CFL Preview: West Division

If the Calgary Stampeders are to reach the Grey Cup game this year they'll have to shore up the secondary unit,'s Malcolm Kelly writes in his CFL predictions for the Western Division.
Juwan Simpson, right, who registered 71 tackles and seven sacks last year, remains a staple at linebacker for the Calgary Stampeders. (Adrien Veczan/Canadian Press)

This could be a year where a former power begins to re-emerge in the Western Division.

Here's how it looks to 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 East breakdown.

Calgary Stampeders

2010 record: 13-5 (Lost in West final)

Our 2010 prediction:11-7

The skinny: All the talk this winter was of how the Stampeders only have to tweak here, and polish here, and they'll be back in the Grey Cup game at Vancouver.

True in some ways, but there has been one mighty big task for GM/coach John Hufnagel and that's rebuilding the cornerback spot. 

Playing right in the face of the other team's wide receivers all game is a tough chore, and the Stamps had two excellent ones in Brandon Browner (gone to the Seattle Seahawks) and Dwight Anderson (off to Montreal).

At the same time, the team has lost the league's best offensive lineman in Ben Archibald (B.C.) and two defensive linemen. So off to work Hufnagel went.

Returning defender Johnnie Dixon will get some time at corner, along with free agent acquisition Geoff Tisdale (Hamilton) and a good looking rookie from Tennessee, Demetrice Morley, who had two interceptions against B.C. in the pre-season.

Tom Johnson (NFL) and Mike Labinjo (released) are gone from the defensive line, but Charleston Hughes (seven sacks) is still a huge presence there along with Robert McCune.

Linebacking remains a Stamps' forte, thanks to Juwan Simpson (71 tackles, seven sacks), Malik Jackson and DeVone Claybrooks.

Anderson and Browner were a huge presence in the backfield (10 interceptions between them) but Brandon Smith returns to help anchor along with Milt Collins and Keon Raymond.

Calgary led the league in 11 of 20 defensive categories, and was second in eight others, but it's still likely to take a while to get everyone back on the same page.

Smilin' Henry Burris returns for his 13th CFL season, 10th with the White Stallions and all he did last year was win the league's MVP while throwing for just under 5,000 yards and 38 touchdowns.

His capable backup Drew Tate, however, is on the injured list for a while with a dislocated shoulder and that has forced the Stamps to bring in help. They signed the well, well-travelled Michael Bishop (aw c'mon, seriously?) in hopes he can learn the offence quickly. 

Good thing Burris is usually healthy as a horse.

Joffrey Reynolds ran for 1,200 yards last year and he's a stud, with Jon Cornish (618 yards) to provide tough, beefy gains.

Nik Lewis, in his eighth season, hauled in 90 balls for 1,262 yards, and with Ken-Yon Rambo, Romby Bryant and Arjel Franklin to scamper around with, there won't be any problem finding someone to play catch.

The offensive line is solid, but losing the nation's top man in Archibald leaves a hole.

Burke Dales punts, Rob Maver place kicks and they're a good pairing.

The key: Don't worry too much if they open, say, 4-4 as the defence works things out, because the club will likely be terrific by season's end. At the same time, Burris must be protected like the season depends on it. Because it does.


Quarterback Travis Lulay watched the Casey Printers experiment blow up in the first half last year before taking the reins and leading the Lions back from a 1-7 start all the way to a playoff spot. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

B.C. Lions

2010 record:8-10

Our 2010 prediction:10-8

The skinny: Your name is Wally Buono, you are the GM and head coach of a team that featured the worst offensive line in the CFL last year and you've got to make sure you keep your newly emerged star quarterback safe and sound for 18 games, plus playoffs.

What to do? Raid the Calgary Stampeders for tackle Ben Archibald, who won the top O-lineman award in 2010.

That's a good start, and when you can put centre Angus Reid (who is only 34, though it does seem like he must have blocked for Jim Taylor), with Jovan Olafiove and Jon Hameister-Ries, you might have a unit that will give up quite a few less than the ridiculous 65 sacks allowed last year.

Good thing, because Travis Lulay is worth protecting. The young quarterback watched the Casey Printers experiment blow up in the first half last year before taking the reins and leading the Lions back from a 1-7 start all the way to a playoff spot.

The red head with the same kind of "aw shucks" look former Lions' great Dave Dickenson had, threw for 2,602 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010 while watching much of each game from the seat of his pants after getting run over.

Much of the receiving corps kind of creaks as it runs by these days, but Geroy Simon (35), Kamau Peterson (33) and Paris Jackson (almost 31) can still catch the ball if it arrives on time. Young Nick Moore has been added to the starters.

Jamal Robertson is the running back and at 34 he's no spring marmot either.

B.C. was fourth in points allowed and it was a rapidly improving defensive unit as the temperature plummeted and the leaves flew. Where they struggled was stopping the run, and that has to change.

Linebacker Solomon Elimimian (77 tackles) was the league's best rookie, and he's now taking more of a leadership role along with Anton McKenzie and Adam Leonard.

In front of them is Eric Taylor, in from Toronto as a free agent to play with Keron Williams and Aaron Hunt.

Cornerback Davis Sanchez is the key in the defensive backfield.

