More of the same is what the Toronto Argonauts want in 2023, and when it comes to their defence, the team expects the new faces they’ve brought in through free agency (and one through trade) to fit right in.
Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie fielded some questions, too, and after the top-of-mind topic of the status of free agent quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson was tended to (no change on that front, the Argos are still waiting on McBeth’s final decision), he was happy to talk about the trio of newcomers and how he sees them fitting in with the team’s defence, coordinated by Corey Mace.
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Forcing turnovers was a hallmark of the Argos’ defence in 2022, with Toronto leading the league in that category with 48, and punctuating their style with two interceptions in November’s Grey Cup victory over Winnipeg.
The Boatmen had already nailed down contracts with some of their key defensive players prior to free agency, getting extensions done for linebacker Wynton McManis, defensive backs Royce Metchie and DaShaun Amos, and defensive lineman Robbie Smith.
However, a couple of key members of that defence – and the two men who pulled down those Grey Cup game interceptions – linebacker Henoc Muamba and defensive back Shaq Richardson, remain unsigned. Standout corner Jamal Peters signed a deal with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and another key Grey Cup contributor, strong side linebacker Chris Edwards (he knocked down a second down pass that forced Winnipeg into the long field goal attempt that would be blocked by Smith), has reportedly moved down the highway to Hamilton as a free agent.
The Argos, then, knew they had some holes to fill on that aggressive defence and they wanted to keep the beat going even with newcomers.
In acquiring Williams from the BC Lions via trade, the Argonauts might be closing the book on their time with veteran Henoc Muamba in the middle, saying goodbye to their Grey Cup MVP after two seasons. Dinwiddie doesn’t necessarily see it that way, indicating the door is still open for the 33-year-old (34 on February 23) to return. “Yeah, they’re working on it,” said Dinwiddie of the front office. “I think he wants to be back. We obviously want him back.”
Asking Williams to replace Muamba’s well-known and extraordinary leadership abilities would be a big ask. Toronto might well turn to another vet for that kind of spiritual guidance, though we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of Williams being that guy. He insists he’s up for the kind of responsibility being a team leader brings. “As the ‘mike’ linebacker, you can’t be quiet,” said Williams. “You gotta be outgoing. When people are feeling down, you gotta be that momentum shifter. If there’s a change of momentum, the team is down, you gotta be that guy to get them to flip that mindset.”
The 28-year-old looks good from a production standpoint, that’s for certain. Finishing fourth in defensive plays last season with a total of 110, Williams forced three fumbles and had two fumble recoveries, as well as six knockdowns, while playing both middle and weak side for the Lions.
“He made tons of plays there,” said Dinwiddie of Williams’ time in BC. “He’s proven himself to be a very valuable starter. “For us to trade our ninth pick to get the first overall pick (in 2020) who’s started this early in his career and been productive, we’re pretty excited about that.”
If Muamba returns, he can help make the transition at middle linebacker a little less jarring, handing the baton to Williams as the season progresses, or spotting in on a rotational basis for the youngster. “I’m ready to play that position,” said Williams. “That’s what I came here to do. Make tackles, make splash plays and get off the field.”
Pickett seems a perfect fit for the Argos, what with the departure of Edwards to the Ticats. In being named the Montreal Alouettes’ Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2022, Pickett was second on the team in defensive plays with 95, and his total included four sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
Like Edwards, Pickett is near the ball a lot, with abilities around the line of scrimmage in the short pass and run games, as well as those that make him a good defender against longer shots down the field. Dinwiddie expects Pickett will take over Edwards’ position at SAM, saying he has him slotted in there at present. Like Edwards, Pickett brings a certain, shall we say, nastiness to the proceedings. “I definitely take pride in the physicalness of my game,” said the 26-year-old. “I always try to bring passion, intensity and physicality to every defence that I play on.”
And he likes the type of game the Argos employ, expecting a smooth transition. “Looking at the style of play, how they play their game on defence and how I play my game, I fit right well with the defence,” he said.
27-year-old Orimolade had a breakout season with Calgary in 2022, picking up six sacks, a forced fumble and an interception to go along with 37 tackles in 17 games for the Stampeders. The Argos hope he can continue on his upward trajectory, one that would make him one of the better pass rushers in the game should he continue to improve.
“Corey can get creative with him,” said Dinwiddie of the opportunities that Orimolade’s talents and flexibility can afford Mace in drawing up schemes. “He can drop, he can play the linebacker position if needed,” continued Dinwiddie. “So we can move our fronts around, create some confusion.”
For Orimolade, having previously known Dinwiddie and Mace from their time spent in Calgary was a bonus, one that made him comfortable with leaving the Stampeders after three seasons. “I knew them all to be trustworthy,” said Orimolade, who also mentioned Argos’ defensive backs coach Josh Bell as well.
“I’m used to a winning program,” said Orimolade of his time with the Stampeders, noting that he believes he’s left a perennial contender to join one that is blossoming.
“I believe that’s the culture they’re building here,” he said.