Tuesday 30 December 2014

What to Do with Giggy and B-Stew

Two Tiger-Cat players whose future with the team has been in the news a bit over the last week are receiver Sam Giguère and defensive back Brandon Stewart.

Arash Madani broke the news that the Tiger-Cats had tabled a contract offer to Giguère, but that it was not to his liking and if the team did not present a better offer, the former first-round pick would test free agency.

Madani also reported that Stewart would not be back next season after a subpar performance in the playoffs this season; however, those reports were disputed by Drew Edwards, who found out that Stewart’s departure might not be so imminent.

In any event, the question should now be asked: what should the Ti-Cats do with both these players? In short, let Giguère walk and bring Stewart back.

Let’s start with Giguère. The Sherbrooke product came to the CFL in 2012 amidst much fanfare and sky-high expectations. Three seasons later and he never truly lived up to those expectations. His 116 catches for 1,534 yards and three touchdowns is not exactly the type of production the team was hoping for when they finally got his signature on a contract.

Now, a lot of Giguère’s statistical problems stemmed from playing wide-side receiver – where one sees very little action – and when he was allowed to operate out of the slot, mainly when Andy Fantuz was injured, he showed the ability to produce. If Giguère were allowed to play in the slot more, he might have lived up to the hype, but as it stands he simply did not.

If he is looking for a big payday, he will have to find it elsewhere. Spending lavishly on a guy who averaged 39 catches, 514 yards and one TD per season is not wise. I am not sure how much his role would increase if he re-signed with the Ti-Cats, so what we have seen is likely what we will continue to get.

I would love to see Giguère back, but if some team – Ottawa, Montreal – is going to offer him more money and an increased role, he has to take it.

As far as Stewart is concerned, I know the sentiment among many is good riddance, but I say pump the breaks on that one. Yes, he was beat badly by S.J. Green in the East Final and didn’t perform much better in the Grey Cup, but most players who line up against the opposing team’s best receiver gets beaten.

Also, Stewart was playing in an unfamiliar position this season. He had almost exclusively played wide-side corner in Winnipeg before moving inside in his first season in Hamilton. Perhaps a move back outside would help him, and as luck would have it, the Ti-Cats are in need of a short-side corner with Delvin Breaux almost certainly signing with an NFL team. Short-side corner is not the same as wide-side, and it would still require Stewart to line up against some of the better receivers in the league, but the transition would likely not be as drastic for him as his move to defensive halfback was.

If the team does release Stewart, I am not going to be surprised, but I think he should at least be brought into camp. Whether the team tries him out at another position or if they bring in competition and force him to win the job, letting him go after just one season seems a little knee jerk to me.

What happens with both these players won’t be known for a few months, but whatever their fates are, it will have reverberations on the team as a whole.

Monday 29 December 2014

The Biggest Overlooked Free Agent of Them All

So before Christmas, we took a look at all nine teams as they headed into the offseason, focusing mainly on free agency. Then we wrote about 10 potential free agents that are flying under the radar. Even after all that, we still failed to mention one potential free agent that might be the biggest of them all. A two-time CFL award winner and one of the most dynamic players to ever step foot on a Canadian football field.

Yep, I am talking about Mr. He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named himself:
The name Chris Williams brings about Wullerton-style spitting amongst Tiger-Cat faithful, but there is no denying that Williams was a one-of-a-kind playmaker during his two extraordinary seasons in black and gold.

While Williams spent most of the last year and a half on two NFL rosters – first with the New Orleans Saints and then with the Chicago Bears – he is currently unsigned by any NFL team after being waived by the Bears earlier this month.

Per the settlement reached between the team and Williams, the 2011 Most Outstanding Rookie was allowed to test NFL waters, but the Tiger-Cats retained his CFL rights through the 2014 season. That means, as of February 10, 2015, Williams will be a CFL free agent. Should his NFL dream be over – and it very well may be – he will be available to all nine CFL teams when free agency opens.

We all know what Williams can do, both on offense and on special teams. We also know that Williams will command top dollar should he return to the CFL, and given his acrimonious departure for the Tiger-Cats, I doubt very highly that the 2012 Most Outstanding Special Teams Player will return to Hamilton. That leaves the door open to the other eight clubs to pick up an established player that will immediately upgrade their receiving corps and special teams unit. So if not Hamilton, where might Williams land?

My money would be on Ottawa.

The RedBlacks will be looking to make a significant improvement on their two-win debut season, and have more money to spend thanks to Henry Burris restructuring his contract to free up cap space in 2015, so one would have to think they’d make a serious run at Williams if he decided he wanted to play in the CFL once again.

And speaking of Burris, it was he who was guiding the potent Tiger-Cats offense in 2012 that featured Williams as a No. 1 receiver. Burris had inarguably his best statistical season in 2012, throwing for more yards, touchdowns and completions than he had in any season previous or any season since, and Williams was a big reason why. The diminutive speedster caught 83 passes for 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012 and was a bona fide MOP candidate with Burris throwing him the football. A reunion could do wonders for both players, but especially Burris, who, for comparison’s sake, threw 11 touchdowns in total in 2014 and looked every bit his age. Adding Williams might allow Burris to slow down the sands of time for at least one season and would add a spark to a RedBlacks offense that desperately needs one.

All of this is predicated on Williams looking to return to the CFL, which is by no means a lock. But if he does decide to return north of the border that he will have no shortage of suitors.

And if I were a betting man, I would bet on him calling Ottawa home.

Sunday 28 December 2014

One-on-One with Nikki Jeffrey

Dylan Atack is a name that many Tiger-Cat fans are probably somewhat familiar with. Maybe they don’t know exactly who he is or what he does, but they are aware of his presence on the sidelines during games and helping out during practice.

This past September, Ryerson University student Nikki Jeffrey filmed a short documentary about Dylan for a school project. It was a wonderfully done and highlighted just what Dylan means to the team. After the viewing the film, I reached out to Nikki in hopes of getting her to answer a few questions about the project and she was kind enough to respond.

Josh: Start by telling us all a little about yourself, where you're from, how you got into film making, etc.

Nikki: I’m 21 years old from Mississauga. I attend Ryerson University for Radio and Television (which is an amazing program). I actually want to be in front of the camera but I do enjoy film making and editing a lot as well.

Josh: How did you find out about Dylan and his story?

Nikki: My boyfriend, Sean [Hanlon], who you see in the video, got his internship from Brock University Sport Management with the Ti-Cats this past season. Every day he would tell me stories about Dylan; how funny he is and how hard of a worker he is. So I started to become interested in him. [Prior to doing the documentary] I had only met [Dylan] briefly after a game once before.

Josh: What made you decide to do a film about Dylan?

Nikki: One of classes I took this semester was called Sport Broadcasting. We were assigned an assignment to make a short feature documentary on a player, coach, etc. and right away I thought Dylan would be perfect for it. After getting approval, my group members and I drove out to Tim Horton’s Field one day to film.

Josh: Was there anything interesting that you didn’t find a way to put in the doc? Any stories about Dylan that were left on the cutting room floor?

Nikki: There were a few things left out, but nothing too crazy. He told us about how he isn’t really a fan of flying, but was flown out to the Grey Cup last year to be with the team, which I thought was really nice. At the end of the doc when he says to always be yourself and stay positive and motivated, we had actually asked him what advice he would give to someone who is also autistic, but wants to get involved and try new things.

Josh: OK, one final general question: are you a CFL fan? And if so, do you have a favourite team?

Nikki: OK, so I definitely prefer the CFL over the NFL. I don’t know why, but I can’t seem to get into the NFL. I live in Toronto for school, so I claimed I was an Argos fan (but I didn’t really know much about them). After this past season, as Sean worked for them – which allowed me to get to know the organization better and go to games at Tim Horton’s Field – I am definitely a Hamilton Tiger-Cats fan. My friend and I went to an Argos-Cats game at the Rogers Centre and were seated in the Argos fan section. Every time the Ti-Cats would get a touchdown, we were those obnoxious opposing team fans that would stand and turn and cheer. Haha!

Josh: That’s awesome! As a guy who does the same thing when I watch the Cats play in Toronto, I can appreciate that.

So that was my short conversation with Nikki. I hope this allows more people to see the work she did. I have watched the doc a couple of times, and it really is a wonderful piece.

I would like to thank Nikki for doing the interview and for providing such wonderful answers. If you want to thank her yourself, she can be found on Twitter at @nikkijeffs.

And for those of you interested, the project received an A+. I think we can all agree that the mark was well earned.

Thursday 25 December 2014

Annual Year-End Meeting of the CFL Eastern Division Coaches and General Managers Support Group

(Overheard somewhere in the basement of a church in Ontario)

Greetings and welcome everyone to the Annual Year-End Meeting of the CFL Eastern Division Coaches and General Managers Support Group.

A few housekeeping issues before we get down to business.

