TORONTO — It’s been an eventful off-season for the defending Grey Cup Champions, from a public contract dispute with star running back James Wilder Jr. and an exciting new quarterback duo to a revamped secondary.
The Argos also lost offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, while Corey Chamblin may not be far behind as rumours continue to surround one of the league’s top defensive coordinators amid his possible return to the states.
With Wilder re-signing in Toronto on Saturday, questions specifically pertaining to Chamblin can’t be ignored, but in the end, Argos general manager Jim Popp has had a productive off-season as he puts the finishing touches on the team he led to an unlikely and unforgettable championship in his first season at the helm of the Boatmen.
Last season it was a healthy Ricky Ray, an emerging star running back in Wilder and a stout defence leading Toronto on a Cinderella run to the Grey Cup — and the team’s first division title since 2013 — despite a .500 record in the regular season. With the O-line back in the fold and a backup plan under centre behind 38-year-old Ricky Ray, the Argos are in the mix to repeat as division champions.
The duo of Ray and 26-year-old James Franklin, widely considered the top quarterback prospect in the league, might be the most impressive in the CFL. Not only is Franklin ‘the next one’ in Toronto — a contingency plan behind the future Hall of Famer in Ray — but he’ll also relieve the week-to-week stress that comes with an aging quarterback with a history of injuries.
Ray, of course, missed only one game in 2017, tying his highest total for games played as an Argo and throwing for 5,546 passing yards on a CFL-high 668 attempts, the type of production second-year head coach Marc Trestman hopes can be duplicated.
While the Argos will be without their biggest speed threat in DeVier Posey, who signed with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, the biggest question on that side of the ball comes in the backfield. The return of Wilder would immediately change the team’s outlook, after the 25-year-old stepped in halfway through the season to spark a 7-2 run, including the Grey Cup win over Calgary.
Wilder needed very little time to assert himself as one of the league’s most dynamic running backs, combining for 257 yards in a start against the Eskimos in September followed by 218 yards against Montreal — a total of 475 yards in two games.
Last season the Argos would not have won the Grey Cup or the division without the emergence of a ground game, which went from being the worst in the league to the most productive over the second half of the season. Should Wilder sit in 2018, the Argos would likely test a rookie in the position after open competition in camp.
While Brady will be missed at offensive coordinator, Tommy Condell is a likely veteran replacement and rumours have swirled about hall of famer Anthony Calvillo joining the coaching staff. Condell helped the Ticats reach the Grey Cup in 2014 during a three-year stint in the same position in Hamilton.
Either way, with two proven quarterbacks and a savvy group of pass-catchers that includes Armanti Edwards, S.J. Green and Anthony Coombs, the Argos shouldn’t have any issues finding success through the air.
The Argos added their quarterback of the future this off-season in James Franklin (Walter Tychnowicz/CFL.ca)
For Popp, it’s been a little busier on the defensive side of the ball. The Argos finished with one of the top-ranked units in the league in 2017, but a dominant defensive line may have helped protect a patchwork secondary that was aided significantly by the addition of Mitchell White part way through the season.
White has left via free agency, but the additions of veterans T.J. Heath and Ronnie Yell give the defensive coordinator — whether it’s Chamblin or someone else — a solid foundation. Yell was the boundary corner in BC for four seasons, while Heath, one of the league’s top playmakers with 12 interceptions over the last two seasons, returns to Toronto after being traded to Winnipeg in 2016.
A wealth of depth at linebacker, including Terrence Plummer, Bear Woods (re-signed) and free agent addition Taylor Reed, allows the Argos to play Marcus Ball at SAM linebacker. That means Cassius Vaughn could be a full-time halfback, providing more flexibility for the defensive backfield.
The return of star Canadian defensive tackle Cleyon Laing means the Argos’ entire starting defensive line from 2017 is back on the roster, although questions surround Victor Butler, who, like Wilder, has expressed dismay over his contract.
For Popp and the Argos, the last couple of months have been a double-edged sword. Losing two coordinators would be a setback for a team that’s otherwise done well to build on a good start for Trestman in his first year in Toronto. Still, Argos fans will be happy to put their trust in the coach that’s won three Grey Cups in six seasons in the league, and who’s made the Eastern Final in five out of six.
Theoretically, the Argos should take a step forward in Trestman’s second season in Toronto.
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