Als, Lions look like early faves

JIM BENDER -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 11:11 AM ET

The wheeling and dealing has been done right up to the brink of CFL training camps as each squad seeks that extra ingredient that will make it a Grey Cup contender come November in Vancouver. Or, in some cases, at least playoff-worthy.

Some of the top marquee players hired themselves out to opponents of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers over the winter with the likes of quarterbacks Henry Burris and Ricky Ray making the most noise.

As camps open with two-a-days tomorrow, here is a preview of the squads the Bombers will be facing this season:

EAST

MONTREAL ALOUETTES

2004 record: 14-4, first. Lost East Final to Toronto.

WHAT'S SET: QB Anthony Calvillo returns, still behind one of the best offensive lines in the CFL. Head coach Don Matthews figures he could boast five receivers with 1,000-yard seasons after sporting four the year before. Calvillo still has two of them -- Ben Cahoon and Kwame Cavil catching passes. Defensively, Montreal still has one of the best units on the circuit.

WHAT'S NOT: The Als acquired receiver Terry Vaughn from Edmonton and added Darnell McDonald to offset such huge losses as Jeremaine Copeland (Calgary) and Thyron Anderson (NFL). They also signed free agent running back Michael Jenkins to bring some stability to their ground game.

OUTLOOK: It is unlikely that Vaughn, McDonald or anyone else will make Als fans forget Copeland or Anderson. The revamped secondary looks fragile. Yet, they will still battle Toronto for first -- again.

TORONTO ARGONAUTS

2004 record: 10-7-1, second. Won Grey Cup.

WHAT'S SET: Just about the whole darn roster that beat B.C. to win the Cup, led by ageless QB Damon Allen. His offensive weapons still include RB John Avery and receivers Tony Miles and Arland Bruce III. Don't forget KR Bashir Levingston. Toronto's strength lies with a defence led by LB Kevin Eiben.

WHAT'S NOT: The Argos were still waiting word on whether Michael Bishop will return as the backup QB, which would leave the Boatmen in deep doo-do should Allen get injured again.

OUTLOOK: Once again, the Argo fortunes rest on the health of Allen, who returned from injury to lead them to Grey Cup glory last year. The defence could easily take them to the top even sans Allen so Toronto should be fighting for first with Montreal.

HAMILTON TIGER-CATS

2004 record: 9-8-1, third. Lost semifinal to Toronto.

WHAT'S SET: Surprise, surprise, Danny McManus will be back to lead the 'Cats after watching them chase first, Doug Flutie, then Ricky Ray during the winter. McManus will still have Troy Davis at RB -- unless he holds out -- and such receivers as Craig Yeast, D.J. Flick and Archie Amerson. He will still work behind a solid O-line. Defensively, Hamilton still has LB Donnavan Carter, S Rob Hitchcock and DL Johnny Scott.

WHAT'S NOT: The Tabbies lost the CFL's two top sack masters when DE Tim Cheatwood defected to the NFL and they dealt DE Joe Montford to Edmonton. The Ticats also added WR Chris Brazzell (B.C.).

OUTLOOK: That defence, which was shaky at times last season, looks to be weaker. So, Hamilton could find itself struggling for a playoff spot with Ottawa and/or a western side looking to cross over.

OTTAWA RENEGADES

2004 record: 5-13, fourth.

WHAT'S SET: Not Much. QB Kerry Joseph's back is healthier, along with RB Josh Ranek, WR/KR Jason Armstead and SB Pat Woodcock. Defensively, the Renegades will be hitching their hopes on LB Gerald Vaughn, DL Jerome Haywood and, uh, S Kyries Hebert.

WHAT'S NOT: At least the franchise will have new owners willing to spend a little cash. Listing a few of their top player losses alone tell what Ottawa can expect this season: OL Mike Abou-Mechrek (Winnipeg), LB Kelly Wiltshire and DL Tim Fleiszer (Edmonton), QB Darnell Kennedy and DB Anthony Malbrough (Calgary) and WR Demetrius Bendross (unsigned).

OUTLOOK: All those changes will be unsettling, despite some dangerous offensive weapons. If the defence can show dramatic strides, Ottawa may threaten Hamilton for third in the East.

