February 22, 2020

O’Leary: National additions could reshape Argos

It’s been an off-season of change for the Toronto Argonauts. With a new GM, head coach and coaching staff, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a team that’s posted back-to-back four-win seasons would feel the need for an overhaul.

Since free agency opened on Feb. 11, the Argos have added 19 players, continuing to build on the pre-free agency roster shaping that had been taking place since the end of their 2019 season. The most significant work done prior to Feb. 11 was that the team shored up its quarterback situation, extending McLeod Bethel-Thompson on Feb. 4 and signing Matt Nichols on Feb. 7, after Winnipeg had released him. They join Canadian QB Michael O’Connor, who didn’t see the field a lot in his rookie season, but showed a lot of potential when he got in for the team’s final two games on the schedule against Ottawa and Hamilton.

The most intriguing part of the Argos’ new roster, though, is their Canadian content.

It’s something that Argos’ VP of player personnel John Murphy discussed briefly with Brodie Lawson and I on Feb. 13. While DaVaris Daniels’ signing was the biggest name on the opening day of free agency for the Argos, they spent much of that time pursuing Canadian players, many of them from Toronto, the GTA or southern Ontario.

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On offence, they added receiver Juwan Brescacin and o-linemen Phillip Blake and Dariusz Bladek. Defensive additions include linebackers Nick Shortill, Chris Ackie and Paul Kozachuk, d-lineman Fabion Foote and defensive backs Arjen Colquhoun and Denzel Radford.

Prior to free agency, they added or extended receivers Natey Adjei and Llevi Noel and o-lineman Jamal Campbell. They traded for linebacker Bo Lokombo on Jan. 31.

“I think we took the approach of saying that we can look at what we’ve been doing and keep it status quo and just do the same as,” Murphy said.

“Or we could take a different look and say if a player and their money were going to an area we didn’t feel comfortable with that we have the willingness to say, ‘Hey, the ratio doesn’t always have to stay the way it’s been just because that’s the way, or the norm, that eight other teams have been doing it.’”

It’s hard in late February to look at possibilities on paper and assume that they’ll translate to something successful, but the Argos will clearly be taking a different approach this year, with an openness to going against the grain when it comes to their ratio. How that takes form when winter turns the page to spring’s training camp and summer’s 2020 kickoff remains to be seen.

It could take place in subtle areas. The 0-line is generally a Canadian-heavy spot, with some GMs often dreaming of a string of Canadians up front. Blake, Bladek and Campbell (a tackle that just signed a three-year deal) are safe bets to see a lot of time on the field and there should be opportunity for 2019 first-overall pick Shane Richards to establish himself. The presence of starting-level Canadian receivers (Adjei, Brescacin and Noel) should lend to a slight change from the three Americans and two Canadians that were on the Argos’ Week 1 roster in 2019. Last year, the Argos opened the season by pairing S.J. Green, Derel Walker and Armanti Edwards with Canadians Jimmy Ralph and Noel.

New Argo Bo Lokombo filled in for injured safety Taylor Loffler in Montreal and thrived in the new role (Dominick Gravel/CFL.ca)

On defence, Foote may be the most consistently used Canadian d-linemen in a rotation that could lean on Americans Alex Bazzie, Drake Nevis and Craig Roh. Ackie, Kozachuk and Shortill can roam through the linebacker spots, with Kozachuk and Shortill putting in work on special teams.

Colquhoun will see time at cornerback and Lokombo flourished in Montreal last year as a safety after playing linebacker in college at Oregon. The Argos have some good, talented options that all hold Canadian passports and there could still be more change to come. The Canadian draft, along with two-plus remaining months of room for off-season activity could see the roster continue to evolve. As things stand now, there’s room for that change to come through unconventional means.

“The Argos have not been successful for a consistent amount of time doing things the way that eight other teams are doing it,” Murphy said.

“Our approach was to let the market come to you and then not be afraid to say that it’s our job to find good American players. If we could pay a Canadian the same value that an American was asking, that was going to be the direction we were going to go.”