The Argos front-office allowed Argonauts.ca writer Mike Hogan to observe the draft process as a part of the virtual “war room.” The only stipulation was that he not mention players who were not selected by the Argos, other than to state where they were selected in the draft, or in some cases, internal speculation as to where a player may be drafted.
The 2020 CFL Draft was an important night for every CFL team, but none more so than for the Toronto Argonauts. The team had seven picks, three in the top eleven (2, 9 and 11), with another selection at number twenty.
This year the draft would be dramatically different because of the need for social distancing. The entire Argonauts scouting department, coaching staff and video team were stationed in their homes, as was Argo President Bill Manning, and three members of the team’s communications/social media department, including this writer.
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The draft would be conducted in a Zoom video conference room, a virtual gathering place which allowed every member of the group to be both seen and heard. The computer screen also featured a giant draft selection board, which could be changed to another board that listed and ranked every available prospect.
Argonauts.ca joined the room at 7:00, one hour before the draft was to begin. There were a few coaches on the line, with small talk being exchanged, but very little of the conversation was about the upcoming draft.
As more people joined, the chatter continued to be about anything but the draft. The prep work was done, so there was no reason to rehash something that had been discussed as a group over the course of 15 or so mock drafts, preceded by hundreds and hundreds of hours of information gathering and evaluation.
One thing that jumped out at someone who had spoken with, but not seen members of the group in quite some time was the varying degrees of isolation facial hair; from Director of Canadian Scouting Vince Magri’s transition from clean shaven to full beard, to Head Coach Ryan Dinwiddie’s full Fu Manchu ‘stache, to General Manager Michael Clemons more salt than pepper beard.
The first serious discussion about the draft itself did not occur until 7:48, just a dozen minutes before the TSN broadcast was to commence. Vice President of Player Personnel John Murphy started musing about who Calgary was going to take with the first-overall pick, who BC would then select third overall, and how those selections, along with the Argos hopeful selection of Virginia receiver Dejon Brissett at No. 2, would impact the rest of the first round.
Two minutes after the discussion commenced it was interrupted by CFL Associate Vice President of Football Operations Ryan Janzen, who would be moderating a conference call between the teams. He conducted a roll call, then explained to the group the choreography of the picks.
Each team would be on the call on mute. Janzen would ask the selecting team for its pick via email, then announce that selection to the teams just as the pick was relayed to TSN to announce on the broadcast. This method is used to cut down on the chance of a pick being leaked via social media before it’s announced on television.
Teams would have six minutes between picks in the first round, five minutes in every round after that. Janzen wrapped up his speech at 8:03 by saying “Calgary is on the clock.”
The room was silent. The months, and in some cases years of tracking and studying players was done. The group knew that Brissett was the man they wanted, but would Calgary spoil the party by drafting a receiver, something that could be described as a need position for the Stamps.
Calgary held the Argos fate in its hands for two minutes, then Janzen announced over the speakerphone that the Stampeders had dealt the first pick in the draft to BC.
To say the least, that revelation broke the Zoom room silence. The talk immediately turned to whether BC was interested in Brissett. The Argos had done loads of preparation for the draft and it was quickly determined by most that the fit for the receiver was better in Calgary than BC.
John Murphy wasn’t so sure.
“He was a kid that any team could have rated right in that neighbourhood,” Murphy told Argonauts.ca “Until he wasn’t taken you still had some apprehension. He’s too good of a player, too good of an interview, there’s too much upside on offence and special teams. He can be one of the better young receiver prospects in our league.”
So, they waited. Perhaps to get their mind off that pick, Murphy and Dinwiddie played out what might happen with picks 3-8 should the Lions take Jordan Williams, which is what they did at 8:14.
The Argos first objective was achieved, they got their man. While the room was happy, the Pied Piper of Positivity was elated. “Pinball” Clemons would call Brissett a couple of minutes after the Lions announcement to welcome the Mississauga native home.
Always wanting to have some fun, after Brissett answered the phone he was greeted by Clemons, who playfully asked the receiver, “Who am I talking to?”