While we appreciate Tiger-Cat Coach/General Manager/Director of Football Operations Kent Austin only taking up one chair, your demands of a five-yard Halo around your chair makes it difficult for us to have everyone in a sharing circle that we prefer. Also, while we appreciate your attempt to streamlining the title and introduction process to these affairs, “Omnipotent God of all that is Football” is a little much. Can’t we just call you Kent?

Mr. Barker. How many times do I have to tell you that you cannot stand behind me while I am opening the meeting and addressing the group? Please, take your seat in the circle with the others! And can you please tell Mr. Clemons that there are no cameras or media here so his presence is really not required.

Mr. Popp. While we appreciate that you took the advice of the group to actually bring coach Higgins to our gathering this time, can you please do something about him? He seems to be walking aimlessly around the room not really knowing what's going on. And further to the motion you brought forward last meeting, we will not note in the meeting's minutes that you are the General Manager that signed Duron Carter, the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Cris Carter. That is Rod Black's responsibility and a very different meeting.

Mssr. Desjardins. While we respectfully appreciate your suggestion that cookies imported from the United States are a dime a dozen, we would prefer to stay local and support our domestic manufacturers. We, as a group, have also decided that your censure for drafting Marwan Hage, Kevin Glenn and subsequently signing a 40-year-old quarterback shall expire at the end of this meeting.

Okay then – with those items taken care of – let us get onto tonight's agenda!

Since this is our last meeting for 2014, I thought it would be good for us all to make our 2015 New Year's resolutions. Let us start with the reigning Eastern Division Champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Mr. Austin?


Oh Omnipotent God of all things that is Football?

For the last time, would you please stop running around pushing people in the back? We get it already! Honestly, we all get it!

Now, are there any New Year’s resolutions that you would like to share with the group Kent?

Well, that’s not really a resolution but we’ll make sure Mr. Proulx receives your sentiments!

Coach Milanovich!!!

Please refrain from speaking while it is someone else’s turn and for the last time watch your language! We understand that Owens and Durie getting injured at a Community Centre Secret Santa Party is upsetting but that is no reason to be that fouled mouthed. In the name of all things Pinball, would you please just shut the heck up!

How about we move on to division runner-ups Montreal.



That’s a challenge flag Tom – again – not really a resolution. But the effort was indeed appreciated. Please try and keep up.

Thank you Jim, but once more that is not really a resolution. I promise we will put it to a vote in our January meeting that the Alouettes have first right of refusal for all offspring named Rice, Reed, Irvin, Lofton, Swann, Stallworth …

Moving on now. Hopefully there’s a New Year’s resolution in Ottawa?


Thank you! An actual New Year’s resolution!

But really, don’t be so hard on yourself Marcel. Many of those personnel moves were perfectly unadvisable… err… I mean understandable. At least you did not draft a dead guy like one of your predecessors! That would have been really bad!

I think we should bring things to a close here before things really get out of control. I would like to call on our senior member, Mr. Jim Popp, to stand up and lead us in our closing prayer.


Mr. Popp?

Are you standing?

Oh! There you are Jim. You are standing. Sorry about that.

“We, the members of the CFL Eastern Division Coaches and General Managers Support Group do vow to remember that the season begins in June and to not start the season so slowly and go 12 and 28 versus the West.”

And now, as customary, we will pass around David Braley's hat for contributions from the group. Of course Jim and Scott, you are not expected to pay since it has already been deducted from your paycheques!‎

Alrighty then! That concludes the Annual Year-End Meeting of the CFL Eastern Division Coaches and General Managers Support Group. As a reminder, we do not know where we will be meeting in the New Year.

Hopefully Hamilton’s venue will be complete.

The Argos can only offer space on Tuesdays at 2am.

While Montreal is available, we worry that no one will actually show up.

So I guess it will have to be Ottawa! Welcome to the East Division Fellas!

Wednesday 24 December 2014

10 Overlooked Free Agents to Make Your Team Better (Plus One)

Their jerseys are not usually stocked in the team store. When you do see someone wearing one in the crowd, you can be pretty sure they are a family member or loved one.

But do not let that fool you or assign some sense of lesser value to their importance to the team. These players are often key to a team’s success.

In the NHL, they are your third and fourth liners. The grit guys who are often relied upon to jumpstart a sluggish team effort. In the NBA, they are your sixth and seventh men off the bench. The ones that are brought in to address a need and shift the momentum of a game. In MLB, they are your utility players. The guys who can play multiple positions and allow you to make the substitutions that evolves over the long course of an individual game and season.

In the CFL, they are often backups and depth players. They are counted upon to step up should a starter go down to injury. But unlike the other professional sports, they cannot just stand on the sidelines waiting for the coach to point their way and say, “You’re up 47! Get in there!”

They have to be able to contribute somewhere, somehow in the game on the field in order to hold down a valuable roster position. In the CFL, this usually means special teams or rotational duties.

Truth be told, this article originally was to be entitled; “Mark’s Ode to Long-Snappers and Wedge-Breakers”. But alas, due to suggestions from Josh and Eric, I decided to include some of the other players that are very valuable contributors and would be welcomed additions to your respective team… even if they lack the star quality of long snappers and wedge breakers!

So without any further ado, here are my Top 10 free agents (+1) that are not necessarily BIG names, but they will definitely make your team better.

Kendial Lawrence – Edmonton Eskimos

We may as well call the pending Eskimo free agent, “Mr. 400.” All the former Missouri Tiger star did in his first full CFL season was account for 1,790 total yards on 172 touches for an over 10 yards per touch average. Lawrence registered 400 yards in each discipline of rushing, receiving, punt returns and kickoff returns. If I were Eskimos general manager Ed Hervey, I would be inking the very versatile, dynamic and valuable back-up running back to an extension.

Jason Arakgi – BC Lions

The seven-year veteran, who has spent his whole career with BC, appears to want to test the free agency waters. As one of the top special teams tacklers each and every year, Jason provides that edge and nastiness that it takes to barrel downfield without abandon on kickoff and punt coverage. Whether the former McMaster star is just looking to cash in on his value or get a little closer to home, or both, the son of CFL Alumni Nick Arakgi would help any team with his, on average, 22 special teams take downs per season.

Winston Veneble – Montreal Alouettes

After spending time with the NFL’s Chicago Bears, Veneble’s arrival in Montreal has shown that he can be an impact player and big hitter in this league. Always around the football, with a real knack for both stripping and recovering it, the former Boise State standout can play both WILL and SAM Linebacker positions as well as contribute on special teams.

Brian Peters – Saskatchewan Roughriders

With over 80 defensive stops and another 36 takedowns on special teams in only one year as a starter, Peters has shown to have the skills and versatility to be of value in the Canadian game. The Northwestern product has stepped into most every position Saskatchewan head coach Corey Chamblin asked of him, whether it be middle or WILL Linebacker and even long snapper! The technically sound and smart football player would be an excellent depth addition for most every team across the league.

Glenn Love – Calgary Stampeders

The third-year reserve linebacker is very capable of stepping in on defense when needed, but his real value is in special teams coverage. The former UCLA Bruin recorded 20 tackles on the teams as well as another eight, including a sack, on defense. Whether he gets more opportunity to play weak-side linebacker with another team, he would definitely help any team looking to add depth and get better on special teams.

Don Oramasionwu – Edmonton Eskimos

Winnipeg native Donny O suited up for only two games during the 2014 season, yet looking back at his previous five seasons in Winnipeg and Edmonton, it can clearly be seen that the former Manitoba Bison would be very valuable in rotation at the defensive tackle position. Pairing him with other national defensive linemen would give teams a significant advantage when it comes to ratio flexibility.

Alex Krausnick-Groh – Ottawa RedBlacks

The versatile national interior lineman can play both guard and centre as well as contribute as a BIG TIME receiver in specific situations. The former Dino also performs long snapping duties, making him a very valuable depth player for most any team.

Sam Hurl – Saskatchewan Roughriders

The tough-nosed, sure tackling University of Calgary product can provide solid national depth at the linebacker position, as well as spearhead and be a leader on coverage teams. Long snapping abilities unknown.

Tristan Black – Saskatchewan Roughriders

The Central Tech and Wayne State product is solid backing up at both interior linebacker positions, as well as contributing on special teams. A tremendous overall athlete, Black is not only excellent in downfield coverage but can also step in to put foot to ball should your kicker or punter go down to injury.

Aaron Lavarias – Montreal Alouettes

The athletic Lavarias had a very unique 2014 season in Montreal. He suited up and started at both defensive end and middle linebacker. The former Idaho Vandal recorded 22 tackles including 3 sacks during his six games patrolling the middle, and 19 more while rushing from the edge. His versatility and 95 total takedowns in 30 career games would be of tremendous value and impact to many teams.

Marcellus Bowman – Hamilton Tiger-Cats

My plus one is perhaps an odd name to appear on this list since the former Bomber and current Ti-Cat was a household name and coveted free agent just a couple years ago. Yet, a prolonged microsurgery rehabilitation and then ratio issues destined the former Boston College Eagle to the non-active roster. Any team looking for that extra “Boom” and tenacity on defense would do well by acquiring the hard-hitting Bowman.

