February 6, 2024

O’Leary: Argos hit hard with player departures

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

There’s a unique sinking feeling that comes with the moment you realize you’ve been robbed.

Maybe you’ve looked around inside your car and wondered for a few seconds why everything looks so messy and out of place, before you see the bits of glass on what used to be your passenger window splintered all over the seat and floor. Your stomach drops, you panic over what may be gone and you get angry, all in the span of a few seconds.

That might be how the Toronto Argonauts’ front office was feeling on Tuesday, as they watched five of their pending free agents reportedly fly the coop. In a span of about six hours, the Argos saw key pieces of their 16-win team scatter to rival outfits across the league, forcing general manager Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons and his staff to take quick stock of what they have and what their 2024 roster can look like.

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The roll call on Tuesday’s moves is significant. The team announced the release of linebacker Adarius Pickett, which allowed him to sign with the Ottawa REDBLACKS. TSN’s Dave Naylor then reported that running back AJ Ouellette will sign with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. That was followed by a report that defensive back Jamal Peters was headed down the QEW to sign with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Next, the Edmonton Elks dipped into the Argos’ talented roster, reportedly signing star returner and reigning Most Outstanding Special Teams Player Javon Leake, then signing kicker Boris Bede, who had been released by the Argos on Monday.

It shows just how quickly things can change for a team in the CFL. The Argos went 16-2 in 2023, tying Edmonton’s 1989 squad for the league’s best regular season record. While the Argos fell short in the Eastern Final (just as that ’89 Edmonton team did in the Western Final), they seemed poised to return with many of the same faces that were a part of that history-making season.

It’s not exactly a mass exodus, but the Argos are losing some key pieces of that uber successful team (also keep in mind that last week the team dealt National linebacker Jordan Williams to the Ticats for draft picks and the negotiation list rights to American wide receiver Deontay Burnett). It’ll fall to Clemons and his staff to adjust on the fly and fill those holes with players that can contribute at a high level.

As this round of pending free agent dust settles, it’s important to keep things in perspective. The Argos have extended 13 of their pending free agents. That includes the likes of linebackers Wynton McManis and Jonathan Jones, receiver Dejon Brissett, defensive back Maurice Carnell IV and offensive linemen Darius Ciraco and Isiah Cage. The release of Bede facilitated the Argos’ signing of National kicker Lirim Hajrullahu, so they’re certainly not empty at that position. They were also proactive during the 2023 season and extended quarterback and reigning Most Outstanding Player Chad Kelly, along with the majority of the Argos’ coaching staff and Clemons.

While the Argos reportedly lost some big names on Tuesday, they’ve been active in extending players like Wynton McManis ahead of the free agent market opening (Christian Bender/CFL.ca)

There’s still time for the Argos to address the departure of some of those All-Star calibre players. It’s likely that we see some of their already-extended players like Jones step up and play bigger roles for head coach Ryan Dinwiddie in 2024 as well.

Still, the shock of Tuesday’s moves will take some time to sink in. The 2023 Argos looked unbeatable, up until the first quarter of the Eastern Final. Had they been able to keep the core of that team intact, they’d likely be the favourites heading into training camp this year. Now, the field feels like it’s been evened out a little across the league.

Ask any team that’s dominated in the CFL and they’ll all tell you that your rivals will try to pick you apart over time. That’s happened this off-season for the Argos, who started off the winter by losing defensive coordinator/d-line coach Corey Mace to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. As free agency nears, teams across the league will work to leave the Argos with that queasy feeling of having what was theirs taken from them.

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