, is going to play this season to avenge his fumble from the Grey Cup and letting a team down who have rallied to his side. Marken Michel was on a 1,000-yard pace in his 13 games last season. And DaVaris Daniels has 1,000-yard potential as well if he can have a healthy 2018.

With Jerome Messam now in Saskatchewan, it leaves Terry Williams and impressive newcomer Don Jackson hoping to carry on the tradition of Calgary’s strong running game. Up front is where the holes were with retirements of Dan Federkeil and Pierre Lavertu, although injuries for both helped ease the transition to this year with a stable group who are familiar with each other. Derek Dennis returns as well after having a down year in Saskatchewan.

Defensively there shouldn’t be many questions outside of the team’s secondary. Yes, Charleston Hughes has moved East to Saskatchewan but Ja’Gared Davis, Cordarro Law and James Vaughters are all formidable pass rushers and up the middle Micah Johnson could be the best defensive tackle in the game. So if there is a let down in the secondary with Tommie Campbell off to Montreal, Josh Bell becoming a coach and Shaq Richardson heading south, the opposing quarterback likely won’t have much time anyway.

If there is one prediction I’ll make it’s that 2018 won’t be the year the Stampeders win less than 10 games for the first time since John Hufnagel started running things.

WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS
2017 record: 12-6 

After leading the league in rushing yards in 2017 and taking home Most Outstanding Canadian honours, Andrew Harris looks to take the Bombers further in 2018. (The Canadian Press)

Nearing the end of the last practice of training camp and the Bombers season suffered a serious blow when quarterback Matt Nichols went down. Four weeks is best case scenario for a team that has serious aspirations to be in Edmonton for the Grey Cup after back to back years of improvement under head coach Mike O’Shea.

They hosted a playoff game and had one of the highest scoring offence in the Canadian Football League. Thankfully for Winnipeg, whoever is playing quarterback still has Andrew Harris to rely on. Harris was just shy of the seemingly impossible 1,000-yard rushing/1,000-yard receiving combo in 2017 and you can bet the ball will be in his hands an awful lot again this season.

The team will start with Chris Streveler at quarterback and he’ll be tasked to keep it simple with a talented group around him.

Added to the arsenal in the off-season was receiver Adarius Bowman from Edmonton. Bowman had a down 2017 with injuries that made him expendable but Bowman offers up another challenge for defences to cover while Darvin Adams tries to improve on a West Division All-Star season.

The only change for the Bombers offence that could be considered a downgrade is at guard with Travis Bond leaving in free agency, though he’s been released by the Roughriders.

Defence is where the Bombers really need some help after the offence bailed them out many times last season. Yes, the Bombers do very well at turning over the football but they give up too many yards and too many points to have the Bombers compete with a team like Calgary.

General manager Kyle Walters is hoping he’s shored things up with a big addition of Adam Bighill at linebacker. Bighill is a massive signing for the Bombers to go along with free agent additions of defensive end Craig Roh and defensive back Chandler Fenner, both out of BC.

If the Bombers can keep their head above water until Nichols returns, they’ll set themselves up for a potential second half run to the post season.

EDMONTON ESKIMOS
2017 record: 12-6

Last year’s Most Outstanding Player, Mike Reilly hopes to restore Edmonton as the ‘City of Champions’. (The Canadian Press)

The Eskimos aren’t new to having to replace players going south. They’ve seen Derel Walker and Aaron Grymes give it a try recently only to have them return. Now they’ve lost two all stars, receiver Brandon Zylstra and linebacker Kenny Ladler, to the National Football League.

Their departures leave massive holes when you consider over 1,600-yards of offence from Zylstra is gone and a defensive playmaking machine in Ladler has left.

Compounding those losses is receiver Adarius Bowman now in Winnipeg, offensive tackle Joel Figueroa and defensive end Odell Willis off to BC.

The good news, they still have Mike Reilly. The toughest man in the league is still leading the charge and he’s a quarterback anybody would love to have on their side. Reilly also knows that nobody knew who Derel Walker was a few years ago and the same with Brandon Zylstra, so who knows which receiver makes a name for himself this season. Walker is ready to take over the league again as one of the top playmakers. He had over 600-yards in just eight games last season.

Bryant Mitchell showed flashes last season he could take on a bigger role and former REDBLACK Juron Criner may take on Adarius Bowman’s role as the big frame target on second down.

C.J. Gable came over from Hamilton last season and has become an instant hit with the Eskimos offence, doing all three phases of the position at a high level.

Defensively, you have Alex Bazzie swapping teams with Willis and some new faces that Mike Benevides hopes can help improve his group. The Eskimos allowed the second most points out of the six playoff teams last year. Like Winnipeg, the Eskimos are going to have to get much better defensively if they want a shot at getting to the Grey Cup in their stadium this season.