I realize there will be names on this list that some will not agree with, while there will be omissions that will greatly offend others. But that is the thing about setting a list. It is not meant to be all encompassing, but more of a starting point for discussion.

So while others will get the headlines and be atop the wish lists of many CFL fans, this would be as good a place to start to make your overall team better. They may not be big-name players or coveted free agents that garner media attention, but they most definitely will make the team you cheer for better should they find their way onto your roster.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

No Excuses for Calgary Not to Repeat

With the Grey Cup in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is now in full swing. Every team faces different challenges, and over the course of the next nine days we will look at each team individually and what they need to do prior to the start of next season. Today, we look at the Calgary Stampeders.

From Week 1 all the way to the Grey Cup, the 2014 season was the "Year of the Horse". The Calgary Stampeders passed, rushed, tackled and defended their way to a 15-3 regular-season record and, ultimately, a Grey Cup championship. They displayed great coaching, great depth, great starters and great class: the formula for a world class sport organization.

Looking at their roster, the Stampeders are expected to repeat. That's easier said than done, as general manager and head coach John Hufnagel will have to be very active in the offseason, re-signing and bringing in new players to shape the roster the way he wants it. The biggest problem for most championship-winning teams is big-name players leaving for a large pay-raise after winning a Grey Cup. Going into the offseason, the Stamps had 13 free agents to re-sign. Only in Calgary does that number not seem as bad, as behind those departing starters are capable replacements. Now all Hufnagel needs to do is bring in new depth players, which Calgary relied on to bring them to the 102nd Grey Cup, and the team will be poised to make a run once again.

That said, not all starters are immediately replaceable. Free agent defensive end Shawn Lemon was more than a starter, he was a star. Lemon registered 13 sacks, also known as "Lemon Drops", in his second season with the horseshoe on his shoulder. If the philosophy is true that the secondary benefits from the defensive line and vice-versa, then Lemon must be re-signed.

Without a doubt, Calgary had the best pool of running backs in the league. Three out of the five – Martell Mallett, Hugh Charles and Jon Cornish – rushed for over 100 yards in a game. Although Matt Walter was not one of the three to rush for 100 yards in a game, despite getting far more touches than Charles, he will likely get re-signed over Charles due to his passport. Any team would love to have two national running backs dressed at a time, so Calgary will find a way to keep the born-and-bred Calgarian in the fold.

Calgary would not have been the No. 1.-ranked rushing team without their offensive line. Anchoring that line is Most Outstanding Lineman Brett Jones, who also won Most Outstanding Rookie last season. Jones is likely to head to the NFL this year yet Calgary will have no trouble replacing Jones, as 2014 first-overall pick Pierre Lavertu from Laval is expected to follow in Jones' footsteps. Stanley Bryant, a back-to-back Western All-Star, played a huge role in the Stamps allowing a league-low 26 sacks in 2014 and must be re-signed. The Stamps likely won't have to sign any lineman in free agency, but I wouldn't be surprised if they drafted another one in the first round this year.

The Stampeders are arguably even deeper at receiver than they are at running back, and since they are traditionally a run-first team, they can afford to let go of some of their free agent pass catchers. University-quarterback-turned-receiver Brad Sinopoli will likely be let go so he can pursue a larger role somewhere else, likely in Ottawa. Veteran slotback and entertainer Nik Lewis may have played his last game as Stamp, as "Thick Nik" is not the same player he used to be after suffering a torn Achilles last year. Calgary's Grey Cup win may influence Lewis to retire, as many players dream of ending their career on such a high note.

Calgary has no excuse not to repeat again in 2014. No matter what happens during the offseason, there will not be a team that is better constructed from a roster standpoint come June. On top of that, the Stamps have one of the best coaching staffs in the CFL to develop their depth players and, once again, be prepared for any injuries that come. The Stampeders can win any way they want, but even if they have an undefeated regular season but no championship, the 2015 season will be a bust. The expectations are sky-high in Calgary, but there will be no acceptable excuses for Hufnagel's group to not lift the Grey Cup in back-to-back years.

Monday 22 December 2014

Ti-Cats Look to Remain Class of the East

With the Grey Cup in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is now in full swing. Every team faces different challenges, and over the course of the next nine days we will look at each team individually and what they need to do prior to the start of next season. Today, we look at the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Times are good in Hamilton. The team has a new, world-class stadium to play in, has been to the Grey Cup in back-to-back years and has the type of stability and structure both on and off the field that many teams would envy. It truly feels like we are in a golden era of Tiger-Cats football.

But all is not perfect in Steeltown. Those back-to-back Grey Cup appearances both ended in defeat, the most recent of which in as heartbreaking a manner as any championship game loss in sports history. And the team has 17 players scheduled to hit the open market in February, nine of which started in the Grey Cup. It could be another offseason of big changes in Hamilton.

The biggest potential problem could be at receiver. Four of the five players that started the most recent Grey Cup for the Ti-Cats are not under contract for next season. Of those four, Brandon Banks and Luke Tasker are the two the team would desperately like to have back. Both have chances at the NFL – Tasker recently had a workout with the Green Bay Packers – but both have also said they want to return to Hamilton. We all know what Banks brings to the table. The guy is a threat to score any time he touches the ball, and that playmaking ability will be tough to replace. The team has Terrell Sinkfield and Quincy McDuffie, two players who won special teams player of the week honours in 2014, in house, but as good as both players are, they are not Banks. If the team loses Tasker, I could see them trying to bring back Greg Ellingson. The speculation is that Ellingson will head to Ottawa to reunite with former Ti-Cat teammate Henry Burris, but a return to Hamilton should not be ruled out. The team would obviously love to have both Tasker and Banks back, but they do have options if both players are wearing a different jersey in 2015.

Both Sam Giguère and Bakari Grant saw diminished roles in 2014, but produced when called upon. Giguère was especially effective when asked to fill in for an injured Andy Fantuz at the tail end of the season. Grant has always been a favourite of yours truly, and his willingness to get his nose dirty and do the little things has endeared to him to many Tiger-Cats. As much as having both of them back would be preferable, I could see them finding homes elsewhere.

Should the Ti-Cats need find receivers, they will find more than a few on the free agent market. John Chiles of Toronto would be an excellent addition. He has battled injuries for most of his CFL career, but when healthy he has shown the ability to make plays and would be a fine addition to Hamilton's receiving corps. S.J. Green remains unsigned, but I would be stunned if he is not back with Montreal next season. The one intriguing possibility, though not technically a free agent, is Edmonton’s Fred Stamps. Stamps, who was a forgotten man in the Eskimo offense for large chunks of the season, had his worst year statistically since his first campaign with the green and gold way back in 2007. Stamps seems resigned to not being back with the Eskimos in 2015 and if he wants to try and add that illusive Grey Cup ring to his impressive résumé then Hamilton might be the place for him.

The team is going to lose Delvin Breaux to the NFL. His two seasons in black and gold were nothing short of spectacular. He became the very definition of a lockdown corner, and with his size and speed, NFL teams must be salivating at the prospect of adding him to their defense. Obviously, Breaux would be welcomed back with open arms, but it would be truly shocking if he is not plying his trade south of the border next season. Whether the team looks in house to replace him – someone like Emmanuel Davis or perhaps moving Brandon Stewart from halfback to corner – or goes the free agent route, replacing Breaux won’t be easy, but the team will have to find a way to do it.

Breaux isn’t the only stud defensive player the team could lose. The team’s Most Outstanding Rookie nominee Taylor Reed and sack master Justin Hickman are both not under contract for next season. While Reed will best be remembered for the flag he drew to negate Brandon Banks’ potential championship-winning punt return, he had a stellar first season in the CFL. He finished fourth on the team in tackles, third in sacks and was the defensive player of the week in Week 12. It is a shame that many will boil down his whole season to just one play, because Reed truly was a difference maker in a talented Tiger-Cat linebacking corps and he should be retained.

While Hickman wasn’t the force in 2014 that he was in 2011 – he recorded just one sack in the eight games he played, including the playoffs – he still helped make Hamilton’s defense one of the league’s best in the second half of the season. The team recently inked fellow defensive end Eric Norwood to an extension, and pairing him with Hickman over a full season is an enticing proposition. Hamilton’s defensive line was one of the best, if not the best, in 2014 and having Hickman for a full season would make them even better.

Fixing the offensive line should also be a high priority. Three former starters – Tim O’Neill, Greg Wojt and Marc Dile – are all currently free to test the waters and I’m not sure any of them will be back. Wojt missed the entire 2014 season with an injury, Dile has had a hard time staying healthy for most of the last two seasons, and O’Neill is 35. Having Peter Dyakowski healthy next season will surely help, but the team needs to be better upfront. Whether they find that help in the draft or via free agency – there are some good offensive linemen available, like Saskatchewan’s Ben Heenan and Toronto’s Tyler Holmes – the team needs to make sure their offensive line is a formidable unit in 2015.

