With the season opener less than two weeks away, the Toronto Argonauts are really starting to look like a good football team. Despite the fact that this team has almost as many new faces as an expansion team, there are units that look like they’ve been playing together for years. But late arrivals to camp and a litany of nagging injuries have delayed the development of others positional groups. As we head into our final week of practices at Alumni Stadium on the University of Guelph campus, here’s how I would rank the performance thus far of each positional group.
This group has been unbelievable. I’m including the SAM backer spot even though it’s often populated by defensive backs. What’s incredible about this group’s performance is I haven’t seen projected MAC and WILL starters Henoc Muamba and Cameron Judge on the field together much and they’re still dominant. How? Because Dexer McCoil is a machine. He has filled in at both MAC and WILL and looked as good as Muamba and Judge. His natural position is probably SAM, though Chris Edwards looks so good there we could end up seeing McCoil play halfback. If all four of these players are healthy on opening day, there is a tough decision looming.
Jack Cassar, Trevor Hoyte, and Jordan Moore have all had moments too. There’s a pretty clear gap between these three and the first string unit, but I wouldn’t be concerned about sending any of them out there if needed.
Oh yeah, and Bear Woods just arrived.
I appreciate the importance of special teams, but I’m not a special teams nerd per se. That said, I spend more time watching Boris Bede at practice than any other individual player. I can’t look away. Maybe I’ve been desensitized to good special teams play after the disaster that was 2019, but the way Bede hammers the ball is jaw-dropping. To put it in perspective, Toshiki Sato is excellent. If he were our only option at kicker and punter, I’d be thrilled. But Bede is in a different tier. I’ve seen Bede kick countless field goals from 60 yards out. I’ve seen him boom 50-yard punts with so much hang time the entire coverage team has formed a five-yard halo by the time the ball is fielded, and I saw him punt five straight balls from midfield that went out of bounds inside the five. He is a deadly weapon the Argos will use several times a game.
To no one’s surprise, Jake Reinhart’s long snaps have been on point. I love that Reinhart, at the age of 31, still gets in hundreds of snaps every practice. Jack Cassar and Trevor Hoyte have also been working on their long-snapping with special teams coordinator Mark Nelson almost every day after practice, and they’re both getting pretty good. FB/WR Sam Baker can apparently long snap too, but I haven’t noticed him take any reps.
McLeod Bethel-Thompson has been getting first team reps as the holder, and he, Bede, and Reinhart seem to have good chemistry. I like seeing Bethel-Thompson stick around after practice to hold for Bede after everyone else has hit the showers. There are a lot of quarterbacks in his position who wouldn’t.
3. Defensive Linemen
This unit has suffered from late arrivals and injuries, but they’ve been able to generate pressure and stuff the run regardless of who’s in there. This is the only positional group I have no feel for whatsoever in terms of the depth chart. While the other units seem to have clear 1s and 2s, the defensive line rotates continually without a noticeable drop in production. Cordarro Law and Charleston Hughes look how you’d expect them to, and they’ll probably get a number of vet days this week to allow the rest of the cream to rise to the top. Ronald Ollie and Shawn Oakman both look much better than I thought they would. Ollie has looked nice at nose when the defense has gone to a three-man line and Oakman is dangerous at any spot. Shane Ray hasn’t stood out as much in 12s as he has in one-on-ones, but he’s insanely quick around the outside and so is Eli Harold for that matter. Newly arrived Kony Ealy had a long scoop and score the other day, he looks in good shape. There simply isn’t a weak link in this unit.
My only concern with this group is they’ve been feasting on second string offensive linemen due to the number of injuries the Argos have on the other side of the ball. Hopefully a stacked Calgary line doesn’t catch them off guard in a few weeks.
What has made the receiver unit so special to this point in training camp isn’t the players you knew you could count on, but the ones you didn’t know at all. DaVaris Daniels, Eric Rogers, and Juwan Brescacin look like professional CFL receivers. We thought they would and they do. Like Law and Hughes, I expect this trio to get some rest days this week as the staff tries to sort out the remining players in the group.
Somehow over the extended offseason, Llevi Noel turned into Derrell “Mookie” Mitchell. He’s been open on just about every snap and it seems like all his targets result in touchdowns. Kurleigh Gittens Jr. hasn’t been quite on that level, but he’s turned heads, especially when lined up outside.
