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Three-down renown! A 2021 CFL season preview

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Oh, yeah – it’s back, baby! Our neighbors to the north are getting geared up for another season of CFL football!

It’s great to have the league back this year; the CFL lost last season to the pandemic, making 2020 the first year in over a century not to feature a Grey Cup championship contest. Seriously – it’s the only time other than the stretch from 1916-1919 that there was no Grey Cup game. Never forget that there’s a ton of history behind the Canadian game – just as much (if not more) than our own NFL.

Now, this season is going to be a little different. Pandemic circumstances have led to a bit of a truncated schedule; ordinarily, the league would have kicked off a couple of months ago. Instead, the season’s first game will be on August 5 and feature the reigning champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers hosting the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the squad they defeated in that 2019 Grey Cup matchup.

We’re looking at 14 games played over 16 weeks, with the regular season coming to an end on November 20. The playoffs will begin on November 28, culminating in the 108th Grey Cup, scheduled to be played on December 12 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario.

The Canadian game is definitely different than what we’re accustomed to seeing in our own NFL, but it’s those differences that make it fun to watch. It’s a fast-paced and wide-open game, one that offers its own energy and excitement. If you want to see for yourself, there will be plenty of opportunity thanks to ESPN’s broadcast partnership with the league; it might be ESPN+ or a broadcast arm, but keep an eye out and you’ll get your chance – just as an example, that Winnipeg/Hamilton tilt will be on ESPN2.

Are you ready for some (Canadian) football? Let’s look ahead at the 2021 CFL season.

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(x = playoff team)

East Division

Hamilton Tiger-Cats – 10-4 (x)

Toronto Argonauts – 7-7 (x)

Montreal Alouettes – 4-10

Ottawa Redblacks – 3-11

Tough to pick against the defending division champion. And that 2019 team was a monster, going 15-3 and tearing through the league. The Ti-Cats have a ton of talent on their squad, led by quarterback Jeremiah Masoli (though with backup Dane Evans, Hamilton might have the most enviable QB situation in the CFL). They’re also stacked at receiver – Brandon Banks had the best 2019 of any wideout, catching 112 balls for over 1,500 yards and 13 scores, and Bralon Addison caught 95 of his own. Throw in a dominant defensive front – linemen Ja’Gared Davis and Dylan Wynn both reached double digits in sacks – and all-everything linebacker and DPOY candidate Simoni Lawrence and you’ve got a recipe for a repeat trip to the championship – one scheduled to be played on their home field.

The drop-off from Hamilton to the rest of the East is significant. I’m picking Toronto to be the best of the rest, although it could just as easily be one of the other two teams. I like quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson to have another big year – he threw for over 4,000 yards in 2019, along with 26 TDs – although his receiving corps has turned over significantly. Still, having a guy like Ricky Collins Jr. to throw to (78 catches for over 1,100 yards with Edmonton) can’t hurt. The Argos also added 1,000-yard rusher John White into the mix; he caught nearly 50 passes as well. On the defensive side, Toronto added an all-timer of a pass rusher in Charleston Hughes, whose league-leading 16 sacks in 2019 gave him 130 for his career. There are a lot of new faces for the Boatmen, but hey – at least they’re talented faces. Toronto could surprise.

I’m genuinely not sure how good Montreal will be. The oddsmakers like them more than I do; I just don’t see them with quite enough talent here to make any real noise in the division. Vernon Adams Jr. had a breakout year at QB, throwing for just shy of 4,000 yards. He passed for 24 scores and ran for a dozen more – tying for the league lead in the latter. If he can keep it up and stay healthy, he’ll carry the team. The Als’ next-best offensive weapon is running back William Stanback, whose 2019 was top-notch – he was one of just five players to rush for over 1,000 yards and did so with the fewest carries of any of them, while also adding 33 catches for another 300-plus yards. There’s some talent on the defense – defensive back Patrick Levels is a standout – but for the most part, there’s just not much on that side of this roster.

Bringing up the rear, we have the Ottawa Redblacks. Again, I’ll note that with the lost season, it’s tough to tell just how good any of these teams will actually be, but there’s little doubt that Ottawa is lacking in some departments. They’ve brought in Matt Nichols to play QB; we’ll see how he gels with a new team, particularly after leaving the Grey Cup champs. They’re very young at receiver as well – Nate Behar has caught just a handful of passes in the CFL and Terry Williams is brand-new to the league, and that’s the one-two receiving tandem. The Redblacks look weak at running back as well. On the defensive side, there are a couple of decent holdovers – defensive lineman Avery Ellis is solid, and of course, there’s the University of Maine’s own Sherrod Baltimore – but in the end, it looks like it’s going to be a long season in the nation’s capital.