Paul McCallum, whose 41-year-old leg is still playing five years after the rest of his body retired, is Mr. Consistency at kicker. He does not, however, have super sub Sean Whyte (Montreal) to back him up this year, so health is important.

The key: B.C. comes into the season with the smallest injured list in the league and if it stays that way, this club will bounce back from consecutive 8-10 seasons to finish second and host a playoff game in the newly renovated B.C. Place digs.


With Andy Fantuz off to the NFL, the pressure is on Roughriders receiver Wes Dressler, right, to pick up the slack. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Saskatchewan Roughriders

2010 record:10-8

Our 2010 prediction:12-6

The skinny: Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to rush forward again, and this might be the year for the Riders, a team swimming in profits (and good for them) and always held to account by the league's best fans.

General manager Brendan Taman had a lot more work to do this winter than might normally be seen with a team that made the Grey Cup final.

Head coach Ken Miller retired, and he was replaced by defensive guru Greg Marshall, in from Hamilton. Then Taman brought back Richie Hall from his unfortunate two years as the head guy in Edmonton, reinstalling him as the defensive co-ordinator.

The offensive line was beefed up after the retirement of Jeremy O'Day by signing Alex Gauthier from Hamilton (George Hudson came over too and he'll back up), to play with Marc Parenteau, Chris Best, Dan Goodspeed and future politician Gene Makowsky. 

That guarantees good protection for quarterback Darian Durant (5,542 yards in 2010, tops in the loop) and running back Wes Cates (1,054 yards).

Where things have changed significantly are with the receiving corps, hurt by the exit of the CFL's best catcher in Andy Fantuz (87 balls, 1,380 yards, off to the Chicago Bears) and a likely season-ending injury to Rob Bagg (44 catches, many in heavy traffic). 

Pressure then is clearly on the fine Weston Dressler (1,189 yards), Chris Getzlaf (946 yards) and less familiar faces in Cary Koch and rookie Terrence Nunn. If either of the veteran returners were to get hurt, the Riders would suddenly be awfully thin at a position where they are used to having an embarrassment of riches.

Another blow came with the loss of defensive end Brent Hawkins to the nine-game injured list with a bad shoulder. Montez Murphy takes his spot alongside Luc Mullinder, Shomari Williams and a great pickup in Dario Romero from Edmonton.

The linebackers are led by Barrin Simpson (105 tackles, best in the CFL) and Sean Lucas, with James Patrick (nine interceptions, also best in the CFL), Lance Frazier and Tad Kornegay (the Fordham Flash) strong in the secondary.

Now take their kicking (please). Eddie Johnson and Chris Milo have been disappointing in the pre-season as they try to replace Luca Congi, still suffering with a sore knee. That has to be fixed, somehow.

Tristan Jackson, who missed most of last year due to injury as an Edmonton Eskimo, is in to haul the ball on special teams.

Taman has done a good job filling holes, but this is going to be one of the most competitive seasons in many years, and there are just enough questions with this team that a one-game step back seems more than possible.

The key: Get the new coach on the same page with the veterans quickly, hope the new receivers can do their share, fix the kicking and hope for good health.


Eskimos quarterback Ricky Ray, right, threw for 3,565 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions last season, and most of those because he was running for his life. (John Ulan/Canadian Press)

Edmonton Eskimos

2010 record:7-11

Our 2010 prediction:8-10

The skinny: When GM Eric Tillman rebuilds, he doesn't just refurbish the family room and do a little dry walling. He rips the whole thing down to the foundation, checks for any leaks, and then starts up from there.

Don't let Eskimos officials kid you when they say this club "isn't rebuilding" and of course, they are trying for a playoff spot. Nope, this is a full-scale cleanout with the goal of getting the Green and Gold back to the heights this franchise was used to for so long rather the lowly four of five missed playoffs.

The coaching staff is new, as a start, led by Kavis Reed, coming over from Winnipeg where he was defensive co-ordinator.

And what a job they have ahead of them. Tillman has ejected so many veterans the Eskimos come into week 1 with just three guys playing the same spots on defence they had last year, including Chris Thompson in the backfield, Rod Davis at linebacker and Greg Peach on the line.

On offence, Ricky Ray (3,565 yards, 11 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and most of those because he was running for his life) is back at quarterback, with Fred Stamps to throw to (1,223 yards). If Ray gets hurt, the next choice is Kerry Joseph. He's 37 and still learning the offence.

Overall, less than 20 of last year's players return. That's a rebuilding job.

Tillman has always believed you win or lose with your non-imports, and to that end he has five rookie Canadians on this roster.

The offensive line is a mess right now, with three guys on the injured list, including Gord Hinse (nine games), Cliff Washburn and Brian Ramsay. Those latter two will be out about a month or less, and with the rest of the line banged up in one way or another, Ray may be piling up the miles scrambling around for his life, at least for a while.

Greg Wojt and Patrick Kabongo are thus under a lot of pressure to keep the defensive dogs at bay.

Young receivers include household names such as Brandon James, Marcus Henry and Ray Fisher but they'll be taught by vets such as Adarius Bowman.

The secondary unit isn't bad, with Thompson, Weldon Brown and Rod Williams, there's a bunch of linebackers you've barely heard of and the defensive line is rebuilding along with everyone else.

The key: Wait. Tillman has shown he knows how to build, and there's no sense getting impatient. As with Winnipeg the last few years, change takes time.