With the 2019 Canadian Football League season set to kick off Thursday, football reporter Gerry Moddejonge offers his bold predictions on where things will shake out after an off-season of roster rejigging from coast to coast:
1st Place: B.C. Lions (11-7)
For general manager Ed Hervey, it was an offseason of bold moves. With the retirement of the legendary Wally Buono, this is now Hervey’s team. The former Eskimos GM selected a highly respected young coach, DeVon Claybrooks, to replace Buono, brought in the ultimate superstar in Mike Reilly, added excitement by signing Duron Carter and, of course, jettisoned a legend in Solomon Eliminian.
Although not as high profile, don’t overlook the valued additions of cornerback Aaron Grymes and three starting-calibre Canadians in guard Sukh Chungh, tackle Brett Boyko and wideout Lemar Durant.
The cherry on the top was securing the venerable Rich Stubler as defensive co-ordinator, who, admittedly, will have to squeeze every ounce of talent out of a not-so-great front seven. There are legitimate concerns whether the Lions have enough talent on defence, but with Reilly at the pivot, tying for first in the West is achievable.
2nd Place: Calgary Stampeders (11-7)
The Stamps have won 12 regular-season games or more in each of the last seven years, so picking them to win 11 this time around might look foolish. But while the southern Alberta club is very capable of repeating as Grey Cup champions, there’s no denying the magnitude of their off-season losses: Claybrooks, Alex Singleton, Micah Johnson, Ja’Gared Davis and Ciante Evans.
But winners are winners, and the Stamps are the gold standard. Will that history of excellence continue? Wouldn’t it be something if it comes down to an all-Alberta Grey Cup, with the Eskimos grinding their way in as the crossover Eastern champion versus the hated Stamps? Crazier things have happened in the CFL.
3rd Place: Winnipeg Blue Bombers (10-8)
Last year, terms like ‘good’ and ‘close’ were often applied to the Blue Bombers. With the addition of elite pass rusher Willie Jefferson and explosive receiver/returner Lucky Whitehead, will this finally be the season to change those terms to ‘great’ and ‘arrived?’
Some may think so, but I’m predicting another close-but-no-cigar season. Offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice can’t be a happy man after the club blocked him from interviewing for the head job in Saskatchewan, where he was viewed as the strong favourite. If the talented Bombers fall short once again, that will make it 29 years since the Bombers last hoisted the Grey Cup Trophy back in 1990.
To put that in perspective, the Edmonton Oilers were still a dynasty then.
4th Place: Edmonton Eskimos (10-8)
Last year, nine wins left the Eskimos watching the playoffs. But there are reasons for optimism in Alberta’s capital in 2019. Head coach Jason Maas is a year wiser and GM Brock Sunderland did a super job scooping quarterback Trevor Harris in free agency.
Following the beloved Reilly won’t be easy, of course, but Harris and his Ottawa sidekick, receiver Greg Ellingson, should produce a ton of big plays in green and gold. On the other side of the ball, do not underestimate the value of Maas securing Phillip Lolley as defensive co-ordinator.
The return of Lolley, who was an integral part of Chris Jones’ Grey Cup staff, is easily worth a win or two. And even if 10 wins means fourth place in the West, that could turn out to be a really sweet spot, since crossing over to the East could provide the easiest path to the Grey Cup outside of winning their own division, which is a long shot.
5th Place: Saskatchewan Roughriders (8-10)
Everyone who expects quarterback Zach Collaros to stay healthy for the majority of the 2019 season please raise a hand? Now, everyone who thinks the Roughriders will be a playoff team if backup Cody Fajardo plays quarterback, please raise a hand.
I don’t see a single hand.
Many in the CFL fraternity seem to hold first-year head coach Craig Dickenson in high regard. It’s pretty neat to have two brothers serving as head coaches in a nine-team league. But,unlike his younger brother, Craig doesn’t have Bo Levi Mitchell taking snaps.
