Sunday, July 10, 2011

Zeroth Down: The Edmonton Eskimos? quest for glory

Moving on with our Zeroth Down CFL preview series, here's a look at the Edmonton Eskimos. They're coming off a 7-11 season, but one with two distinct halves; a first part where they hit perhaps the lowest point in franchise history, and a promising second part where they hired new general manager Eric Tillman, overhauled the roster and almost made the playoffs. In the offseason, they continued the dramatic changes with new head coach Kavis Reed (pictured at right above with Tillman) and further roster makeovers. Now, they're looking for consistency and a return to the franchise's glory days, building off their strong finish to the season. Will they be able to do it, or will they slump back towards where they were at the start of last season?

Back To The Future: Ron Estay (pictured at right going for a hit on Montreal's Jimmy Jones in the 1975 Grey Cup; future CFL commissioner, Alouettes' president and senator Larry Smith (36) is the intended target of Jones' pass) was a key member of the Eskimos' defensive line from 1973 to 1982, leading them to five straight Grey Cups during that era.

After a successful college career at LSU, Estay was selected by the Denver Broncos in the eighth round of the NFL Draft in 1972. Later that year, he headed to B.C. and became a member of the Lions. He spent one year there before heading out to Alberta and joining the Eskimos, where he became a fixture on their defence for almost a decade, serving as the defensive captain from 1973-1976 and tying the league record with five sacks in a single game in 1974. He played in nine Grey Cups in total, winning six (one in 1975, then five straight from 1978 through 1982). Estay was selected as a league all-star in 1977 and 1980 and a West all-star four times (1973, 1977, 1980, 1982). He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2003 and added to the Eskimos' Wall of Honour last year.

Estay's story is quite relevant to today's Eskimos from a couple of perspectives. First, the "Alberta Crude" defensive line (Estay, David Boone, Bill Stevenson and Dave Fennell) was a crucial part of Don Matthews' famed defence, and the defensive line looks to be a potential strength of these Eskimos too. Import Greg Peach is a promising defensive end and one of only three returning defensive starters in their current positions (T.J. Hill will still start, but at safety instead of linebacker), while rookie Canadian defensive tackle Ted Laurent, acquired in the second round of the supplemental draft, is looking like a steal . Second, though, Estay was part of the legendary Eskimos teams in the late 1970s and early 1980s that prided themselves on their reputation and their culture of winning, something Tillman and Reed are looking to re-establish. We'll see if this year's defensive line can be part of that.

Offence: Despite the substantial offseason turnover, the face of the Edmonton offence is still the same one they've had for most of the last decade; quarterback Ricky Ray. Ray didn't have the greatest season statistically last year, throwing for only 3,565 yards and putting up 16 interceptions against just 11 touchdowns while completing 64.4 per cent of his passes, and the Eskimos put up only 382 points last year, ahead of only Toronto. Those numbers weren't entirely Ray's fault, though.

The Eskimos had issues on the offensive line in 2010, and Ray (pictured at right in an October game against Hamilton) was frequently hit; he also played through significant rib injuries down the stretch and missed some games, and he didn't have the greatest receiving corps either. There was speculation the team might go in a different direction in the offseason with Ray's contract expiring, but they elected to re-sign him through 2013, suggesting that Tillman's still quite confident Ray can get back to his top form. Ray's only 31, so age isn't a particular worry here, and he does seem still capable of putting up good numbers if he gets the support he needs from his receivers and linemen. The question is if he'll get that support.

The running game has potential as well, but it also carries questions. First among those questions is who's going to get the carries. Import back Daniel Porter looked great down the stretch and Arkee Whitlock's a proven contributor, but the Eskimos also have the option of going with Canadians Calvin McCarty and Jerome Messam (recently acquired via trade after his falling out in B.C.), which would provide ratio benefits. All have promise, though, and it's always better to have too many backs than too few. However, the offensive line is still being juggled thanks to injuries, and that could cause issues for whoever's carrying the ball. A bright spot is that Patrick Kabongo lost an amazing 76 pounds in the offseason, though, and with his still substantial size and increased agility, he could become an incredible interior blocker.

Rating: Four controversial NCAA quarterbacks.

Defence: This is one area where I see significant problems for Edmonton. The Eskimos conceded a league-high 545 points in 2010, and although this defence will look substantially different with only three returning starters, that doesn't mean it will necessarily be a lot better. The defensive line may be a strength, as mentioned above, but the linebacking corps and secondary are quite untested. It's also worth pointing out that strong defences tend to rely on cohesion as much as individual talent, and it's going to take the Eskimos a while to find that cohesion. Their last pre-season performance a 37-22 thumping by Calgary, suggests problems as well; Henry Burris and Drew Tate picked the secondary apart to the turn of 23 completions on 32 attempts for two touchdowns and 282 yards without an interception, while the Stampeders' collection of running backs gained 133 yards on 25 carries, an average of 5.32 yards per carry. Of course, pre-season contests don't necessarily mean a lot, but the early signs for the Eskimos' defence are not good, particularly early in the year as they struggle to gel as a unit.

Rating: Two dancing Commonwealth Stadium workers.

Special teams: There are questions here as well. In the kicking game, it appears both non-import Derek Schiavone and recently-acquired import Damon Duval are sticking around for the time being, but who's handling what job is a bit of an open question. Schiavone hit 83.3 per cent of his field goals last year, while Duval hit just 72.3 per cent, but Duval does have an impressive track record. Duval's punting was notably better last season, too; he averaged 45.0 yards per punt, while Schiavone picked up just 40.3. Cover teams have some issues, and the return game isn't settled yet either, but it does have some promise; both Brandon James and Ray Fisher have shown explosive ability. We'll have to wait and see if they can translate into in-game results.

Rating: Three financial losses.

Totals: 10 points out of 15

Greatest strength: The passing game. Ray can still play, and he's got a cast of receivers with solid speed and potential. If they can live up to that promise, and if the revamped offensive line can protect him, they could put up some numbers.

Potential weakness: The linebackers. Rod Davis (#40 in the picture at right, watching Hill and Chris Thompson celebrate Hill's pick-six in a Sept. 23 game last season) is the only returning starter in the linebacking corps. He was impressive at times last year, especially down the stretch, but he'll have to find consistency for them to succeed; that may be harder this year, as he also has to adapt to working with a new pair of linebackers. The linebacking corps hasn't looked great to date in the preseason, so they'll have to improve for the Eskimos to find success.

Season prediction: It's not all about this season for the Eskimos, as they're a young team looking to turn things around for the long term. We do sometimes see quick turnarounds in the CFL, like Toronto last year, but Edmonton is in much more of a rebuilding mode. They've got a largely new roster with mostly young players, and it's going to take time for them to adjust to the CFL and gel as a unit. With that in mind and the strength of the rest of the West Division, I think the Eskimos will go 5-13 this year and miss the playoffs. They should hopefully be able to continue developing their talent and improving for future years, though.

Remember to stop by 55-Yard Line Thursday at noon Eastern for a season preview chat with some special guests!

Amber Heard Veronica Kay Mýa Natalie Imbruglia Patricia Velásquez

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