If not for a Grey Cup title sandwiched in between, the Toronto Argonauts last half-decade would have been disastrous. The Argos followed up their 27-24 triumph over the Calgary Stampeders in the 2017 Grey Cup with back-to-back 4-14 seasons, calling for a shakeup.
Toronto Argonauts Busy Off-season
Toronto’s first move was hiring Stamps’ quarterback coach Ryan Dinwiddie as their head coach. With this move, the Argos booted Corey Chamblin after one season as the HC.
Next was re-signing last year’s starting quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson on a one-year deal worth $100,000 in salary. Three days later the Argos completed the inevitable, adding the recently released Matt Nichols for competition under centre. Unlike Bethel-Thompson’s deal, Nichols’ three-year contract has a lot more dough attached to it.
Then Toronto sprayed out their cash in free agency, signing 16 new players including receivers DaVaris Daniels and Juwan Brescasin, linebacker Chris Ackie, and offensive lineman Dariusz Bladek.
For the CFL’s worst road team in 2019, the organization-wide change was necessary. With the free agency frenzy settled, here’s how Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons team is shaping up.
As mentioned, the most significant change within Toronto’s roster is Matt Nichols. The former Bombers and Eskimos pivot should have an edge at the starter spot, but Bethel-Thompson will provide healthy competition. With Nichols coming off season-ending shoulder surgery and a subsequent release, he’ll be motivated as ever to prove he’s a winner.
Behind the two veteran quarterbacks is an open backfield. A.J. Ouellette has the insider track after some decent showings late in 2019. But close behind Ouellette are former Tennessee Titans running back Bishop Sankey, former Florida State Seminole Karlos Williams, and CFL veteran Marcus Thigpen.
Receiver’s a position in which the Argos have enforced massive turnover, swapping out their top three. Gone (for now) are Derel Walker, S.J. Green, and Armanti Edwards, the latter two signing in the XFL. But replacing them are DaVaris Daniels, Juwan Brescacin, and potentially T.J. Jones. Chandler Worthy, Llevi Noel, and Natey Adjei are also in the mix.
Up front Toronto brought in the Roughriders’ Dariusz Bladek and Philip Blake in free agency. By cutting Sean McEwen, Tyler Holmes, and Ryan Bomben, this unit’s still got holes to fill at centre and one of the two tackles.
Toronto’s defensive line has seen a complete overhaul. Cleyon Laing, Freddie Bishop, and Frank Beltre have all left the Argos roster, while Toronto’s added Alex Bazzie, Craig Roh, Drake Nevis, and Fabian Foote. Robbie Smith and Kennan Gilchrist are slight favourites to land starting roles on the ends, while Nevis and Foote should fill the interior spots.
At linebacker, a full season of Bear Woods may be a game-changer or a farewell tour for the 33-year-old beast. The additions of Chris Ackie and Nick Shortill give Toronto some much-needed National options, but the big question mark is at strong-side linebacker. With Abdul Kanneh back in Ottawa, Toronto has Nelkas Kwemo and Nakas Onyeka returning, but the versatile Ackie may be suited for a SAM role with Shortill at the weak-side spot.
The Argos secondary needed to start from scratch. Qudarius Ford, Kevin Fogg, Jermaine Gabriel, Jonathon Mincy, Anthony Covington, and Trumaine Washington are all out, while Tommie Campbell, Bo Lokombo, Jeff Richards, Arjen Colquhoun, and Crezdon Butler are in. Returnees Shaq Richardson and Alden Darby Jr. will likely occupy two starting spots, with the five newcomers battling it out for the remaining three starter positions.
Lastly, Toronto exchanged kickers, sending Tyler Crapigna to Montreal for Boris Bede. Given Bede’s power and dual-duties, initially chalk this deal up as a win for the Argos.
There’s a legitimate chance the Argos field up to 20 new starters compared to their rosters from their final 2019 games. That’s over 80 per cent of their starters, to be clear.
The B.C. Lions attempted a similar free agency approach in 2019. It failed due to inexperience, an inadequate offensive line, and holes throughout their defence. Toronto’s done a nice job at addressing two of these three, as the offensive line could be a problem.
If this isn’t the case and Nichols and/or Bethel-Thompson have time in the pocket, a 4-14 record would be the floor for Toronto. And in the inferior East Divison, a home playoff game isn’t out of Toronto’s reach.
But it’s March and we’re stuck evaluating teams on-paper without any film to go off of.
The free-agent spree and rookie head coach route also isn’t guaranteed success, as the Lions realized last season. Continuity may also be an issue early on for Dinwiddie’s club.
The Toronto Argonauts objectives were clear: acquire Canadian talent, pass-rushers, and defensive backs. With solid pieces in place, how they fare in 2020 is now up to themselves and their rookie head coach.
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