May 2, 2019

O’Leary: Argos, Popp to ‘dictate the draft’ with No. 1 pick

Graham Hughes/

Handed lemons in the 2018 season, Jim Popp is hoping for lemonade on Thursday and into the 2019 season for his Toronto Argonauts.

A 4-14 finish led to changes across the board, headlined by the departure of coach Marc Trestman. Corey Chamblin, the defensive coordinator of the 2017 Grey Cup-winning squad, is in as head coach this year. On Thursday, the Argos’ GM will try to give his new head coach a franchise-altering player with the first-overall pick in the Canadian draft.

“I’ve never picked this high based on standings, or even trading to have a pick like this,” said Popp, who doesn’t foresee a trade offer coming into the picture for his No. 1 pick.

“The one thing we get to do is we get to dictate the draft. We get to dictate by who we draft and then everybody’s got to adjust from there. People are waiting to see the domino fall.

“Everyone’s speculating and nobody knows. Hopefully we’ll keep that under wraps and it keeps everyone speculating what the next move is. Hopefully it can stay under wraps until the day it’s announced on TV by the commissioner.”

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Laval defensive lineman Mathieu Betts’ NFL opportunity — he signed as a priority free-agent after going unselected in the NFL draft — has been anticipated widely through combine season and in the construction of mock drafts up to this point. It will likely push him down in the CFL draft. That leaves some question marks on which direction the Argos might go in with their first overall pick.

“I think you look at everything. You look at your own team, you look at the best players in the draft that are available to you, players that you don’t know if they’re available to you,” Popp said.

“We know (Betts) has signed with an NFL team. We know several others are going to a (NFL) mini-camp with no contract but you have to look at everything when you’re making the first pick. Every situation is different with every team.”’s Marshall Ferguson has had two different players slotted in at No. 1 in his three mock drafts this year but the position remains a constant. He’s had offensive linemen — first Oklahoma State’s Shane Richards, then Windsor’s Drew Desjarlais — going first overall. O-lineman have gone No. 1 in five of the last eight drafts, but not in the last two years. Winnipeg took d-lineman Faith Ekakitie first in 2017 and Hamilton took receiver Mark Chapman first in 2018.

“I think this year’s interesting because I think there are a lot of people that could be the first pick,” Popp said.

“I think there are a lot of people that could be a first-round pick. There are a lot of different circumstances that are floating around with different guys.”

Popp said that CFL draftees that go to mini-camps — eight draft-eligible players are headed to NFL teams this weekend for their workouts — can be a type of wildcard for a CFL GM.

“If they’ve been drafted by the NFL it’s one thing but if they haven’t been drafted and they sign you have no idea if you’ll ever see them,” he said.

“There are a number of factors that you have to go through with your own team and figure out what risks you want to take in order to draft or get the rights to a player, or when will we see him,” he said.

“Every team has a different situation.”

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As Popp mentioned, he goes into his 26th season as a CFL GM making his first-ever first overall pick. The organization has a total of 10 picks in the draft and want to make a night of the opportunity in front of them. They’re hosting a draft party at BMO Field for a group of season ticket holders.

“If you’ve got the first pick you should glorify it, make a big deal out of it because it is a big deal for the league and everybody else,” Popp said. “Since we have it let’s entertain our fans with it.”

Not wanting to go into specific areas of need at national spots with his roster, Popp said he’ll look at his remaining nine picks on Thursday the way that he has throughout his years as a GM.

“Typically what I’ve always done is try to take the best player that’s available. We’ll stick to that philosophy,” he said.

“We’ll take it pick-by-pick. We basically have two first-round picks, a one and a nine, even though it’s (the start of) the second round.

“We’ll draft accordingly and all we can do after the first pick is sit and watch. I think this will be an interesting draft because as soon as guys start saying they’re going off to mini-camps…if they get contracts or they don’t, it starts going all over the place.

“That’s what makes our draft fun. You don’t know what to expect and you don’t know who’s going to draft who. And really, you won’t know how good your draft is for five years.”