There could be a lot of changes for the defending East Division title holders, but that won’t diminish the championship expectations that the team will face in 2015. Frankly, the Tiger-Cats are the class of the East Division, and a third straight trip to the Grey Cup is not out of the realm of possibility. If they can find the right players to fill the void left by departing ones, this team will itself playing on the final Sunday in November.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Eskimos Ready for Next Season

With the Grey Cup in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is now in full swing. Every team faces different challenges, and over the course of the next nine days we will look at each team individually and what they need to do prior to the start of next season. Today, we look at the Edmonton Eskimos.

One year after finishing with an abysmal 4-14 record, the Edmonton Eskimos found their identity in 2014 under new head coach Chris Jones. Jones’ Eskimos leap-frogged six CFL teams in the standings, en route to a 12-6 record and a second-place finish in the West Division. Quarterback Mike Reilly’s team finally caught up to his talent, finishing first in numerous categories and taking some pressure off the second-year starter. With Reilly playing with a foot injury, the Eskimos lost to Calgary in the West Division Final, ending their season one game shy of the Grey Cup. Jones and Reilly are primed to take the next step in 2015 and look ready to knock off the defending Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders and get the Eskimos back to the big game for the first time since 2005.

The Eskimos don’t need to bring in any big name players or high profile coaches this offseason; all they require is another year of experience together. Edmonton hired eight new coaches last winter, including Jones, who in addition to being the team’s head coach also served as the team’s defensive coordinator, and offensive coordinator Steve McAdoo. Jones’ and McAdoo’s systems maximized Edmonton’s talents; taking advantage of Mike Reilly’s dual threat traits and their ferocious pass rush on defence. As a result, the green and gold finished No. 1 in total offense, total defence and passing yards allowed. With few key free agents on the market, other CFL teams have to be frightened of what this team can accomplish in their second year in these systems.

Edmonton has very few soft spots on their team on either side of the ball; however, some positions are slightly weaker than others. At receiver, the Eskies lack a consistent number two receiver next to Adarius Bowman. In 2014, Nate Coehoorn finished second in receiving on Edmonton and 30th in the CFL with only 483 yards and three touchdowns. While the list of free agent receivers isn’t super exciting, there are a few that have the potential to take off next season. Hamilton’s Samuel Giguère has yet to live up to the huge expectations heaped upon him when he arrived in the CFL in 2012, but has the potential to chip in 600-700 yards, which would be a solid amount if Adarius Bowman has another 1,000-yard season.

Ottawa’s Wallace Miles is also another intriguing target for Edmonton, but does suffer from inconsistency. Miles has games where he catches two touchdowns, but may have also dropped two or three passes somewhere in between. Miles may excel in a reduced role behind Bowman, and possibly Giguère, with less pressure on him.

Although Edmonton’s apparent “mediocre” offensive line helped them rank as the CFL’s third-best rushing team, they can still use some depth players. Winnipeg right tackle Devin Tyler stepped in for a handful of games late in the season and played decently, but may not be brought back with an up-and-coming offensive line next year.

Another possible depth signing could be Saskatchewan’s Sam Hurl. Hurl would fit in behind starting middle linebacker JC Sherritt, who has struggled to stay healthy the past couple of season. Other than player re-signings, Edmonton may only be signing depth players this offseason.

The one thing that can stall an up-and-coming team from taking the next step are players leaving for more money or better opportunities after having a chance to start on a once rebuilding team. Fortunately for Esks general manager Ed Hervey, that is not an issue because Edmonton is now seen as a destination spot.

Highlighting the list of the team’s potential free agents is defensive end Odell Willis. Willis is unlikely to leave Edmonton as they seem to be the only team he hasn’t had issues with his ego. An ego, however, that you deal with when a player notches 13 sacks (like Willis did last year, tying his single-season high).

Another key free agent is kick returner and running back Kendial Lawrence. Lawrence seemed to always find a way to make an impact, whether he was catching screen passes or returning kicks. Lawrence should return to Edmonton after getting plenty of touches on a good team last year.

Another defensive lineman, Don Oramasionwu, should be brought back as two Canadian defensive tackles (Oramasionwu and Eddie Steele) that can start is a huge plus for any team. The rest of Edmontons's free agents are filler players that can easily be replaced if desired.

Whether they needed to rely on the defence, run game or on Mike Reilly's right arm, the Eskimos found ways to win when the team was healthy. Another year under McAdoo and Jones will help the Eskimos get their revenge on Calgary on Labour Day and, ultimately, in the Western Final. Hervey can lay low this off-season; his Eskimos are already prepped and ready to take that next step in 2015.

Saturday 20 December 2014

Don’t Mess Around With Jim!

With the Grey Cup in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is now in full swing. Every team faces different challenges, and over the course of the next nine days we will look at each team individually and what they need to do prior to the start of next season. Today, we look at the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

What a difference a year makes.

At this time last year, the Montreal Alouettes were without a proven quarterback or anything resembling much of a coaching staff. To further frustrate the Als’ faithful, was the inaction and apparent lack of urgency on the part of general manager Jim Popp to remedy any of these situations.

‎These unresolved issues lingered well into the first few months of 2014, with many people beginning to question the veteran GM. While other teams were re-signing their free agents and acquiring new ones for the upcoming season, les Alouettes appeared more like Snowbirds on a winter hiatus while division opponents were actively moving forward.

Not that everything started off easy for Popp's Posse in 2014. The team fired offensive coordinator Rick Worman before the regular season even began, and replaced him tenderfoot apprentice Ryan Dinwiddie. After a rocky start to the regular season, especially offensively, directeur général‎ Popp parachuted in some veteran reinforcements in an effort to swing momentum in what appeared to be a losing battle not seen in the province since the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

‎Well, we all know what happened after that. One win and seven losses to begin the 2014 campaign got turned right around, as the Als finished at 9-9 and fell one win short of a making their ninth Grey Cup appearance since the turn of the millennium after losing in Hamilton to the Tiger-Cats in the East Division Final.

To quote American songwriter and balladeer Jim Croce;
You don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger
And you don't mess around with Jim
Fast forward to the present: the Als have a stable coaching foundation; new additions to the staff are just that, additions, rather than scrambling for replacements; and they appear to be solidified in many more areas than they were at the start of the 2014 campaign.

The Alouettes have been the most active club thus far in the offseason by extending and re-signing some of their potential free agents. Veteran nationals Nicolas Boulay and Eric Deslauriers will return to the Larks in 2015. Keystone veteran internationals Tyrell Sutton and Chip Cox have also been inked to deals that will see them on Crescent Street as well as in Percival Molson Stadium.

Still, some important questions remain as far as their longer than normal list of attractive veteran free agents and some tough decisions will have to be made.

Firstly, as long as it took to write this sentence is the time that it took for Duron Carter to find a home with an NFL team. No need to waste any time discussing his CFL prospects.

SJ Green is another matter altogether. I fully expect to see him back in rouge, bleu, argent et blanc for the upcoming season. But Mssr. Jim will definitely have to pay and it will be worth every penny.

Much of Brandon Rutley’s future will depend upon the health and wellbeing of another Brandon: in the name of Whitaker. If No. 2 is healthy and ready to play, that spells release for No. 33. Either way, the Alouettes are set with two solid running backs.

The one thing that Montreal lacks is that smaller, faster, quicker and shiftier inside receiver that can turn a five-yard catch across the middle into a bigger, double-digit-yard gain. They ranked near the bottom of the league when it came to YAC offensively. Current Hamilton Tiger-Cat Samuel Giguère may be an interesting, yet not cheap, acquisition for Montreal at the inside receiver spot.

But it is much of the aggressive and opportunistic Alouette defense that could be a distant memory due to free agency. Front seven players Aaron Lavarias, Scott Paxson, Bear Woods and Winston Venable along with “wily” veteran secondary standouts Jerald Brown and Geoff Tisdale are set to hit the open market. In my mind, there simply is not enough money to pay all six players to stay in la belle province. Quite frankly, each and every one of the six would be welcome additions to most any and every team across the league.

My guesses are as good as anyone’s here, but I believe that the practitioner Popp will keep his field side secondary tandem of Tisdale and Brown intact. Tackling machine Bear Woods is a must sign in order to solidify the middle of the Als’ defense which allows the others to be aggressive. That leaves both Lavarias and Venable vulnerable in the open market. Both are extremely valuable players that I believe many other teams will target, but it comes down to numbers as it always does.

Another area where Montreal needs to improve is in punt returns and the resultant field position battle. The hiring and appointing of a dedicated special teams coach will undoubtedly help in this area, yet the need for a solid punt and kick returner remains a priority.

Yet as we have seen in years past, Popp is not one to be aggressive or spend foolishly in free agency. Of course, we will all see Jim garner some attention when he picks up other teams’ discarded veterans that consensus says are all worn out and finished. Some will work out – some will not.

One thing we can be sure of is that it is not wise to tug on Superman’s cape because if the last 20 years as a personnel executive has show us anything it is that...

You Don’t Mess Around with Jim!

