CFL Preview: East Division
For seven of the Canadian Football League's teams this season is shaping up as one of the most competitive in years as parity raises its head again like a Prairie rat, er, dog.
Here's a look at how the Eastern Division shakes down in our eyes. We want to hear your picks below, but remember, for every extra win you give one team, you must take one away from another and the total victories in the CFL have to add up to 72.
Click here to view the West breakdown.
2010 record: 12-6 (Won Grey Cup)
Our 2010 pick: 11-7
The skinny: For the last two years we've been saying the Als are too old, and for two years they've won it all anyway.
With retirements and player changes by GM Jim Popp in the off-season, this club is no longer as aged, and actually has a nice balance of youth and experience.
Anthony Calvillo, with another Grey Cup ring and back off thyroid surgery, returns for his 18th season, now just 4,221 yards behind Damon Allen for the all-time passing lead among quarterbacks.
His backup, Adrian McPherson, could start on five of the other teams.
The offensive line lost Paul Lambert to retirement but is still terrific with tackles Josh Bourke and Jeff Perrett, Scott Flory and Andrew Woodruff at guards and Luc Brodeur-Jordain at centre.
Ben Cahoon has retired, leaving S.J. Green (58 catches for 875 yards last year) to move inside and pick up those big-time catches in traffic for first downs. The stud out there, however, remains Jamel Richardson, who was fourth in the league with 1,271 yards in catches.
All eyes will be on the backfield, with the exit of Avon Cobourne to Hamilton as a free agent. Injuries kept him just short of 1,000 yards last year. Brandon Whittaker, who carried the ball just 20 times in 2010, is the replacement, and he did not look sharp in exhibition.
Kicking will be split to start the year at least between Sean Whyte, whom B.C. has been hiding on its practice roster since around, oh, 1973, and Sandro DeAngelis, given up on by Hamilton.
Defensively, Popp made a pair of excellent moves, signing safety Tad Crawford from B.C. and corner Dwight Anderson from Calgary. Matthieu Proulx has retired from the secondary.
Chip Cox, with 80 tackles a year ago and an all-around nasty demeanour, leads the linebacking corps along with Shea Emry.
Jerald Brown heads a strong secondary.
The key: As you'll see below, we're picking the Als to win one less game and that's both because of how deep the division suddenly is, and the loss of Cobourne's outstanding blocking for Calvillo. A.C. may be a bit busier back there this year.
2010 record: 9-9 (Lost in East semifinal)
Our 2010 pick: 12-6
The skinny: The CFL's most disappointing team last season must show everyone it can play consistently, finish at least second again and win a playoff game.
Especially with defensive co-ordinator Greg Marshall, now the head guy in Saskatchewan, replaced by Corey Chamblin, who wants a more aggressive defence (and who was teaching his guys to juggle in camp to improve their hand-eye co-ordination — if that works, it could start a trend).
As it was last year, the linebackers will lead the way for the Cats, keyed by Markeith Knowlton, the CFL's best defender, Jamall Johnson, and Renauld Williams, signed from Calgary to replace Otis Floyd (and that's going to be one to watch as the latter was a leader on the field).
Stevie Baggs is the face of a solid defensive line that includes seven sack man Justin Hickman.
The defensive backfield is where the real juggling begins, as three members of the secondary (Bo Smith, Daniel Francis, Dylan Barker) begin on the short-term injured list. Hamilton gave up the most first downs passing in the CFL last year, and their yards-after-catch numbers were soft.
Jason Shivers and Jerome Dennis are best back there with Ryan Hinds a strong non-import.
Offensively it's the Kevin Glenn show again (under the new management of first-year offensive co-ordinator Khari Jones), with Quinton Porter as his backup, and they have strong receivers in Arland Bruce III (third in the CFL at 1,303 yards), Dave Stala (1,015 yards) and Maurice Mann (787 yards).
Marquay McDaniel starts on the injured reserve but a great looking rookie in Aaron Kelly is expected to make an impression.
The Cats feature an outstanding offensive line that allowed the least amount of sacks in the league last year, and it's been bolstered with the return of Wayne Smith (injured almost all of 2010) from Saskatchewan after three years away.
Marwan Hage is the physical and emotional leader of the big hogs, along with Jason Jiminez and four other guys who can all flat out play.
Leading us to the signing by GM Bob O'Billovich of Avon Cobourne from Montreal. The West Virginia product is one of the league's best runners, best pass catchers out of the backfield and, just as significantly, one of its best blockers.
Glenn (5,108 yards in passing last year, No. 2 in the league) may have all day to find his receivers. Now they have to hang onto the ball a little more because late in the year there were too many drops.
The key: Putting it all together when it matters. Hamilton beat Toronto three times in the regular season, for example, and then lost to them at home in the playoffs. Must not happen again.
2010 record: 9-9 (Lost in East final)
Our 2010 pick: 4-14
The skinny: Jim Barker's micro-management turned the Argonauts from a joke into a solid team last season and earned him coach of the year honours, plus a second job as general manager.