Mike Clemons has a gift of making people happy, but Brissett didn’t need the G.M.’s charm to do that, he was incredibly excited to come home to Toronto, later saying to the Zoom room, “You don’t know what this means to my family.”
— Toronto Argonauts (@TorontoArgos) May 1, 2020
The Argos family had just expanded by one member, but there were two more to add in the next few minutes with picks nine and eleven.
There’s a consensus on what the team wants to happen in those spots. They want to add an offensive lineman, and they want Carleton linebacker Jack Cassar…and badly. There didn’t seem to be even a slight hesitation about selecting Cassar from anyone in the room.
First, he had to fall to the ninth spot. The Argos also had a priority to select an offensive lineman at nine, or at eleven, or even at nine and eleven, but there was no way to do that and select Cassar as well.
Murphy, who was in text conversations with opposing GMs about potentially making a trade, informed the group about an offer for the ninth pick, an offer that was quickly shot down.
As the Tiger-Cats were making the fifth-overall pick, Brissett made an appearance in the Argos Zoom room, getting a chance to meet his new employers en masse.
The receiver was sporting an enormous smile throughout the conversation, but it seemed to hit its peak when Receivers Coach Markus Howell told his newest player that the pick was a “no brainer” in terms of talent and that Brissett’s character was “second to none.”
Bill Manning chimed in that Raptors President Masai Ujiri had sent him a text. Brissett’s brother Oshae plays for the Raps, and Ujiri wanted to welcome Dejon home to Toronto.
“I can’t stop smiling” was Dejon’s response.
He could have stayed longer, but the Argos had work to do, they had to give Brissett two new teammates in the immediate future.
There were three more selections to go, and while the Argos had decided on Cassar and Regina offensive lineman Theren Churchill as their primary targets, there was much discussion on how to select both.
They were almost certain Ottawa would select Laval’s Adam Auclair, and they were right. There was also no surprise when the Riders chose offensive lineman Mattland Riley. The Argos knew then they were guaranteed to be getting either Churchill or Cassar, depending on who the Ticats chose with the No. 8 pick.
There was also a chance they’d get both. The discussion became twofold; who they’d take at pick eleven if either one of their targets was gone, or, if Hamilton chose neither, who would the Argos take at nine, Cassar or Churchill, knowing the other would be left available for one pick.
The first part of the riddle was answered when Hamilton selected Mason Bennett, leaving both options available. Several in the room said take Cassar first, others pleaded their case for Churchill. It would be the only time all night there was substantial disagreement about a pick.
The general manager would make the call.
“We didn’t think Ottawa was going to take either one of those guys,” Clemons confessed in a post-draft interview with Argonauts.ca. “The challenge became what if they make a trade?”
The Argos loved Churchill.
“Big, long, physical, athletic, has very good feet,” said Magri of the now former Regina Ram. “Very technically sound, very well coached at the university level. He’s got the ability to compete at both guard and tackle. He’s got the size and strength to be able to play inside, but I also think he has the athleticism and movement skills to be able to handle playing on the edge at the CFL level.”
After three offensive linemen were chosen in the draft’s top eight picks, the difference between Churchill and the next o-lineman on the Argos board was greater than the gap between Cassar and the next defensive player on their board, so Clemons made the decision to select Churchill and hope nobody traded up to get Cassar.
With Ottawa already having selected Auclair, the odds of them drafting two linebackers that high were longer than them grabbing an o-lineman. The consensus was that if the REDBLACKS kept the pick, they would select defensive lineman Michael Hoecht or defensive back Marc-Antoine Dequoy.
Ottawa kept the pick and selected Hoecht.
At 9:16 the Toronto Argonauts welcomed Jack Cassar to the family. The multiple mock drafts, understanding the needs of their opponents, combined with getting a little lucky, meant the Argonauts had done as well with their first three picks as they could have imagined.
Surprisingly, after having both players fall into their laps, the Argos didn’t celebrate. There was zero celebration. Instead, the group focused on the territorial selection coming up at pick twenty.
Laurier defensive lineman Sam Acheampong’s name had been discussed in the preceding minutes. With the Argos goal of selecting an o-lineman and a defensive player at nine and eleven, Acheampong was a strong possibility to be selected if Cassar had been snapped up by another team.