Friday 19 December 2014

Rough Ride Ahead for Saskatchewan

With the Grey Cup in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is now in full swing. Every team faces different challenges, and over the course of the next nine days we will look at each team individually and what they need to do prior to the start of next season. Today, we look at the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The 101st Grey Cup champions’ 2014 season was a tale of two halves. The Riders started the season 8-2 and looked primed to make a run at a repeat, but an unfortunate injury to Darian Durant saw the team stumble down the stretch and win just two games the rest of the season. The Riders started three different quarterbacks in the second half of the season, finally settling on 41-year-old former MOP Kerry Joseph, before they were eliminated in the West Division Semi-Final by the Edmonton Eskimos.

After a disappointing end to their season – and frankly, it was all undone because the team did not have a capable backup quarterback, which falls on the talent evaluators – the Riders decided not to bring back both their coordinators. They said goodbye to a ton of experience by not renewing offensive coordinator George Cortez's contact and stripping defensive coordinator Richie Hall of his duties. Whomever is tasked with replacing them – signs are currently pointing to former BC Lions offensive coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine replacing Cortez – will have big, championship-winning shoes to fill.

But finding new coaches isn’t the only challenge facing the Riders this offseason. The Riders have a league-high 23 players currently headed for free agency in February, with big names such as Tyron Brackenridge, Weston Dressler and Ben Heenan being among them. Brackenridge is a two-time CFL All-Star and will command a hefty salary, while both Dressler and Heenan might push to be the highest-paid players at their respective positions. The team inked two other pending free agents to new contracts in the past week, re-upping with Tearrius George last Friday and Ricky Foley yesterday, so the Riders might be hard pressed to find room under the cap to bring back their three other All-Star-calibre players. And on top of that, breakout linebacker Brian Peters needs a new contract. Add it all up and I don't know how the Riders are going to be able to bring everyone back. The decision might be made for them if Dressler or Heenan sign in the NFL, but with so many good players looking for raises, at least one of these players will not be wearing green and white next year.

Depending on what happens with their own free agents, the Riders might not have a lot of room under the cap to upgrade the talent at other positions via free agency. One area they drastically need to find an upgrade at is backup quarterback. Tino Sunseri is a free agent and we may have seen the last of him in the CFL; Kerry Joseph retired following the season; Seth Doege looked completely out of his element in the one game he started; and Keith Price never saw the field, so he is a complete unknown. Going into next season with a similar quarterback stable is simply not an option for the Roughriders.

The two quarterbacks scheduled to hit the open market that should draw interest from Saskatchewan are Kevin Glenn and Dan LeFevour. I expect the Riders to go hard after Glenn, but adding Lefevour must interest the Riders. Unlike Glenn, you can play LeFevour every week with special packages that take advantage of his skills, as the Ti-Cats have done the last two years, so you would probably get more each week out of signing LeFevour than you would out of signing Glenn. But signing Glenn has its advantages as well. You know what you are getting out of Glenn, and that is comforting to have in a backup quarterback. Signing either player would be an upgrade for a Rider team that desperately needs one at backup quarterback.

Brandon Banks is a free agent that would intrigue every team, but especially the Riders. He has yet to show his full potential at receiver, but he is undoubtedly the best returnman in the league (and whomever you want to say is second isn’t even close) and that is worth its weight in gold. He can flip the field in an instant, and is capable of scoring every time he touches the ball. He would add a dimension the Riders have been lacking for some time. Banks has said that if he returns to the CFL – he seems to want to give the NFL another shot – his desire is to return to Hamilton, but the Riders might want to kick the tires to see if Banks has any interest in moving west.

With a new coaching staff and what could be a mass exodus of players, including some really good ones, this Rider team could look nothing like the one that won the Grey Cup just 13 months ago. In an always tough, West Division, Saskatchewan could be in for a rough ride in 2015.

Thursday 18 December 2014

Righting the Good Ship Argonaut

With the Grey Cup in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is now in full swing. Every team faces different challenges, and over the course of the next nine days we will look at each team individually and what they need to do prior to the start of next season. Today, we look at the Toronto Argonauts.
"You are what your record says you are!"
While I agree with Hall of Famer Bill Parcells in his now famous assessment, I will say this: I believe the 2014 Toronto Argonauts were a better team than their results indicated.

I realize that injuries, and player and coaching departures ‎happen to all teams, but the Argos' ship was pirated and ransacked at this time last year. Chris Jones' move out west and subsequent plundering of his former vessel was borderline larceny. In a way I actually felt sorry for Toronto and that is coming from a Tiger-Cats Fan!

That being said, the Double Blue controlled their own fate much of the season and had every opportunity to clinch first place in the East or at least lock-up a playoff position. All of which makes missing out on the playoffs an obvious disappointment for the Boatmen and spells out that they were exactly what their record says they were.

We now know that Ricky Ray was playing with an injured shoulder during the 2014 campaign. That’s not meant to be an excuse for the team's poor performance, but obviously a 100 per cent healthy Ricky Ray at the helm makes the Argos automatically better.

Having many of their other oars repaired and in the water will also greatly help the Boatmen. A healthy Chad Owens, Andre Durie and Anthony Coombs ‎gives the league's best pure passer the weapons he needs to set sail down field and score a boatload of points.

That’s not to say that there will not be any changes to the Double Blue Offense. Five Receivers: Darvin Adams, Jason Barnes, John Chiles, Maurice Mann and Spencer Watt, are set to become free agents in February. Of those, I believe retaining Chiles and Watt is critical for general manager Jim Barker. I don’t see The Gambler Jim being tremendously active in free agency, especially at the receiver position. Barker has found a knack, and a well-deserved reputation, for finding speedsters, playmakers and game-breakers south of the border.

Changes will occur to the boys up front as three of those who were tasked with protecting their franchise quarterback are also poised to hit the open market in 2015. There will be significant interest in Tyler Holmes and it may very well take more money than they are willing to part with in order to keep him from going home to Ottawa. Having former first-round picks Matt Sewell and Scott Mitchell on the roster, and being able to step into starting roles, will help offset such a loss, while keeping the all-important ratio intact.

Offensive linemen SirVincent Rogers and Jarriel King are also slated to hit the open market this winter. While Rogers has been solid at left tackle, I see King as being more important in retaining since he has played multiple positions along the line during his tenure with Toronto.

Yet, it was not the offense or scoring that sunk the Argos in 2014. It was a very leaky defense that ranked near the bottom of every category that was the leading contributor to their swamping and ultimate submerging.

Toronto needs to improve drastically in getting after the opposition quarterback, taking the ball away and not‎ giving up so many big plays. In a sentence, the Double Blue needs more playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive back Jalil Carter is drawing attention down south as a wide receiver. If they cannot get the versatile standout to stay in the Big Smoke, his ball skills will have to be replaced. Strong-side linebacker Matthew Ware was also solid in his return to professional football. But at 32-years old, and questions about his future firefighting career, it is unclear whether he will be back in Double Blue.

Odell Willis would be a very interesting acquisition should owner David Braley be willing to loosen the purse strings. Willis has relationships with both Jim Barker, who brought him into the league in Calgary, as well as Defensive Coordinator Tim Burke and Line/Linebackers coach Casey Creehan, thanks to the time the three of them spent in Winnipeg. Toronto has had some flamboyant and controversial mayors in their past – how about another one?

Jerald Brown or Geoff Tisdale would be attractive acquisitions for a sub-par secondary. Montreal may be hard pressed to retain both of these All-Star calibre defenders once they dole out the dollars to S.J. Green and Bear Woods. Having already spent their 2014 salary cap savings on four higher-priced players – Chip Cox, Eric Deslauriers, Nicolas Boulay, and Tyrell Sutton – there might not be enough room under the cap for Brown and/or Tisdale.

However, the biggest challenge that Toronto faces may very well be the turbulent waters that they attempt to navigate going forward off the field. Continued turmoil as far as where they will play in the future needs to be remedied, and the futures of both head coach Scott Milanovich and general manager Jim Barker also have to be solidified.

With an uncertain and cloudy view on the horizon from the quarterdeck, it could be a challenge for Toronto to acquire the recognizable free agents necessary to right the good ship Argonaut.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Bombers Must Look to Recruit the Enemy

With the Grey Cup in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is now in full swing. Every team faces different challenges, and over the course of the next nine days we will look at each team individually and assess what they need to do prior to the start of next season. Today, we look at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Around this time last year, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were in the dumps. They were coming off an embarrassing 3-15 season and had cut ties with almost all of their staff. But then in came new general manager Kyle Walters, and the reshaping of the boys in blue began.

The Bombers got off to a great start in 2014, starting the season at 5-1. But then the wheels came off, and Winnipeg went 2-10 over their last 12 games, including a seven game losing streak, and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

However, the Bombers still took two steps forward in year one of the post-Joe Mack rebuild. They found a quarterback in Drew Willy, a running back in Paris Cotton, a decent receiving corps, several defensive backs and a taste of what it's like to be on top of the CFL. Many core players are in place, so now all Walters needs to do is find a few more and build around them. Turns out, those players may have been wearing green and white in Riderville this past season.