The big news from camp and the exhibition season has been quarterback Cleo Lemon, much maligned in his first year up from the NFL in 2010.
Sure, he still can't throw that long one downfield without it looking like a major league sacrifice fly, but everything from mid-range in, both north-south and east-west has been sharp and confident.
Barker made a big trade with Winnipeg to bring experienced pivot Steven Jyles in, only to have him unavailable because of ongoing soreness from an off-season shoulder surgery.
Dalton Bell has also pushed Lemon in camp, but he finally succumbed to a groin injury and also starts the season on the injured list, leaving raw rookie B.J. Hall, from that college powerhouse Webber International, as the only backup.
Barker has worked hard on improving the receiver corps and he's come up with a good looking one in DJ Boldin. Jeremaine Copeland is the stud pass catcher but he has to stay consistently healthy.
The Argos must get more out of Brandon Rideau (24 catches, 443 yards) and Spencer Watt (14 catches, 201 yards) and it looks like both may be ready to respond. Watch for all-rounder Andre Durie to make a big impression.
Much of the Toronto attack, of course, centres around running back Cory Boyd, who led the league in yards from scrimmage last season with 1,722, while all-purpose receiver and kick returner Chad Owens was tops in combined yards with 3,288.
Toronto had the worst offence in the league in 2010, but could improve along with Lemon.
Defence is almost always strong in Toronto, and this group was No. 1 in the CFL a season back (442 points allowed).
Kevin Eiben had 101 tackles at linebacker (third overall), and he has Jason Pottinger's 71 tackles and the always reliable Jordan Younger beside him.
Willie Pile piled up 83 tackles from the safety position, and though Willie Middlebrooks retired in the off-season there are lots of bodies back there who can protect against the pass, including Lin-J Shell and 10-year vet Wes Lysack (in from Calgary).
Much has been made of losing Adriano Belli and Eric Taylor from the defensive tackle position, but while the latter had a good year, it was time for the former, facing injuries and declining skills, to go.
Kevin Huntley, fourth in league sacks last year with nine, and the huge, fast, supremely confident rookie Claude Wroten will take their place.
Ricky Foley, who struggled with a groin injury after joining the Argos halfway through last year, is back healthy at one end, and Ronald Flemons, who had 53 tackles and eight sacks and just goes quietly about doing an excellent job, is at the other end.
The key: If Barker can coax the Argo offence into being merely average, this team could go to the Grey Cup in Vancouver.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
2010 record: 4-14
Our 2010 prediction: 4:14
The skinny: This isn't fair. Just when the Bombers seem ready to make some real progress back to respectability, they find the rest of the Eastern Division stronger then it has been in years.
The "Hello, my name is …" tags are off this group, they've had a chance to play together for a season after management stopped trying to ship the whole roster out year after year, and coach Paul La Police has a nicely set roster that features 20 starting returners.
There was much to like about this team last year, one that was second in rushing (2,456), scored a reasonable amount of points and was in the middle of many offensive categories.
But they could not finish, and that's because their hugely talented starting quarterback, Mr. Buck Pierce, could not himself finish. He started and ended just two full games before his season ended, again, with injury.
If Pierce gets hurt, and he likely will, Joey Elliott will be under the gun as the backup, especially with Steven Jyles and his bum shoulder shipped out to Toronto.
Enter the always wonderful Fred Reid, who just keeps rolling along from the running back slot, finishing second in yards from scrimmage (1,651), first in rushing (1,396) and continues to be the epitome of a team guy.
Terrence Edwards is sublime, second to Andy Fantuz in receiving with 1.372, and there are others who could have stronger years, including Greg Carr (579 yards) and Terence Jeffers-Harris (547 yards).
The offensive line is pretty good, and a story to watch is the return of Glenn January, out for all of last year with a torn muscle.
On the other side, the new defensive co-ordinator is Tim Burke, in from the same job in Montreal and carrying a pair of Grey Cup rings with him.
He's instituted a more adaptive D that will switch back and forth between the 4-3 and the 3-4, depending on circumstance.
Mean old Doug Brown is the leader on the line, and he has Odell Willis (11 sacks last year and a guy who is going to be very active in this new scheme), Dorian Smith and rookie Jason Vega, who has the daunting task of replacing Philip Hunt, with him.
Hunt led the CFL in sacks with 16, and that earned him a contract with Philadelphia of the NFL. Vega has a lot to live up to.
Clint Kent is one of the best strong side linebackers in the league, with 77 tackles in 2010 (though he's starting the year on IR), and he's joined by Joe Lobendahn (55 tackles) and Marcellus Bowman.
Alex Suber, Jonathan Hefney, Ian Logan and Jovon Johnson (a talented punt returner as well) are a good backfield, and overall, this Winnipeg defence is not bad at all.
This team must learn to play well as a group in the fourth quarter, however, having lost nine games by four points or less, and that's a statistic the great Bomber fans are probably sick of hearing.
The key: Just keep banging away. One more year getting used to each other, some health for Pierce or experience for the backups, and Big Blue will challenge for a playoff spot in 2012, just in time for their new stadium.