CFL.ca will be previewing the 2021 season, breaking down special teams, defence and offence for all nine teams as they get set to hit the field.
Nick Arbuckle is penciled in as the No. 1 QB, but McLeod Bethel-Thompson has experience and will push the new Argo for the job (Adam Kreuger/Argonauts.ca)
Just like they do on defence, the Toronto Argonauts have plenty to sort out as the 2021 season approaches.
And there’ll be lots of “getting to know you,” too.
A top-to-bottom renovation of the Argos’ offence is fast approaching the finishing nail stage. Now the team must decide which pieces are going to be used and which ones discarded.
The Argonauts over-bought, pretty well at every position and there will be superfluous material left over as training camp plays out. That’s good news for any other CFL teams who’ll be looking for experienced vets that don’t stick in Toronto.
The Argos have an opening at QB1 and it is not as cut-and-dried as it would have seemed prior to May 31. That’s the day the team brought back McLeod Bethel-Thompson, the 33-year-old veteran who was third in CFL passing yardage, in 2019, while wearing Argo colours.
Prior to that signing, it was easy to see that Nick Arbuckle would be the top gun for Toronto in 2021, after signing as a free agent in February. With Arbuckle already having an established relationship with new Argos’ head coach Ryan Dinwiddie, the blueprint was obvious, as the team then signed former Alouettes’ pivot Antonio Pipkin as the understudy.
Now we got us an ol’-fashioned, training camp slinging war and the team has spent a good chunk of the first week of camp playing bombs away.
That’s helpful in appraising quarterbacks, obviously, but it is also something that might give the Argos some critical cues at the receiver positions. Nowhere is the breadth of the Argos’ free agent talent spree any more evident than it is with this group.
The team opened camp with 21 pass-catchers on the roster — with six either on the suspended list or finishing quarantine.
So many receivers, so few positions. Even if, as a friend of mine recently joked, the Argos went without a running back so that they could open up one more receiver position, some notable talent just ain’t gonna make the starting grade.
In free agency, the Boatmen snagged proven veterans like DaVaris Daniels, the former Calgary Stampeders star who moved on to Edmonton for the 2019 season, before signing with Toronto in time for a 2020 season that never happened. Canadian Juwan Brescacin left Calgary as a free agent in 2020, and re-signed with Toronto for this season.
Through trade, the team nabbed another former Stampeder, and this one was a big, big fish indeed. Eric Rogers, a deep threat and over-the-middle monster who rebounded from injury to have a thousand-yard season in 2019, seems a lock to be a starter as do Daniels and Brescacin.
However, there are lots of candidates who’ll be looking to push the issue, including returning Argo Chandler Worthy and free agent Terrell Sinkfield (who each might get an edge if they can show their worth as return men as well).
Then there’s Ricky Collins Jr., who hauled in 1,103 yards worth of passes for Edmonton in 2019, before retiring this past winter when he did not see what he felt were suitable contract offers in free agency.
He agreed to terms with Toronto a little over two weeks ago.
If Brescacin is a starter for Toronto, they’ll, of course, need suitable Canadian back-ups and that’s where veteran Llevi Noel comes in. A star as a special-teamer, he’s been spotted in as a receiver as well, showing flashes of promise. But he’s 30, so it’s go time. Another Canadian to keep an eye on is 2020 first round pick Dejon Brissett (second overall). The Argos are very high on Brissett and it’d be a shock to see the 25-year-old available at the end of camp.
This receivers battle will get even more interesting should former NFLers Martavis Bryant and Kendall Wright make their way north. Both have been suspended by the Argonauts, although the team insists the absences have to do with nothing more than passport issues needing to be cleaned up.
The running back’s job is veteran John White’s to grab, although as of July 15 he’d yet to appear on the field, while adhering to pre-camp quarantine protocols. The 30-year-old is coming off the first thousand-yard season of his career, back in 2019 with the BC Lions.
White may have an advantage in knowing how to return to action after a long layoff. He’s already done that twice following major injuries.
Behind him is A.J. Ouellette, who turned some heads after signing with Toronto during the late stages of the 2019 season. NFL veteran Kenneth Dixon is sure to make this backfield battle interesting. Veteran fullback Declan Cross will provide extra pass-blocking, the occasional lug and some work at tight end.
The Argos will rely on some proven vets and some young, Canadian talent on the o-line this year (Photo: Argonauts.ca)
Along the offensive line, we have veterans aplenty.
Isiah Cage isn’t a lock to be the starting left tackle, but his play did impress the brass in 2019 before his season was ended with an injury in August of that year. So you’d think he has the edge there. Canadian Jamal Campbell — a Toronto native who surely loves playing for his hometown team — will be expected to show he can step up and solidify the right tackle spot.
Three free agent signings top the depth chart — for now — at the other three OL positions. Thirty-five-year-old vet Philip Blake pencils in at left guard, with former Saskatchewan Roughrider Dariusz Bladek on the right side and former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Cody Speller at centre.
Then there’s 22-year-old Peter Nicastro, Toronto’s first round pick (seventh overall) in the 2021 draft. The University of Calgary standout was a Canada West all-star at guard in 2019 and is thought to be capable of starting at some point this season. Can he do it right away?
We can’t get away without mentioning second-year man Shane Richards, the national OL who has appeared at camp some 60 (!) pounds slimmer than he was during his rookie season.
Now at 290, the six-foot-eight lineman might just have a little extra something-something when it comes to agility. As the late and great Chris Schultz used to stay, footwork and balance are everything and the dropped weight might have Richards improved in those areas.
There is a ton of experienced, top-shelf talent on this version of the Argonauts’ offence and it appears that it will be utilized in ways that are stylistically different than what Toronto fans have been used to over the last decade, when head coaches like Scott Milanovich and Marc Trestman employed methodical, check-down passing offences.
Dinwiddie and his offensive coordinator, Jarious Jackson, aren’t likely to just throw away all of those principles, entirely. But, deep routes backed by moderate ones are probably going to take more of the spotlight than has been seen in previous years.
Building familiarity and consistency will be a time-consuming job, but it will come only after the Argos have made the tough decisions on which veterans stay and which veterans they release.
The Argonauts’ management team, led by general manager Michael Clemons and vice-president of player personnel John Murphy, has given itself plenty of options.
Get all the top stories from across the league delivered to your inbox.