Not all players took a step forward in 2014. Many failed to capitalize on opportunities or found there was no room for them to succeed from a roster standpoint. The majority are defensive players, as I'm sure defensive coordinator Gary Etcheverry and Walters realize Big Blue needs bigger players. Etcheverry's odd scheme that included small and speedy players was solved by teams in the second half of the season. The solution was easy: give the ball to your backs to power up the middle. Walters will need to let go of his smaller defenders, as well as move on from certain underachieving offensive players in order to find success in 2015.

Time to say goodbye to

Demond Washington, defensive back
Washington is an extremely talented athlete, as was shown against Calgary when he was used as a slotback on end-arounds, but the same cannot be said regarding his game as a cover-man. Washington is 5'9”, making him useless in nickel packages and against bigger slotbacks. It's time to move on from him and bring in someone bigger.

Desia Dunn, linebacker/defensive back
Again, talent is not the issue, size is. Also at 5'9”, Dunn is no more useful than Washington as a defensive back, and at SAM linebacker, the Bombers are better off with both Johnny Sears and Teague Sherman.

Aaron Kelly, receiver
Kelly seemed like a reliable target for Drew Willy early on – he had the first 100-yard receving game of the 2014 season – but then flashed the same inconsistency that plagued him in Hamilton, and was virtually useless when going across the middle. Kelly was scratched in a handful of games near the end of the season in favour of Rory Kohlert and Cory Watson. The Bombers are better off cutting ties with Kelly and signing a receiver in free agency.

Zach Andersen, defensive tackle
Defensive line is a position I expect Walters to make drastic changes in. They need a true stud big man in middle, and Andersen, coming off a severe knee injury, is not the guy. He had flashes as a solid defensive tackle behind Bryant Turner, Jr., however I think Turner, Jr. will be pushed into a No. 2 role after Walters brings in a new lineman.

Carl Volny, running back
There are simply way too many good backup running backs out there. The Bombers could bring in one or two for a reasonable cost.

Players to bring back

A successful rebuild does not happen without certain players having breakout seasons. The Bombers had numerous players who came out of nowhere, and it's time for them to get paid.

Ian Wild, linebacker
Wild registered 73 tackles, despite missing a month due to injury. Wild is a tackle machine – he recorded an astounding 14 tackles in the 2014 Banjo Bowl – who would benefit greatly with a move to outside linebacker. This would allow Winnipeg to import a big middle linebacker to clean up the run defence. Wild is an obvious re-sign.

Matt Bucknor, defensive back
There aren't very many positions more valuable than a starting Canadian strong side cornerback. Bucknor is a solid corner who managed to play and start all 18 games after coming over in a trade with Hamilton. If Washington is in fact not re-signed, the Bombers would need Bucknor even more. No doubt, re-signing Bucknor is near the top of Kyle Walters' to-do list.

Glenn January, offensive tackle
January didn't have a good season by any means, but he was playing through injuries for the most of the year. The Bombers will need a veteran presence on a young offensive line next year, including someone who will likely end up taking over his spot in one or two seasons. A two-year deal for "The Manuary" would be ideal, but he would also probably have to accept a reduced salary from what he has been paid in years past.

Brian Brohm, quarterback
What's better than one good backup quarterback? Two good backup quarterbacks! I would like to see Robert Marve take over in games if Willy gets hurt, as teams will not have game planned for his unique skill set; however, should Willy be forced to sit out a week, Brohm would get the start as he fits the scheme better. Winnipeg needs a second drop-back passer on the depth chart, Brohm will return.

Johnny Sears, linebacker/defensive back
The Bombers need Sears' hard hitting body on the field at all times, whether he is at SAM linebacker on passing downs or free safety in cover 2 coverages. Sears was limited due to injuries in 2014, but made the most of his return late in the season.

Potential new faces in the Blue and Gold

Tristan Jackson, defensive back, Saskatchewan
Jackson is officially listed as a defensive back despite playing all of 2014 at corner, where his coverage skills have now matched his return skills. The Bombers should make room for Jackson; whether they need to move him to DB, put him ahead of Bucknor at corner or simply move Bucknor entirely to DB. Jackson is an upgrade in all phases compared to Washington, and is likely not going to be back in Riderville considering all the free agents they need to sign.

Ben Heenan, offensive lineman, Saskatchewan
If Weston Dressler stays, Ben Heenan goes. The Riders can afford to let him walk as Dan Clark, should he be re-signed, is capable of replacing him. In Winnipeg, Patrick Neufeld would be pushed to right tackle, as Mathias Goossen will take over newly re-signed Chris Greaves' spot at right guard while Heenan will replace Neufeld at guard.

Shawn Lemon, defensive end, Calgary
Winnipeg's greatest weak point was the defensive line, as the team finished last in sacks in 2014. Lemon would boost that stat tremendously, as he finished tied for second in the league with 13 sacks. In Winnipeg, Jason Vega struggled all year opposite Greg Peach at defensive end and no depth players stepped up. Lemon would transform Winnipeg's pass rush immediately.

Korey Williams, receiver, Saskatchewan
Williams showed flashes of potential after starting receiver Taj Smith went down with a broken collarbone. A tall wide receiver could help Winnipeg's red zone woes. Williams would be a huge upgrade for the Bombers at receiver.

Trevor Guyton, defensive tackle, Saskatchewan
Guyton was mainly a backup for the Riders behind Tearrius George in 2014, but he still managed to record 36 tackles and three sacks in a limited role. Guyton would be a good replacement for Andersen, and would help with the Bombers' run defence problems.

If Walters can sign even three of the above players, and add some depth players, expectations in Winnipeg will skyrocket.

Other offseason "To-Do's" for Winnipeg would be to fire both defensive and offensive coordinators before it's too late. George Cortez and Richie Hall, both formerly of the Roughriders, would be great fits for Winnipeg. Gary Etcheverry's and Marcel Bellefeuille’s schemes certainly slowed down the Bombers in 2014. There is a good group of players in Winnipeg, so to maximize the roster changes must be made to the coaching staff.

While it may be unrealistic to expect a Grey Cup championship in 2015 – when the game will be played at Winnipeg’s Investors Group Field – expecting a playoff appearance, and at least one victory, isn’t unreasonable.

Fans can no longer blame the team’s failures on Joe Mack, as Winnipeg has cut ties with a vast majority of the coaches and players who have ever had his name of their contract. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers now rest in the hands of Kyle Walters and his coach, Mike O'Shea. The success or failure of the franchise rests solely on their shoulders.

This winter, the Bombers should look to steal some players from one province west to make their Grey Cup aspirations that much more realistic.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Getting Out of The Red and Into The Black.

With the Grey Cup in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is now in full swing. Every team faces different challenges, and over the course of the next nine days we will look at each team individually and what they need to do prior to the start of next season. Today, we look at the Ottawa RedBlacks.

Anyone with any sense of logic knew that the Ottawa RedBlacks would be hard pressed to win many games in their inaugural season. While many people's predictions of six or more wins ‎was a little too optimistic, the two victories they did manage had to be considered a huge disappointment.

That is not to say that the 2014 season was a failure for the CFL's newest franchise. A brand new stadium, sold out games, vibrant crowds and competitive performances were a welcomed highlight in the return of professional football to the capital region.

Yet, the challenges will only get harder and expectations will ‎only get bigger going forward. With the shine and good feeling of the inaugural season in the rear-view mirror, the RedBlacks will have to make significant strides in their 2015 on-field product.

Ottawa did not capitalize sufficiently during last December’s Expansion Draft. Some of it by poor decisions, while some of it due to bad luck. The Kevin Glenn-Henry Burris mess actually worked out well for the RedBlacks, as they turned the draft pick acquired from the BC Lions into solid rookie starter Antoine Pruneau. Trading the No. 1 pick in the draft to Calgary for John Gott was also a wise choice as they received a valuable, veteran offensive lineman that was able to start from Day 1.

Injuries to quarterback Thomas DeMarco, defensive linemen Moton Hopkins and Jonathan Williams, running back Chevon Walker and receiver Carlton Mitchell saw them get very little production value from five of their eight import round selections. That was both unfortunate and simply not good enough for a team trying to make an impact in their opening season.

Yet, some odd decisions also prevailed. Selecting an injured Joe Eppele, as well as Marwan Hage and Rory Kohlert (both of whom had expressed indecision about even reporting to the team) were definite head-scratchers. Hage would retire and Kohlert would re-sign with the Blue Bombers, both never playing a down for Ottawa.

‎Before any talk of free agent acquisitions, if I were general manager Marcel Desjardins, I would start my off-season by sitting down with veteran quarterback Henry Burris and seriously discuss restructuring his contract. The reported $475,000 that is tied up paying an aging and no-longer-elite quarterback has to be amended or eliminated. Otherwise the Rouge et Noir will never climb out of the basement.