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West Division

Calgary Stampeders – 10-4 (x)

There’s no disputing that Calgary isn’t the force that it was a few years back. That said, no one has gone broke betting on the Stampeders to succeed over the past decade-plus. They still have Bo Levi Mitchell, who remains one of the best passers in the league. He put up nearly 3,500 yards in just 11 games in 2019; if he can stay healthy – a not-insignificant if – he’s as good as they come. The pass catchers might not be where they were, though Hergy Mayala has a shot at making a big leap in his second pro season. Running back Ka’Deem Carey is another one who could step up – he rushed for 422 yards in just eight games in 2019 and caught 15 passes; just double those numbers and he’s a top-tier back. They still have DB Dashaun Amos, one of the better coverage guys in the league, as well as veteran linebacker Cory Greenwood. The roster’s depleted, but with Mitchell, it’s touch to pick against them.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers – 9-5 (x)

The reigning Grey Cup champs may well deserve to be at the top of this list. Zach Collaros was a hero for the Blue Bombers against Hamilton, site of his greatest success, and looks poised to continue the strong showing he gave at the end of 2019. It doesn’t hurt that he’ll have Andrew Harris carrying the ball. Harris led the league in rushing for the third consecutive year in 2019, going for 1,380 yards while catching 70 passes for another 529 – all while losing two games to suspension. There’s no one better right now. Darvin Adams was hurt for much of 2019, but if he rounds back into form, he’s a great primary target in the passing game. On the defensive side, they’ve got reigning defensive player of the year Willie Jefferson, whose 12 sacks were joined by 16 passes defensed – most ever for a lineman – and six forced fumbles. This is a GOOD team.

Saskatchewan Roughriders – 9-5 (x)

This is another solid squad. Chris Fajardo is back under center; he led the league in passing in 2019 with just over 4,300 yards. He has Shaq Evans to thank for a good deal of that production; the dynamic receiver pulled in 72 passes for 1,334 yards. That 18.5 average yards per catch led the league among players with more than four receptions. Kyran Moore caught 78 balls for 996 and six TDs. Oh, and William Powell just happens to be one of the CFL’s best backs – he went for over a thousand yards and tied for the league lead with 12 rushing TDs; he also made 37 catches. The defense took a couple of big hits when Charleston Hughes went to Toronto and linebacker Solomon Elimimiam retired, but there’s still some juice here – I like lineman A.C. Leonard and defensive back Nick Marshall to both take steps forward.

Edmonton Elks – 8-6 (x)

Ah, the Elks. My first CFL love, and the name change just makes me love them more. People much smarter than me seem to like Trevor Harris as a potential Most Outstanding Player candidate – putting up 4,000 yards and 18 scores in just 13 games will do that. He’s the only QB to average over 300 passing yards per game in 2019. All-star wideout Derel Walker joins the team, giving Harris an elite target – 65 catches, 1,040 yards, six TDs last time out. Tevaun Smith had a good rookie season; expect him to build on that success this time out. Oh, and Greg Ellingson – he of the 500 career catches (including 86 in 2019) – is still here. Defensively, it’s a little dicier. Mike Moore can rush the passer and there are some decent coverage guys, but it sure looks like the offense is going to have to score a LOT of points to stay in these games.

BC Lions – 3-11

And finally, the BC Lions. I’ll be frank – it sure doesn’t look like BC’s year to me. Which of course means that they’ll probably go deep into the postseason. Tough to count out any team that has Mike Reilly under center – while he didn’t manage his fourth-straight 5,000-yard-plus passing season in 2019, he still put up solid numbers. And he’s got another year with Bryan Burnham, a chance to further develop a connection that already led to 100 catches and nearly 1,500 yards in their first go-round together. Lemar Durant broke out a bit in 2019, with 57 catches and 810 yards. It looks like the Lions will see what they’ve got with young RB Jamel Lyles; he hasn’t played much, so we’ll have to just wait and see. In the defensive backfield, T.J. Lee and Garry Peters are a couple of legitimate ballhawks, but that’s about it on D. They’ll score some, but they’ll give up more.

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 August 2021 13:54

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