TORONTO — As Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons oversees his first off-season as a general manager, the next few months promise plenty of excitement for Toronto Argonauts fans.
Clemons was hired late in the 2019 season to replace Jim Popp while the Argos sailed off course en route to a second straight four-win season. Now, a year after introducing Corey Chamblin as head coach, the Boatmen will have an all-new coaching staff and plenty of questions about their roster.
Like with any struggling team, quarterback will be the first area of focus as a long-term future must be decided behind centre. In any case, Pinball and assistant GM John Murphy face a daunting to-do list that includes several marquee free agents.
Though the 2017 Grey Cup feels like a distant memory, it’s proof teams can easily turn things around quickly in the three-down game. Can the Argos go from zero to hero in the span of an off-season?
Front Office/Coaching Staff
Pinball Clemons and John Murphy offer a unique dynamic as general manager and assistant, and there’s no reason it can’t succeed. Clemons is a Grey Cup winning coach and renowned motivator while Murphy is regarded for his ability to scout and develop talent. Both have expressed interest in an analytics-based approach.
The duo has wasted no time shaking up a coaching staff that failed to deliver in 2019. Corey Chamblin is one and done as Argos head coach, and will be replaced by former Stamps quarterbacks coach Ryan Dinwiddie. Considered a fast-rising prospect in the coaching ranks, there’s a good chance Dinwiddie will also handle playcalling duties in place of Jacques Chapdelaine.
The rest of the Argos’ coaching staff remains a mystery so far, but Dinwiddie could leverage some of his Calgary connections. Former Stamps receivers coach Pete Costanza was dismissed in November, while DeVone Claybrooks was let go by the Lions after one season as head coach. Both could be in Dinwiddie’s sights.
Pending Free Agents
Despite signing Bear Woods and Chandler Worthy to contract extensions following the Grey Cup, the Argos still face a long list of pending free agents. That could be a good thing, however, as Pinball Clemons and John Murphy have plenty of cap flexibility, free from the burden of any unwanted contracts.
The receiver position could be hit the hardest, as Derel Walker, S.J. Green, Rodney Smith and Armanti Edwards are joined by national pass-catchers Llevi Noel and Jimmy Ralph as pending free agents. Walker was one of the league’s highest-paid players last year and could seek another big payday, while Green will be 35 and Edwards 32 at the start of next season.
Canadian offensive linemen are never easy to come by, which is why Sean McEwen, Tyler Holmes and Jamal Campbell should be a priority before Feb. 11. Campbell became a full-time starter at right tackle last season and could be a ratio-breaker in Chris Van Zeyl‘s old spot, while McEwen, 26, has his prime years ahead of him.
Last season was not good to the Argos defensively, and losing interior lineman Cleyon Laing won’t help matters. Laing is one of the better defensive tackles in the CFL and is coming off a seven-sack season. Tobi Antigha, Micah Awe and Jermaine Gabriel are other key defensive starters the Argos could lose.
Locking up Canadian talent needs to be a priority for the Argos before February rolls around, starting with centre Sean McEwen and defensive tackle Cleyon Laing. Both would command plenty of attention on the open market, even at positions traditionally played by Canadians.
On offence, up front, the Argos have spent the last three years developing local product Jamal Campbell into a starter at right tackle after he made 11 starts last season. The pending free agent, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound tackle, could become a long-term replacement for the departed Chris Van Zeyl. Offensive guard Tyler Holmes is also due to test the market in February.
Ever since being drafted in 2013, Jermaine Gabriel has been a fixture for the Argos at safety. The speedy and versatile defender can play multiple positions and was a key component on the 2017 Grey Cup winning team. Another pending free agent, Justin Herdman-Reed made seven starts last season and could see his role grow if re-signed.
Shopping for top-tier Canadians in free agency can get pricey. The Argos need to re-sign their own stars and then draft well in the spring to expand their national talent base.
As it turns out, replacing the league’s fourth all-time leading passer is no easy task. While unfair to pin all of the Argos’ struggles on James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson, the quarterback position has been a weakness ever since Ricky Ray took his last snap in June of 2018.
Canadian Michael O’Connor needs more time and McLeod Bethel-Thompson, James Franklin and Dakota Prukop are all free agents, meaning the Argos have a major job opening behind centre. Despite his ups and downs, Bethel-Thompson proved in 2019 he can at least handle a starting job in the CFL, throwing for 4,024 yards, 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Meanwhile, the Argos have invested three years in Prukop, an intriguing prospect with a unique skill-set they shouldn’t give up on.
On the other hand, 10 months after trying to recruit top free agent Bo Levi Mitchell, there’s no reason the Argos shouldn’t try to make a big splash. Nick Arbuckle is the hot prospect right now and due to become a free agent in February. He’s the most logical choice given his connection with new head coach Ryan Dinwiddie. Zach Collaros, Jeremiah Masoli and Matt Nichols are also free agents.
Franklin is likely done in Toronto after two tumultuous seasons. Once regarded as the league’s top QB prospect, the 28-year-old never found his footing as an Argo, struggling under two different head coaches.