Smilin' Hank is not a half-a-million dollar quarterback in this league anymore, and any money the team could get from restructuring Hank’s deal could be used to get what he needs most: weapons. If he were smart, Henry would become part of the solution rather than remain part of the problem.

The good news along the banks of the Rideau Canal is that the RedBlacks do not face a lot of potential free agent losses in 2015. As far as their pending free agents, Joe Eppele and Jason Pottinger are expected to retire while Moton Hopkins appears to be testing the waters south of the border.

Alex Krausnick-Groh is valuable, as he can play multiple positions along the line of scrimmage and also has long-snapping capabilities. The Calgary native may get some attention from other teams around the league in need of Canadian depth up front, but his best opportunity to start remains in Ottawa.

It becomes interesting when evaluating receivers Miles Wallace and Dobson Collins, the RedBlacks second- and fourth-most productive receivers respectively. I don’t see Collins having many suitors elsewhere and if given the opportunity to re-sign in Ottawa, I would think he takes it.

The same question exists regarding Wallace Miles. While I do believe he would garner attention from other teams, his 2014 campaign was not stellar as he battled with the dreaded “dropsies” for much of the season. He simply did not capitalize upon the opportunity presented him and that could hurt him as he seeks a new contract.

A team that finished 2-16 obviously has a ton of holes to fill – basically, Ottawa needs help everywhere – but realistically all of their needs cannot be address in one off-season, so Desjardins will have to prioritize.

The RedBlacks three highest priorities should be at receiver, offensive lineman and defensive end. They simply need guys to catch the ball, protect the quarterback and get to the quarterback.

Ottawa native Tyler Holmes would be an excellent acquisition for the RedBlacks. The former first-round pick of the Argos is only 26 years of age and just entering the prime of his career. Holmes would prove to be a solidifying leader along the offensive line for many years to come should he leave the double blue and head home.

At receiver, the one prospect the RedBlacks should target is Hamilton’s Greg Ellingson. Ellingson had difficulty cracking the Tiger-Cats’ lineup in 2014 after returning from injury and a change of scenery could do the former Florida International and Arena League star some good. Durability is an issue, but when healthy, he can be a difference maker. He has a pair of the best hands to come north of the border in years, and is more elusive and quick than people think. His connection with Henry Burris – they were teammates with the Ti-Cats in 2013 – should not be overlooked.

Here is a big, bold prognostication – And they get no bigger or bolder than in the form of one Nikolas Lewis! Yes! Nik Lewis. Geronimo Jones. Simon Sleepwalker. Lewis Mangenius. Nikelo Dymes. Dexter Dundidit. I think there is still mileage left on his tires, but I do not believe it will be with the Stampeders. Why not Ottawa? Reuniting “Thik Nik” with Smilin’ Hank would provide solid veteran leadership and a level of toughness and edge that the RedBlacks could desperately use, especially on offense.

Finally, some assistance is needed on the defensive side of the ball, especially in getting to the quarterback. Former Ti-Cat & Roughrider Brandon Boudreaux could finally find a home and the stability needed to get his once blossoming career back on track. I believe he would come in at a cap-friendly number and provide some much needed pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

I also would not count it out of the realm of possibility to see Ricky Foley make his way back across the country and trade in his green and white for some red and black. Saskatchewan has a grain silo full of free agents to re-sign and not everyone will be brought back. Pairing Foley with Justin Capicciotti as National bookends or in a rotational platoon would most definitely help with ratio issues elsewhere on the roster.

The 2015 RedBlacks season will prove to be crucial in its franchise history. The sweet feelings of the inaugural season will turn sour if they cannot get out of the Red and into the Black.

Monday 15 December 2014

Lulay's Health, Coaching Hire Key to Lions Restoring their Roar

With the Grey Cup in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is now in full swing. Every team faces different challenges, and over the course of the next nine days we will look at each team individually and assess what they need to do prior to the start of next season. Today, we look at the BC Lions.

The BC Lions are in a weird place: they are not bad enough to need a full rebuild, but they are not quite good enough to be considered a true Grey Cup contender. They reside in that murky area known as mediocrity. Changes were inevitable this offseason, and the Lions started making them very soon after their season ended.

Tired of the diminishing returns – 2014 marked the third straight one-and-done playoff run (the Lions last playoff win was their 34-23 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 99th Grey Cup in 2011) and the third straight season of fewer wins than the year before (13 in 2012, 11 in 2013, nine in 2014) – the Lions fired head coach Mike Benevides after their embarrassing 50-17 loss to Montreal in the East Division Semi-Final. A lot of names were bandied about as Benevides’ replacement – Jeff Garcia, Orlondo Steinauer, Paul LaPolice, Danny Barrett, Dave Dickenson – but reports surfaced last week that the Lions were focusing on former University of California head coach Jeff Tedford. While nothing is finalized, Tedford does seem to be the front runner, and if he is the guy tapped to replace Benevides, the move looks like a good one. He has CFL experience, having played in the league from 1983-1988 and coached from 1989-1991, and could look to add former Tiger-Cats head coach George Cortez to his staff. The two worked together at Cal from 2002-2005, with Tedford as the head coach and Cortez as his offensive coordinator. Adding Tedford and Cortez would help get the Lions’ offense that struggled mightily in 2014 back in gear.

But no matter who they hire as coach or OC, the biggest issue facing the Lions is Travis Lulay’s health. Lulay has started just 12 games over the past two seasons and getting him back under centre is a must if the Lions are to get back atop the West Division. The former MOP and Grey Cup MVP is entering the final year of a lucrative contract extension he signed prior to the 2013 season and if he is to stay in BC, he will need to show that his injuries are behind him and play close to a full season.

The Lions don’t have much to worry about in regards to signing their own free agents. They entered the offseason with a league-low five players scheduled to hit the open market in February. The only one who merits consideration as a priority re-sign would be receiver Ernest Jackson. Jackson had a breakout 2014, finishing the season with 49 catches for 813 yards and three touchdowns (all career highs). A two-week stretch in the middle of October saw Jackson catch 16 passes for 344 yards and two scores, and helped Jackson be named the offensive player of the month for October. In only his third season in the CFL, Jackson showed that he has the tools to become a bona fide go-to receiver and he is the one player the Lions should not let get away.

The Lions are parting ways with a number of veteran players – the team announced that Kevin Glenn, Dante Marsh, Jamall Johnson and Khalif Mitchell won’t be back next season – and will need to replace them. A player the team could target to replace Marsh, is 2014 CFL All-Star Brandon Smith. Smith finished 2014 third in the league in tackles with 85, while also intercepting two passes. Smith will be sought after should he hit the open market, but BC could be a nice landing spot for him.

The Lions might also use free agency to beef up their offensive line. The cream of the crop is Saskatchewan Roughriders tackle Ben Heenan, but Greg Wojt, Tim O’Neill or Joe Eppele could also help out the Lions by adding a the always valuable veteran, Canadian presence. They might also consider bringing in Calgary running back Matt Walter. Running back isn’t an area of concern for the Leos – the team has Andrew Harris, Stefan Logan and Keola Antolin all under contract for next season – but picking up talented Canadians is never a bad thing. And while it wasn't an issue last year, it would also ease ratio concerns should Andrew Harris get injured once again.

The Lions will be looking to make some changes to improve a team that last season went 9-9 and lost in the East Division Semi-Final, but I don’t expect them to make too much noise in free agency. A handful of role players and a starter or two would be a great haul for the Lions. But no matter what the Lions do in free agency, getting the right head coach – and if it is Tedford, that would be a great hire – and getting Lulay healthy are the two things that will most determine the Lions’ fate in 2015.

Thursday 11 December 2014

Where Have All the Stars Gone?

When I hear or read various media-types talk about the lack of “Star” quality in today’s game, I generally dismiss them as curmudgeons that all too often hearken back to the good old days of the CFL. I will admittedly get a little upset thinking that they do not give the players of today enough credit, and are stuck in their romanticism with the names of the past.

I decided to take a closer look into it and found – much to my surprise I might add – the grumpy, old sourpusses may actually be onto something!

We all know that offensive output league-wide was down this past season. When you look at the last 10 years, Net Offense Yards Per Game in 2014 was down roughly nine per cent from the average, while it is off almost 18 per cent from the high of 769 yards per game that was achieved in 2008. Over the last 10 years, the trend, while downward, is not as dour as one might think. The average contraction of offensive output is just shy of one per cent per season.

But what really jumps out when looking at the various numbers is the dramatic decline in members of what I will call “The 1,000 Yard Club”.

As you can see illustrated above, the number of running backs or receivers that gained more than 1,000 yards rushing or receiving in a particular season has been in an almost free-fall descent. In fact, the rate of decline of 1K rushing or receiving members is far greater than the decline in overall Offensive Output Per Game.

In 2014, the league saw only ONE running back cross over the 1,000-yard threshold (Calgary’s Jon Cornish). On average, over the last 10 years, there are usually 3.6 rushers that achieve the 1,000-yard milestone. For those of you playing along at home, that is more than a 250 per cent drop in “Star” or “Elite” running backs. If measured from the top year of 2009 – when seven running backs were able to chew up more than 1,000 yards – that represents a 600 per cent decline in the number of 1,000-yard rushers.

