The Toronto Argonauts might be very good this season. Historically good.
You know what that means, Argos fans. You may once again be called upon to surrender the ample space you’re typically afforded while cheering on your Boatmen. Soon, imaginary BMO Field ushers could be asking you to slide over to allow Joe Hockey, sporting his freshly dusted-off 1996 Argos varsity-style jacket, and John Q Sports Fan in his faded Raghib Ismail-era Radically Canadian “Our Balls are Bigger” t-shirt, to squeeze their posteriors onto the double blue bandwagon.
For fans who haven’t been clocking the hourly transactions the Argonauts have made since dropping their 14th miserable game of the season to the post-seasonally challenged Hamilton Tiger-Cats almost 16 months ago, things have changed.
Actually, almost everything has changed.
The team is still owned by MLSE, but that’s about it. General Manager Michael Clemons and Vice President of Player Personnel John Murphy were only at their posts for the last few games of 2019, but it was enough time for them to see that a thorough house-cleaning was in order.
Vince Magri, who has proven himself as the Director of Canadian Scouting, and trajectorally-positive linebacker coach and Argos legend, Kevin Eiben were among the few who survived the purge, along with an offensive lineman or two and a smattering of defensive backs.
The first phase of the rebuild began with bringing in potential offensive genius Ryan Dinwiddie to be
Toronto’s 59th head coach. Dinwiddie has no head coaching experience and has never even served in an official sense as a coordinator, but the former Calgary QB coach has been raved about in CFL circles, and every player he has coached speaks very highly of him, on and off the record. The coordinators he brought in are equally green. Offensive Coordinator and QB Coach Jarious Jackson received modest reviews in the same role for BC, and Defensive Coordinator Glen Young has only worked as a positional coach in the CFL since leaving his assignment as Defensive Coordinator for the NCAA Division III Brockport Golden Eagles in 2015.
Due to the cancelled 2020 season, the Toronto brass have had two full off-seasons to rebuild this team, a huge advantage when starting from scratch. The squad they had ready for 2020 was decent, given the extent of the rebuild, but there were still holes in the ship. The team they’re preparing to send out there in 2021 looks like it could be excellent. Money seems to be no object for the MLSE-funded Argonauts, though Clemons said recently the team is well within the restrictions of the salary cap they inexplicably violated in 2019. They have brought in dozens of CFL legends, exiled NFL players, and athletes with huge upsides who have been overlooked down south due to height, weight, or arm length. Each position on the team has been overhauled and is an improvement on 2019.
After spending a year believing former Blue Bomber Matt Nichols would be Toronto’s quarterback for the foreseeable future, Nick Arbuckle can now be penciled in at pivot. Nichols is a proven CFL starter, but it certainly appeared from the word go that Arbuckle was expected to join Dinwiddie in Toronto after the two saw so much success together when Bo Levi Mitchell went down in Calgary. In the chaos of last year’s free agency frenzy, Ottawa somehow got their filthy little mitts on him, but now he and Nichols have swapped places and order has been restored. Arbuckle, widely expected in CFL circles to be the next big thing, will probably be the least proven starter on Toronto’s roster once everything gets decided, but no one knows him better than Dinwiddie, and he’s all-in on the Sun Belt standout. Antonio Pipkin, Nick Tiano, and Kelly Bryant were all brought in to compete for the backup job. Pipkin is exciting to watch and an easy guy to cheer for, but he just doesn’t have the accuracy to push Arbuckle. Tiano is an accurate passer with a great arm, but he lacks the speed to get out of trouble. Bryant is a sensational playmaker and the most high-profile of the three having played at Clemson and Mizzou, but his deep ball accuracy could improve.
Of all the positional group makeovers, the offensive line’s had the fewest moving parts. Of the 12 offensive linemen currently on the roster, five were brought in as free agents and five are recent draft picks. The remaining two players are returning starting tackles Isiah Cage and Toronto-born Jamal Campbell, both of whom will likely keep their jobs, at least to start the season. They’ll bookend ex-Roughrider guards Philip Blake and Dariusz Bladek, with former Winnipeg centre Cody Speller tucked in between. There seems to be a belief in the front office that a number of their recent draft picks are in position to make a real push for playing time, so this could change. The 35-year-old Blake, also Toronto-born, is the only lineman possibly heading into his final CFL contract. With the rest of the unit still in their 20s, this could be a position of strength for the Argonauts for years to come.
Veteran FB Declan Cross is the only familiar face in the Toronto backfield. The fact that highly-skilled FB Regis Cibasu was allowed to depart for Montreal is a sign the organization has faith that 2020 draft pick Dion Pellerin is ready to fill his shoes. The battle for starting RB, meanwhile, should be a popcorn-worthy affair. Former BC Lion, John White IV is coming off his first 1000-yard season in an injury-riddled eight-year career interspersed with highlight reel moments. White is joined by 2nd round NFL draft pick Bishop Sankey, 5th round NFL draft pick Karlos Williams, and 4th round NFL draft pick Kenneth Dixon. Like White, Sankey, Williams, and Dixon all experienced success, but were unable to stay on the field due to reasons unrelated to their unquestionable ability to play football. With all the hype surrounding these star running backs, don’t sleep on A.J. Ouellette. The Ohio native joined the Argonauts at the end of the 2019 season and looked promising in limited action.