This is another positional group that doesn’t fall off much after the starting five. Ricky Collins Jr and Terrell Sinkfield Jr are dependable, known quantities, and every remaining receiver is a special teams contributor including speedsters Chandler Worthy, Damion Jeanpiere and Craig Rucker, who are dynamic returners. The only reason this group isn’t ranked higher on this list is because they’ve been banged up quite a bit throughout camp, so I’m slightly concerned about chemistry.
5. Defensive Backs
There are at least nine defensive backs who look good enough to start, but there is a talent gap after that which is why they’re ranked below the receivers. No single player has stood out, but the starting group is playing so well as a unit. Crezdon Butler still needs some reps at safety after stepping in for the recently traded Alden Darby, but his play has come along nicely since the move. It helps that he’s got great communicators at halfback on both sides in Shaq Richardson and Jeff Richards, and the strong play from Chris Edwards at SAM certainly doesn’t hurt.
I wasn’t sure who would play boundary corner coming into camp. I predicted it would be Robertson Daniel, but not with a lot of confidence. He looked great there in college, but just hasn’t seen a lot of corner action in the pros. The Argos spent a few days trying different players there, but it didn’t take long for them to realize he was the answer. The exact same can be said for Arjen Colquhoun at field corner, but Matt Boateng hasn’t let coaches forget about him.
It is worth mentioning that this unit has also done a very nice job with run support. On the few occasions where backs get to the outside, there’s always someone waiting there for him after shedding their stalk block.
With a healthy Nick Arbuckle, this group would have earned a much higher spot on this list, but he has missed some time with the hamstring issue that kept him out of the Double Blue game. Arbuckle is pretty clearly the star of this group, though McLeod Bethel-Thompson has been able to close the gap recently. This unit has also been impacted by the injuries along the offensive line. Arbuckle’s play in skelly has been phenomenal, but he can only just keep the offense’s head above water in 12s due to the rush and the lack of a ground attack.
I had high hopes for Nick Tiano and Kenji Bahar, but releasing them in the first round of cuts was the correct decision as it has given much-needed reps to the remaining quarterbacks.
In this last week of camp, Arbuckle needs to focus on rehabbing his hamstring. We’re too close to the start of the season for him to suffer any additional setbacks. Bethel-Thompson, meanwhile, needs to iron out the wrinkles as he continues to learn this offensive system. If Arbuckle is rehabbing, Bethel-Thompson will get those valuable first string reps he needs to get him ready for the season should he need to step in.
7. Offensive Linemen
The offensive line should be a strength for the Argonauts, but I haven’t really seen the starting group since the opening few days of camp. There have been an unusual number of injuries across the board, but this group seems almost cursed. They just haven’t been able to stay healthy, and when one player returns from injury, someone else gets hurt.
The good news is none of the injuries appear at this point to be long term, but it’s been impossible for the line to develop any sort of cohesion and the unit they’re going up against isn’t giving them any sympathy. At least a number of 2020 and 2021 draft picks have been able to get valuable playing time even though they may not be in the plans for this season.
I’ve seen some strange combinations out there. Out of necessity, the Argos have added four offensive linemen to their roster since camp started, which is never ideal.
Hopefully center Cody Speller will be able to return to the team soon. His absence has been great for Peter Nicastro’s development, but this is a better team with Speller on the roster.
8. Running Backs
As with the quarterbacks, this group has been hindered tremendously by the revolving door on the offensive line, but they were also very late assembling. Karlos Williams’ retirement was early enough that it probably didn’t impact the teambuilding process, but Bishop Sankey’s retirement the day camp started certainly did. The signing of DJ Foster less than a week ago might have happened sooner had they known Sankey wouldn’t be in the mix. John White’s late arrival to camp didn’t help things either.
AJ Ouellette has looked good despite there not being a ton of space for him in which to operate, and Greg McCrae has improved more than anyone in this positional group. Kenneth Dixon doesn’t look quite like he did at Louisiana Tech, but he’s been a reliable back, and Foster’s presence will definitely be a plus for this unit once he gets going.
The fullbacks have generally looked good, but they haven’t been featured much. Declan Cross is a professional fullback and Dion Pellerin is being molded in his shadow.
The running back group is certainly on their way up, but no group has gotten off to a slower start.