It might be a non-playoff season for the Saskatchewan faithful, but their beloved Riders have enough talent to stay close to .500. In order to be competitive in the West race, they must win the majority of their eastern games. They open on the road in Hamilton and in Ottawa, so we will learn a lot in June.
1st Place: Hamilton Tiger-Cats (11-7)
They say timing is everything in life, and first-year Ticats head coach Orlondo Steinauer is living proof.
Late last season, Hamilton had won six of eight and appeared to be Grey Cup bound. Then injuries to stars like Brandon Banks, Jalen Saunders and Luke Tasker crushed their momentum. Healthy and playing in weakened East Division, Steinauer takes over a team loaded in talent, including at quarterback.
Former Eskimos arm Jeremiah Masoli was runner up for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 2018, and his backup, Dane Evans, looked exceptional in preseason going 19 for 25. The importance of depth at quarterback can’t be overstated. Overall, if they stay healthy, the biggest question for these Ticats is which team they’ll play in the East Division final.
2nd Place: Toronto Argonauts (9-9)
Like the Ticats, the Argos have two quarterbacks they feel good about: James Franklin and McLeod Bethel Thompson. And, also like the Ticats, they have a new coaching staff. Corey Chamblin, who was honoured as CFL Coach of the Year in 2013 with the Riders, returns to the CFL from the University of Arkansas.
The 41-year-old Chamblin put together a veteran CFL staff, including Jacques Chapdelaine and Dan Dorazio. The Argos should be well coached, no doubt, but talent-wise they are probably still a year away from challenging. That said, look for them to be much improved from last year and to impact both divisional races with some entertaining wins along the way.
3rd Place: Ottawa Redblacks (6-12)
Few coaches have done a better job than Rick Campbell in recent years. But this year, the son of the legendary Eskimos head coach and executive Hugh Campbell, is fighting with one hand tied behind his back.
The Redblacks were destroyed in free agency and they lost highly touted offensive co-ordinator Jaime Elizondo to the XFL late in the off-season. Former Eskimos return man Winston October, only in his second year of coaching, will try to fill Elizondo’s big shoes with help from newly added running backs coach, Joe Paopao.
It won’t be fun without the combination of Harris, Ellingson and SirVincent Rogers. Even with a respected defensive co-ordinator like Noel Thorpe, this team will be a far cry from the club that has gone to back-to-back Grey Cups. The best news Ottawa had this offseason is that Montreal is still in the East.
4th Place: Montreal Alouettes (5-13)
You have to feel for Als fans. The club traded two No. 1 draft picks and two starters to Hamilton for quarterback Johnny Manziel and offensive linemen Landon Rice and Tony Washington. Now, a few months later, Johnny Football and Rice are gone.
So, too, are longtime owners, the Wetenhall family. Veteran defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler wisely took a plane to Vancouver, accepting the same position with B.C.
And, just when you thought it couldn’t get more tumultuous, GM Kavis Reed announced the shocking news that head coach Mike Sherman had been fired and replaced by offensive co-ordinator Khari Jones — one week before the opener.
Sometimes players respond to adversity, and Montreal has several respected vets, including John Bowman, Henoc Muamba, Tommie Campbell, Cierre Evans and Washington in their locker-room. Ultimately though, for Montreal to surprise it will take a combination of four things: For Khari Jones to emerge as a strong young leader, for Antonio Pipkin to emerge as a consistent young quarterback, for first-year defensive co-ordinator Bob Slowik, who has no CFL experience, to be a quick learner of the Canadian game, and for dual kicker Boris Bede to have a big year.
Special teams are often the difference in close games, and Montreal must win several close games to have any chance of making the playoffs. With an opener in Edmonton followed by back-to-back games with Hamilton, the early schedule is challenging. If Khari Jones can somehow lead his team to a 2-1 start, the Als could quickly end the negativity. On the other hand, an 0-3 start would just add more fuel to the already blazing dumpster fire.
On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge
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