WEST

B.C. LIONS

2004 record: 13-5, first. Lost Grey Cup game to Toronto.

WHAT'S SET: At least we know that Dave Dickenson will start the season at QB, thanks to the toe injury to Casey Printers. Though the Leos won't know who it will be at the end of the campaign. They have one of the CFL's best receiving corps, which includes Geroy Simon and Jason Clermont. B.C. still boasts one of the best sets of linebackers, anchored by Barrin Simpson.

WHAT'S NOT: The Leos lost WR Chris Brazzell (Hamilton) and DB Bo Lewis (Ottawa) but few other starters.

OUTLOOK: Head coach/GM Wally Buono blamed his defence for the Cup loss and he will get little argument here. Yet, it seems like little has been done to upgrade it. Trouble is still brewing at QB, so the Lions do not have a lock on repeating at first.

EDMONTON ESKIMOS

2004 record: 9-9, second. Lost semifinal to Saskatchewan.

WHAT'S SET: Let's see, QB Jason Maas is still there but will be the backup at best and WRs Ed Hervey and Jason Tucker remain. The defence will be anchored by LB Singor Mobley.

WHAT'S NOT: The semifinal loss cost Tom Higgins his job and assistant Danny Maciocia was promoted. Some will tell you that Calgary won the free agent derby but the Eskimos landed more impact players, namely QB Ricky Ray (NFL), CB Davis Sanchez (Montreal), DE Joe Montford (Hamilton) and LB Kelly Wiltshire (Ottawa). That's not to mention QB Khari Jones (Calgary), S Will Loftus (Montreal) and OL Sandy Annunziata (Toronto). Their additions should more than make up for the losses of: SB Terry Vaughn (Montreal), RB Mike Pringle (retired) and KR Winston October (unsigned).

OUTLOOK: 'Frito Ray' will spark this squad and still has weapons at the ready. However, the Eskies do not have an experienced tailback to replace Pringle and that defence will take some time to come around. Should battle Saskatchewan and Calgary for western playoff spots.

SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS

2004 record: 9-9, third. Lost West Final to B.C. in OT

WHAT'S SET: Nealon Greene will be the starting QB with Kenton Keith at RB and Matt Dominguez as the Green 'Riders made a conscious effort to stick with their own. Also returning are the likes of LBs Reggie Hunt and Jackie Mitchell, as well as DL Nathan Davis and a solid secondary that includes LaDouphyous McCalla.

WHAT'S NOT: Well, QB Henry Burris rode out of town to Calgary and was joined by DB Lawrence Deck. They lost DL Phil Gibson (Montreal) and OL Charles Thomas (NFL). Roughies added QB Marcus Crandell (Calgary) to give Greene some security and SB Ibrahim Tounkara (Hamilton). Only Burris is a major change.

OUTLOOK: Saskatchewan still has one of the best defences in the league. But, if opponents can stop the run -- no easy task -- the offence becomes ineffective, especially sans Burris. Will battle Edmonton and Calgary for a playoff spot.

CALGARY STAMPEDERS

2004 record: 4-14, fifth.

WHAT'S SET: LBs John Grace and Brian Clark return to anchor what was a surprisingly solid defence last season. Offensively, WR Nik Lewis is coming off a rookie-of-the-year performance.

WHAT'S NOT: The Stamps have welcomed new owners who are not afraid to throw money around and a new head coach in Higgins. That philosophy landed the likes of QB Henry Burris (Saskatchewan), WR Jeremaine Copeland (Montreal) and LB Kelly Wiltshire. They also added QB Darnell Kennedy (Ottawa). The Stamps, however, did lose WR/KR Wane McGarity, DBs William Fields and Omar Evans (all to Winnipeg) and QB Khari Jones (Edmonton).

OUTLOOK: Burris, if he can stay consistent, should rejuvenate an offence that boasts both Copeland and Lewis. That's still a pretty big if, and we aren't sold on their running game. It will also take the secondary a while to adjust to all the changes back there. If Smilin' Hank can do it, then Calgary could compete for at least a crossover playoff spot.


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