Again, the group tried to predict which players would be selected between picks 12 and 19. The agreement was that two players would be given serious consideration, should they be available.
When the Argos had to select, they went with the Brampton native and graduate of Cardinal Ambrozic Catholic Secondary School, a player that at one point in their thought process was considered a possibility at No. 9.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe a team when it says post-draft that they were surprised a player was still available, but in this case it was the truth.
“With his talent alone he was worthy of being selected much higher,” Magri told Argonauts.ca after the draft. “To get a guy with his athletic traits, with his ceiling, to get him at twenty was too good to pass up.”
But if Acheampong was a surprise, the next player available to them was a shock.
The club selected next at No. 28. The post-Acheampong discussion was done with the assumption that gigantic offensive tackle Dylan Giffen from Western University would not be available. Someone would discuss a player, then conclude his sentence with “If Giffen’s not available.”
Other offensive linemen became the focus, other positional players were also discussed, but always, every single time with the caveat “If Giffen’s not available.”
Over the course of the evening, the waters were extremely calm in the Zoom room. There was no shouting, no cheering, no arguing, though the Churchill vs. Cassar discussion was intense. There was but one loud cheer in the room all night, and it came when Hamilton selected Waterloo receiver Tyler Ternowski with the 27th overall pick.
This was in no way, shape, or form a slight on Ternowski’s ability, but particularly with the addition of Brissett, receiver was not a position the Argos were looking at in the third round. The robust cheer was one of utter joy, amazement, sheer excitement over the fact that the 6’ 8”, 325-pound lineman from tiny Strathroy, Ontario, just west of London, was available.
Despite all their preparation, that was something the Argos never in their wildest dreams anticipated would happen. A great first four picks had become a sensational first five picks. They’d landed a massive lineman who is not only physically dominant but had a notation next to his name on Magri’s board.
Each player was listed by position and slotted into groups determined by how great their potential was. The majority of players had some letters after their name to mark strong or weak character, speed concerns, injury problems in the past, competitive toughness or lack thereof.
Giffen’s notation was that he had exceptional football character. He had already proven a lot by slimming down from 355 to 325 pounds. His hard work was noticed by the Argos, who were flabbergasted that he was available at pick 28.
“This is the best day of my life,” Giffen told the group when he joined the staff online. “I couldn’t be happier.”
The Argos could say the exact thing about him, they couldn’t have been happier he was available.
Another player with one of Magri’s gold stars for his character was Waterloo running back Dion Pellerin. Without a fourth-round selection, the Argos had ample time to hit the reset button. Their primary objective at this stage was to grab a couple of players with their two remaining picks that could help on special teams. Multiple names were thrown around, and again the team was pleasantly surprised that the Abbotsford, B.C. product was still there.
“To get a guy in the fifth round who is so versatile,” said a smiling Magri after the draft. “Physically he’s ready to play. He’s played tailback, he’s done some things at fullback, he was recruited as a linebacker – coming out of high school he was one of the best defensive players in British Columbia – to get that added special teams value, he’s going to come in and compete to make our roster on day one.”
The final selection was U-Sask receiver Sam Baker, a receiver who missed the better part of two seasons after breaking his collarbone, then doing it again during training camp the next season. The native of Esterhazy, Saskatchewan brings an added asset as a long snapper, something needed when Jake Reinhart’s backup, Joe Spaziani, retired in the off-season. This could end up being a sneaky-good pick.
If was four minutes before 11:00 and the Argos had used their final pick. There were still 25 selections to be made by other teams before the end of the draft, but the Argos staff members all hung around, just in case a trade offer was presented.
Discussion for the most part turned to self-evaluation, and the general manager thanked everyone in their room for their contributions. He said that everyone’s hard work made the picks easy because the work had been done and everyone was on the same page.
“We’re extremely happy, but we did what we’re supposed to do,” said Clemons to Argonauts.ca when it was all over. “The idea today was to win. It’s not a Grey Cup victory, but it is a win. Tomorrow we need to get up and go back to work again.”