Instead of taking Winnipeg’s approach of loading up on some higher profile and likely higher paid free agents, GM Brock Sunderland is relying upon scouting and recruitment hoping some younger players can become the next best thing.

SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS
2017 record: 10-8

After taking the Ticats back to the Grey Cup his first year in Hamilton, Collaros faced multiple setbacks with the Black and Gold. Will Collaros be the answer behind centre in Regina? (Riderville.com)

The Roughriders had a strong finish to last season and are hoping it can carry over to 2018. The Riders are a different looking team than the one that ended up a few seconds away from a Grey Cup appearance, losing in the Eastern Final after crossing over from the West.

The biggest change comes at the quarterback spot with Zach Collaros the assumed starter to begin the season, although head coach Chris Jones hasn’t officially named him that yet with Brandon Bridge also in the conversation.

Collaros’ play (or Bridge) will determine how far this talented team will go this season. Collaros’ only pre-season action did not go well with Jones admitting it appeared Collaros looked a little rusty after going 10 months without any game action.

The other factor offensively will be how the offensive line holds up after Bruce Campbell, Derek Dennis and Peter Dyakowski were not retained in the off-season. The Riders will start the season with a rookie left tackle and a rookie right guard.

Otherwise, the offence is full of talent. Duron Carter, Naaman Roosevelt and Jerome Messam lead the way and despite some surprising cuts of Rob Bagg, Bakari Grant and Chad Owens over the weekend, the team thinks Caleb Holley can have a breakout season and like some of the young receivers left to replace those vets.

Jones bolstered the defensive line with a challenging duo off the edge. Roughrider Willie Jefferson had an all-star season by leading the league in QB pressures and he’s now joined by fellow league all-star Charleston Hughes. The two players are going to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks and if Jefferson has to deal with less double teams this season, it’s going to be a big year. The Riders also added Zack Evans to the interior of the defensive line to help the pass rush even further.

However, there is a big name missing out of the middle of the defence as Henoc Muamba and the team couldn’t come to terms on a restructured deal so veteran linebacker Sam Hurl will be looked to early to fill the hole. Samuel Eguavoen is hoping for a breakout season at linebacker as well to help fill the void.

The Riders defence turned into one of the best in the league in the back half of the season and Jones is looking at them to be the strength of the team this season, despite that talent on offence.

An interesting thing to watch could be the kicking position, as Tyler Crapigna needs surgery on a lingering leg injury that will leave him out for the season. Brett Lauther comes in and had a decent preseason but it’ll be big shoes to fill as Crapigna his over 85 per cent of his field goals and made every single PAT. Lauther hasn’t kicked in a regular season game since 2013 rookie season in Hamilton where he went six for 10.

Jones’ third season in Saskatchewan is a big one for him. After taking the team to a big step from five to 10 wins, the expectations are rising in and outside of the organization with a top two finish in the West and a home playoff game being predicted by some in Rider Nation.

BC LIONS
2017 record: 7-11

It’s the last hurrah for Wally Buono in the CFL. Can the Lions buy into the culture change and have their legendary coach ride off into the sunset with one more ring? (The Canadian Press)

Last season was a promising one early. The Lions got out to a 5-2 record and were appearing to make a run after finishing second in 2016.

Then the bottom fell out as the Lions went 2-9 the rest of the way. Quarterback Jonathon Jennings is the big factor for this season. If Jennings can return to his 2016 ability to extend plays, make plays and clean up the turnovers, the Lions could be formidable again.

The pre-season play of Jennings is hopeful for the team that couldn’t keep up offensively to the West Division. They were the only team in 2017 who didn’t score over 500 points in the division as they do face some talented offences in the division.

The new general manager Ed Hervey improved the offensive line by bringing in Joel Figueroa of the Edmonton Eskimos and got some help by bringing back Jovon Olafioye from the Montreal Alouettes, though it remains to be seen if Olafioye can return to his all-star calibre play from a few years ago.

There is no doubt about Emmanuel Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham‘s ability but the Lions are hoping to find a third option in the receiving game after a big drop off from the top two to now retired Nick Moore. Chris Williams didn’t exactly come in and make an impact, which led to his departure. So Ricky Collins Jr. and Kevin Elliott will hope to impress along with Canadian Shaq Johnson.

While the Lions came in last in the division in points scored, they were also last in the West in points allowed and changes were made.

The list is long at the free agents brought in to BC to improve the defence; Odell Willis, Gabriel Knapton, Ivan McLennan, Garry Peters, Otha Foster, Winston Rose, Davon Coleman, and Marcel Young. Add those players to play alongside Solomon Elimimian, Hervey needs these investments to pay off.

The problem BC will have this year is if they are going to make gains to get into the playoffs, one or two teams above them must fall. And going into this season it’s hard to say any of the teams above them got worse in the off-season. The Lions have some games against the Bombers early in the season when Matt Nichols could still be out of the lineup. That may be their chance to pounce and distance themselves from a division foe early in the season.