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2014 CFL Western Preview - Edmonton Eskimos

From The Sports Network

By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate Editor

Edmonton, AB (SportsNetwork.com) - The Edmonton Eskimos have fallen far in a short time since reaching the West Division finals in 2011.

After just a 7-11 record and an early exit from the playoffs in 2012, the squad dropped to a mere 4-14 last season, which included an eight-game losing streak that lasted from mid-July to early September. Edmonton managed to end the campaign on a high note with a 30-26 triumph over Saskatchewan, but its record was still the worst in team history.

The downfall of the once-elite franchise -- one that set a North American professional sports record by qualifying for the playoffs in 34 consecutive years between 1972 and 2005 -- forced the hand of upper management to release head coach Kavis Reed from his contract after he amassed just a 22-32 record in three seasons.

Looking for a return to its glory years, the team will now pin its hopes on Chris Jones, who has spent the past 10 seasons as one of the CFL's top defensive coordinators with Montreal, Calgary and Toronto. After Edmonton finished seventh in the league (second-to-last) in scoring defense in 2013, allowing 28.8 points per game, the hope is that Jones's defensive mind-set will help bring a new philosophy and attitude to the locker room.

The defense wasn't the only troublesome aspect of the Eskimos' play last season, as they also ranked seventh in the league in scoring offense, putting up only 23.4 ppg. On the surface, Mike Reilly appeared to have a stellar season in his first year as the starting quarterback after serving as a backup for three seasons in British Columbia. Reilly ranked second in the league in both passing yards (4,207) and touchdowns (24) while showing plenty of versatility by adding 709 rushing yards, but he completed less than 60 percent of his passes and hurt his squad by throwing the second-most interceptions in the league (18). Reilly helped the offense generate plenty of yards, but will need to cut back on his mistakes if he wants to lead the Eskimos into the red zone more often.

Even with his shortcomings, Reilly did more than enough in his first season to secure his spot as the starter, but that didn't stop the team from making a splash in the offseason by bringing aboard former West Virginia standout QB Pat White. The former second-round pick by the Miami Dolphins back in 2009 has bounced around different organizations over the past few years and never completed a pass in the NFL, but he's still only 28 years old and his elite dual-threat ability at WVU (6,049 passing yards, 4,480 rushing yards, 113 total TDs) could prove valuable to Jones's offensive plan of attack.

Fred Stamps, Reilly's favorite receiving target from a year ago, returns for his eighth season in Edmonton. The slot back led the CFL in receiving yards with 1,259, his fifth straight 1,000-yard campaign, and his 11 TDs were a career high. His 68 receptions were the fewest he's recorded since 2008, but as proven by his elite yards-per-catch (18.5), he's a top-flight playmaker who shows no signs of slowing down.

The Eskimos have no shortage of receiving threats to complement Stamps. Adarius Bowman (44 receptions, 697 yards, five TDs), Nate Coehoorn (49 receptions, 646 yards) and Shamawd Chambers (42 receptions, 465 yards, four TDs) are all experienced returnees who built up a strong rapport with Reilly a year ago. However, some newcomers will have to step up in the wake of a couple of key departures in Marcus Henry (34 receptions, 535 yards, TD) and Cary Koch (42 receptions, 516 yards, four TDs).

Edmonton was one of the more effective rushing teams in the league a year ago. Reilly's ability to move out of the pocket proved crucial in moving the chains, as he accounted for an outstanding 8.4 yards per carry, and running back Hugh Charles was also effective, rushing for 605 yards and three scores on 112 carries (5.4 ypc). However, Hughes was released at the end of camp, which would appear to open the door for John White to take the starting role after rushing for 260 yards in his first year of professional football. White played his college ball at Utah and was the first Ute to ever rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

Although the offense appears cohesive, it won't account for much if the defense can't hold up its end of the bargain, and you can bet an improvement on that side of the ball will be the top priority for Jones in his first year.

The new-look unit will need to adjust to a lot of turnover, as it will be without last season's top two tacklers, T.J. Hill and Damaso Munoz, as well as impact defensive backs Chris Thompson (44 tackles, four INTs) and Donovan Alexander (37 tackles, INT).

The pass-rush figures to be the strength of the defense once again, with Marcus Howard, Odell Willis and Almondo Sewell combining for 27 sacks last season. The linebacking corps has been shuffled around, but Rennie Curran (70 tackles, two INTs) and J.C. Sherritt (46 tackles) hope to bring experience and production to the middle.

Patrick Watkins brings some much-needed help to the secondary, coming over with his former head coach from Toronto where he registered 43 tackles and five interceptions a season ago. Pairing Watkins with Aaron Grymes, who briefly impressed during an injury-shortened campaign, gives the Eskimos a formidable cornerback duo, but they are left needing to rely on inexperienced safeties following the offseason departures of Thompson and Alexander.

There's some reason for optimism in Edmonton this season, as it boasts a potential franchise quarterback with strong weapons around him and an eager first-year coach desperate to fix a porous defense, but don't expect too much in Jones's first year. An improvement upon last season's disastrous record seems likely, and the team may even be able to sneak its way back into the playoffs, but Jones and company will need a little more time to build the Eskimos up into a legitimate contender.

FACTS & FIGURES: Division - Western. 2013 record - 4-14. Playoff result: None. Stadium - Commonwealth Stadium. Capacity - 60,081. Colors - Green, yellow and white.

06/23 11:23:11 ET


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