Now, hold onto your hats everyone because this is about to get even bumper. The decline in 1,000-yard receivers is even more dramatic – almost staggering even. In the most recent season, there were three receivers that accumulated more than 1,000 yards (Edmonton’s Adarius Bowman, Winnipeg’s Clarence Denmark and Montreal’s Duron Carter). The average over the last 10 years, you ask? Ten! Yes, that’s what I said … TEN! And that is just the average. If you once again measure from the top year of 2005 – where 19 pass catchers exceeded 1,000 yards – that is an astonishing decline of more than 500 per cent in “Star” or “Elite” quality receivers.

What would explain or account for such a decline and disparity?

What has happened to the Thousand Yard Club?

Where have all the “Stars” or “Elite” Players Gone?

Some would say that it is due to the ineptness of offenses league wide. Yet, as previously noted, Offensive Output Per Game has not declined at the same rate as Members of the 1,000 Yard Club.

Others will say that it is due to expansion and the subsequent watering-down of talent league wide. While this may explain the drop between 2013 and 2014, it does not explain the declines experienced over the previous nine seasons.

How about rules and regulations? Perhaps. Changes to way the game is officiated often results in changes to player performance and the on-field product. But if you really think back on it, the majority of the rule changes and applications have been implemented to benefit the offensive side of the ball.

Are defenses getting better? This may actually carry some attribution weight when it comes to explaining the disappearance of many “Star” or “Elite” offensive players. But again, better defenses only explains the most recent past as Total Offensive Output has basically been flat on average over the last 10 years.

Running-Back-by-Committee Theory? While this explains the decline in 1,000-yard rushers, it does nothing to help resolve the mysterious disappearance of the 1,000-yard receivers.

So, are we just going through a temporary down cycle where there is a lack of “Star” or “Elite” Players or is there something else at play here?

My personal belief is that it is the way coaches have changed the way the game is planned, strategized, managed and ultimately played.

Dink and Dunk. Go through your reads and progressions. Hit the check-down. Spread the ball around. Play within yourself. Manage the game.

While this does not sound all that illuminating or controversial, I do feel that it has a significant and worrisome undertone that I personally believe we are witness to occurring in today’s CFL.

The CFL is becoming a league of coaches and moving away from a league of Stars. Gone are the days of improvisational players. Those guys with that certain je ne sais quoi! They have taken player creativity out of the game by micro-managing every aspect of the game.

Coaching systems and strategies are much more dependable, predictable and reliable than any individual player. They are complex and constrained systems executed by practiced participants. That is what the league and the owners ultimately are looking to achieve: dependable, predictable and reliable results.

But is that what the fans want?

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The Steinauer Situation Shows Why We Don't Jump to Conclusions

Orlondo Steinauer will not be the next head coach of the BC Lions.

For Tiger-Cat fans this is great news. Steinauer really grew into his role in his second year in Hamilton, producing the league’s best rushing defense and turning the team into a turnover-forcing machine. Another year of experience should make the defense even better in 2015.

But apparently there are some who are irked as to why Steinauer is not in consideration for the Lions head coaching gig: namely, that when the Lions called to ask permission to speak to Steinauer, the team did not make him available.

Under normal circumstances, this would be worrisome. It is very rare for a team to deny one of their assistants a chance to move up in the coaching ranks. I cannot think of one instance where this has happened (if you do recall one, please correct me in the comment section).

However, after some excellent newsgathering by Drew Edwards, we find out that things aren’t so cut and dry as they seem. Here are the two most important pieces of information we found out thanks to Drew’s work:
  1. Steinauer signed a long-term contract extension with the team this season that will keep him with the Ti-Cats until 2016
  2. The extension came with a no-movement clause
So while some were quick to rip the team, the front office, the coach, and pretty much anyone associated with the Tiger-Cats, it seems as if this is more complex than just the team saying no. Steinauer signed this new deal knowing full well what it entailed. He gained stability at the expense of being able to advance. He knew the trade-off when he signed and it seems as if he thought stability mattered more.

Head coaching opportunities are going to continue to come Steinauer’s way if he consistently performs like he has in his first two seasons with the Tiger-Cats. While I know that one day he will likely be a head coach of one of the other teams, I am glad that he will be sticking around for a little while longer.

Also, I have seen some Ti-Cat fans posit that the Cats are setting up a “Calgary situation” where Steinauer will stick around here as the team’s defensive coordinator until Kent Austin is ready to hand the reigns over to him ala John Hufnagel and Dave Dickenson. While that seems reasonable, here is why I don’t think that is what is happening: Kent Austin is 51, John Hufnagel is 63. I don’t see Austin leaving the sideline anytime soon. So while I grant that it is possible, I don’t see it as probable.

So while some killed the Tiger-Cats in the hours after the initial news broke, it sure looks like no one did anything underhanded. So perhaps the next time we hear rumours about how teams are behaving, maybe we should just take a deep breath and wait for the facts to come out before we start jumping to conclusions.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Hamilton's RB Conundrum (UPDATED)

Having an overabundance of talented players isn’t usually seen as a problem, but the Hamilton Tiger-Cats find themselves in just that position with their stable of running backs. Hamilton has two legitimate bell cow backs, and one guy who if given the opportunity might be one. While it is a great problem to have, it is still, nonetheless, a problem.

Going into 2014, the Ti-Cats felt they had their running back situation all settled. Reigning East Division rookie of the year C.J. Gable was going to pick up where he left off in 2013. Gable finished with 1,380 total yards (782 rushing, 598 receiving) and 12 total touchdowns, and established himself as a true, multi-threat runner last season. Gable looked set for superstardom after a tremendous rookie campaign.

Like every good team, the Ti-Cats went out and brought in guys to back up Gable, but the hope and belief was that Gable would continue the upward trajectory that hastened former starter Chevon Walker's exit from Hamilton (Walker was selected by the Ottawa RedBlacks in last winter's expansion draft).

But things don’t always work out as planned. Gable spent more games off the field than on in 2014, and a number of running backs were used to fill the hole Gable left, most notably Mossis Madu and Nic Grigsby. Madu is a similar style of player to Gable and was the first off the bench to replace him. Madu played well, but he too couldn’t stay healthy. Enter Grigsby.

Grigsby’s story is one that is well known. He started the year in Winnipeg like a ball of fire, but numerous factors led to Grigsby asking for and receiving his release from the Bombers in mid-October. Just days later he was signed by Hamilton, and while he got off to a slow start, he settled in nicely near the end of the season. In back-to-back games against the Montreal Alouettes, in the regular season finale and the East Division Final, Grigsby rushed for 93 yards in each contest and scored three times.

So now the Tiger-Cats will enter the 2015 season with three running backs on their roster – two of which are former division All-Stars – that are all capable of contributing significantly, if not outright starting. So what do they do?

One thing they cannot do is play all three. At times, CFL teams are loathe to dress two running backs, let alone three. So putting all three on the game-day roster just isn’t an option.

They could try and trade one to get some help elsewhere – like, say, the offensive line – but that is difficult to do. Most teams seem pretty set at running back, plus the old adage that running backs are a dime dozen rings especially true in the CFL.

They can’t cut one of them because all three have proven to be valuable contributors and to just let one free would be foolish. Another team would absolutely pick any of the three up if they were released, so parting ways with any of them and getting nothing in return is simply not an option.

The pecking order, at least from this corner, is Gable, Grigsby, Madu, so if the team was going to dress two, it would be Gable and Grigsby. What also aids in that is how Gable and Grigsby have different styles of play. Gable, who truly has few flaws in his game (aside from staying healthy), is a more explosive players, while Grigsby is the guy who will put his head down and pound the rock for those tough, inside yards (think Avon Cobourne). That’s not to say Gable can’t or won’t do that, just that Grigsby has shown a willingness and an adeptness at doing so. So a thunder-and-lightning approach in the backfield could be the course the Ti-Cats chart in 2015.

But where does that leave Madu? Honestly, I do not know. Stashing him on the practice roster isn’t an option, but neither is dressing him. Madu is in a weird spot because he is talented enough to play – he showed that in 2014 – but he’s not as good as the two guys ahead of him on the depth chart. Madu may be the odd-man out, but that doesn’t mean he should be out of Hamilton.

A lot can change between now and the start of the season, but as of this writing, the Tiger-Cats look to have the one problem teams probably don’t mind having: too much talent (at least at the running back position.

OK, so when the CFL released their list of upcoming free agents, Nic Grigsby was listed as one of Hamilton's. This surprised me. I had no idea that Grigsby had signed for just the remainder of the 2014 season. Obviously this changes what Hamilton may or may not do at the running back position. If Grigsby goes elsewhere, I have doubt very seriously that C.J. Gable or Mossis Madu will be in a different uniform as well. But if the team re-signs Grigsby, is it possible that Gable could be let go? Definitely something to watch during the offseason.