The Argonauts have an astonishing 21 receivers under contract and none of the three returning players were regular starters in 2019. The 18 newly-acquired wideouts range from being undrafted small school rookies to CFL All-Stars to high-profile NFL players, but all are exceptionally talented. While ESPN will only write about Pittsburgh Steelers playoff hero Martavis Bryant, NFL 1st round draft pick Kendall Wright, NFL 4th round draft pick Vince Mayle, and five-year NFL veteran Geremy Davis, you can’t get closer to a sure thing than CFL All-Star Eric Rogers, former CFL Rookie of the Year DaVaris Daniels, and proven Canadian superstar Juwan Brescacin. Speed-merchants Daniel Braverman, Craig Rucker, and Chandler Worthy each have a shot at earning a starting spot, as does Canadian Dejon Brissett who wasn’t drafted second overall last year to sit on the bench. It’s impossible at this stage in the offseason to predict how this will turn out, but multiple roster cuts from this powerhouse positional group will start somewhere else. The Argos probably just signed another receiver while you were reading this paragraph.
Of the 15 defensive linemen on the roster, 13 are new to the team. On paper, this is the best defensive line in the CFL. It’s not even close. 3rd round NFL draft pick Khyri Thornton, defending Grey Cup champion Drake Nevis, and Incredible Hulk’s lifting buddy Fabion Foote will almost certainly anchor the interior. The versatile Jhaustin Thomas and soon-to-be fan favourite Ronald Ollie may also push for time inside. The talent level at defensive end is ridiculous. Six-time CFL All Star Charleston Hughes and two-time CFL All-Star Odell Willis will unquestionably be challenged by 1st round NFL draft pick and Super Bowl champion Shane Ray, and five-year NFL veteran Eli Harold, not to mention proven CFL starter and Grey Cup champion Cordarro Law. Expect the Argonauts to keep as many of these defensive linemen as they can, allowing them to show multiple fronts and rotate their aging stars.
The Argonauts have 18 defensive backs on their roster, but that’s not unusually high for February, especially given that the team’s cover backer will likely come from this group. Returning starters Alden Darby and Shaq Richardson, along with four-year NFL speedster Robertson Daniel will get the nod somewhere in the defensive backfield, but it’s hard to say where. Darby is a fantastic free safety and Daniel is a strong cover backer, but NFL draft picks James Sample and Mike Tyson are good enough to be on the field and can probably only play those two spots. It’s hard to imagine 5th round NFL draft picks Crezdon Butler and Treston Decoud not finding a place, but we’re quickly running out of room, and we haven’t even addressed Canadians Matt Boateng, Arjen Colquhoun, and Robert Woodson who all have CFL experience.
This positional group might still be a work in progress with only two veteran linebackers under contract in Bear Woods and Cameron Judge. Judge is a young star and a ratio-breaker to boot. Woods has been excellent at times in the past, but at 34 and with an injury history, expect the Argonauts to bring in reinforcements in the coming days. Rookie Jack Cassar might one day fill those shoes, but is this season too soon? Travis Feeney is an interesting player, but they can’t be counting on him as a sure thing either. At 6’4”, 230lbs, he’s got stunning straight-line speed but he’s never been able to stick anywhere despite being selected in the 6th round of the NFL draft for his impressive measurables.
All-Star Boris Bede is the only kicker or punter listed on the roster, so at the moment it looks like he’ll serve in both roles as he has before. An average punter in terms of distance, Bede can really hang it up there, limiting big play returns. As a kicker, Bede is streaky, but his huge leg will be a welcome sight for Argos fans after watching the slightly more accurate Tyler Crapigna come up short on multiple 50-yard field goal attempts in 2019. The two were traded for each another last February. Veteran long snapper Jake Reinhart returns for another season. He’s very good. The rule with long snappers is when you find a good one, you hang on to them until they retire. With Pinball Clemons at the conn, the Argonauts certainly haven’t forgotten to address their return game. Terrell Sinkfeld and Chandler Worthy will probably be favourites heading into camp, but expect this to be a great competition. Jawill Davis and Daniel Braverman should also be in the mix for both return jobs. Dejon Brissett may get a look returning kickoffs, and the Pinballish Craig Rucker will certainly be given opportunities to return punts.
That’s where things stand some three plus months before preseason is scheduled to begin. The Argonauts have won two Grey Cups in the past 10 years, but they haven’t had this much talent on their roster in ages.
So how did a first-time head coach and two inexperienced coordinators lure so many high-profile free agents to Toronto? Maybe it’s the Pinball effect. Maybe other teams weren’t as interested in spending money in these uncertain times. Maybe experienced players know enough to be as excited about this young coaching staff as the organization seems to be. Maybe the opportunity to play in a world class city like Toronto seems like a great way to end a successful football career. Whatever the reason, they’re here, and this football team looks more than equipped to compete for their 18th Grey Cup Championship. It means that - at least for this year - you’ll have plenty of company as Toronto sports fans flock once again to the Argonauts bandwagon. And you’ll welcome them, of course, as you should. It’s the Canadian thing to do.