Returning – Michael O’Connor
It was no real surprise the Argos and James Wilder Jr. parted ways after the Grey Cup. Wilder’s role diminished last season after averaging 4.8 yards per carry between 2018 and 2019. Pending free agent Chris Rainey could return next season, but the Boatmen will likely hand the ball to one of several in-house options at the running back position.
Brandon Burks is one name to watch in training camp next year. The 26-year-old lost the latter half of his sophomore season to injury, but has averaged 6.2 yards per carry in two seasons with the Double Blue. Burks is electrifying in space but also has enough power to be an effective threat between the tackles.
New additions Karlos Williams and Bishop Sankey come to Toronto with impressive professional resumes. Williams was one of the league’s best first-year players in 2015 as a member of the Buffalo Bills, scoring at least one touchdown in each of his first six games, tying a rookie record. He offers a unique speed-size combo, having run a 4.48 40-yard dash despite his 6-foot-1, 225-pound stature. Sankey was a second round draft pick in 2014 and played four seasons in the NFL.
Free Agents – Chris Rainey
The Argos’ receiving corps could look entirely different in 2020, as all of their previous starters are pending free agents. One outlier is Chandler Worthy, who earned a starting role late in the season after failing to crack the lineup in 2017 and 2018. Worthy showed explosive playmaking ability as a returner and receiver and could feature prominently next year.
As for the free agents, Derel Walker could explore his options on the open market and easily become one of the highest-paid players in the CFL. If the Argos are looking to get younger, S.J. Green (34) and Armanti Edwards (31) may not fit into the team’s future plans. Six-foot-five receiver Rodney Smith showed he could be a long-term fit if signed to an extension.
With a new quarterback and offensive scheme likely on the way, receiver should be one of the team’s top priorities in free agency. There are plenty of middle to upper tier options available from Darvin Adams and DaVaris Daniels to Reggie Begelton, two of the three having Stampeder connections.
The Argos stand to lose three Canadian starters on the offensive line with Jamal Campbell, Tyler Holmes and Sean McEwen all scheduled to become free agents on Feb. 11. McEwen, a former third overall pick and 2017 CFL All-Star, should be a priority as he enters his prime as the team’s starting centre. Still, losing a starting tackle in Campbell wouldn’t be preferred, especially after three years of development.
Last year’s first overall pick Shane Richards and 6-foot-8, 320-pound guard Maurice Simba represent the youth movement on the Argos’ O-line, but it’s likely too early to rely on either as an opening day starter in 2020. While Ryan Bomben is projected to return as the Argos’ right guard, a handful of Americans will compete for at least one, possibly two starting tackle positions — unless the Argos pursue a big name in free agency.
With a long list of pending free agents on the defensive line, the Argos have flexibility heading into the winter. National defensive tackle Cleyon Laing should be a top priority before Feb. 11 after a seven-sack season for the interior lineman, but overall Toronto’s front struggled to generate pressure in 2019.
Robbie Smith, the ninth overall pick in last year’s draft, is positioned to start at defensive end after recording four sacks in his rookie season. Smith was highly touted out of Wilfrid Laurier and could be a ratio-breaker similar to Edmonton’s Kwaku Boateng.
After watching Willie Jefferson take over the 107th Grey Cup, the Argos could be inspired to target one of the rare elite defensive ends due to become free agents in February. Both Jefferson and Ja’Gared Davis would fit the bill as a dominant outside pass-rusher that can single handedly disrupt opposing offences.
Veteran linebacker Bear Woods could anchor the Argos’ defence in 2020 after signing a contract extension following the Grey Cup. Held to just seven games over the last two seasons, Woods, who celebrates his 33rd birthday in January, showed he can still play with 25 tackles in three starts back in September.
The Argos’ linebacking corps was a revolving door last season, as Micah Awe and Canadian Justin Herdman-Reed started seven games each, while Ian Wild started 11 games. All three are pending free agents which means the Boatmen could see some change at the position, even if Woods starts in the middle.
The Argos’ secondary struggled last season, allowing 307.8 passing yards against per game (third-worst) in addition to an opponent quarterback rating of 106.8, the second-highest of any defence. Returning veterans Alden Darby and Qudarius Ford lead a group that could undergo a face lift this off-season.
Among pending free agents, Kevin Fogg signed a one-year pact with the Argos last winter and finished with 24 tackles and an interception in seven games. Abdul Kanneh had a bounce back season in Toronto, starting all 16 games while recording 70 tackles, one interception and a sack. Shaq Richardson and Jonathon Mincy were late-season additions, combining for just four starts.
While national safety Jermaine Gabriel may test the market, recent draft picks Matt Boateng and Robert Woodson could compete for the job in 2020 should Gabriel depart. Both are under contract beyond 2019.
The Argos are still looking for an answer at kicker ever since the departure of Lirim Hajrullahu to Hamilton. Tyler Crapigna made 22 of 27 field goals last season and is due to return in 2020, but could see some competition in camp. Zack Medeiros and Ronnie Pfeffer, who handled punts, are both pending free agents.
Free Agents – Zackary Medeiros, Ronald Pfeffer