Cauz: Five Argonauts storylines to follow in 2022
CFL.ca will be previewing the 2022 season, taking an in-depth look at each of the nine teams as they get set to hit the field.
Quick, name the 2021 West Division champs. That’s easy. It’s Zach Collaros and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I bet if I asked you the same question about the East Division it may take you longer to answer, “the Toronto Argonauts.”
I can understand why. At 9-5, the Double Blue did not exactly run away with the Division. They won the East by one game over Hamilton, were outscored on the season and frittered away a 12-0 halftime lead in the Eastern Final to the Tiger-Cats, ultimately losing 27-19.
This is not to take away from what Ryan Dinwiddie’s squad accomplished in the COVID-shortened 2021 season. After finishing 4-14 in 2019, the team announced themselves with a road win in Calgary, they thoroughly outplayed the league’s best team Winnipeg in Week 3 and consistently found ways to win out close games.
So, if 2021 was Toronto’s coming out party then their star-studded free agency frenzied off-season is sending the message that this year, they are going for it all. I could easily do a 10,000-word piece going over every storyline for the 2022 Toronto Argonauts but that would mean to my editors. The weather is getting nice, they deserve some outdoor time and let’s be honest, no one has that sort of attention span anymore. Instead, I have broken it down into five easy to follow storylines.
The obvious story: Health of the new guys
Toronto made the big splash signings with 2019 Grey Cup MVP Andrew Harris and 2019 MOP Brandon Banks. There’s no doubt they were the biggest names; the question now is what sort of impact will they have with their new team?
Running backs are not supposed to dominate when they hit their mid-30s but that is exactly what Harris has been doing. In nine games last year, a season that saw him placed on the six-game injured list with knee injuries, Harris still averaged over 90 yards a game on an impressive 5.4 yards per carry. In the post-season, the six-time All-Star had 228 total yards and one touchdown. A healthy Harris is a productive one. We have all been waiting for the inevitable slump and every year Harris denies us any dire predictions we may have. If Harris can just keep defying the odds, he will be a massive boost to an Argonauts rushing attack that was seventh in 2021 and it has been ages since Toronto had a legitimate top echelon running back.
2021 was a forgettable/lost season for Banks who went from 1,550 receiving yards in 16 games in 2019 to 474 in 10 games last season. The reasons are many; a year off from the game for Banks and inconsistent quarterback play, but an early season rib injury certainly played a part in his disappointing year. Heading into this campaign, Banks does not need to be ‘The Guy’ as the team has plenty of weapons in DaVaris Daniels, Eric Rogers, up-and-coming Kurleigh Gittens Jr. along with the new guy in Markeith Ambles. However, for Toronto to be an elite offence they need the threat of Banks and his explosiveness to force defences to reconsider doubling any of the other receivers. This is a guy with a 200-yard playoff receiving day on his resume, if he gets back to 85 per cent of his former self, he will have a huge impact on the Argonaut passing game.
The boring story: McLeod Bethel-Thompson
Wait a minute, aren’t you the guy who is constantly focusing on quarterbacks, writing an entire piece on Bo Levi Mitchell being the most intriguing story of 2022? Why yes, I am, but in this case a “boring” year is just what Toronto needs. You don’t bring in Harris, draft a hulking offensive lineman in the first round and select the first running back off the board in the second round if the plan is to pass the ball 50 times a game. This is not say that Bethel-Thompson can’t do it, in 2019 he led the league with 26 touchdown passes and went over 4,000 yards, so he is capable of an air show.
The ideal scenario is an injury-free training camp/pre-season, some signs of improvement as a player and just roll into the season as a well above average quarterback who can win you games and scramble when need be. For the first time in his career, he is the number one guy. There are no more battles with other potential starters like Nick Arbuckle. Also, boring would mean fewer interceptions from a passer who had four in a Week 12 loss to Montreal and three in a 23-20 win over Ottawa.
The sexy story: Chad Kelly
I had TSN CFL Insider Dave Naylor on my radio show on Monday and near the end of the conversation, unprompted, he brought up the former Ole Miss star and how there are people around the league excited/intrigued to see what he can do. I wrote about this last week; the familiar and always enticing storyline of the former NCAA college star trying to make a go of it in the CFL. The success rate is rather poor, but we get sucked in all the time. Having said that, this is a guy who in his third start for Ole Miss beat Alabama in Alabama throwing for 341 yards and three scores. Kelly is an outspoken, confident guy who could make headlines if he learns the game and embraces what the CFL has to offer. It’s a long shot but the talent is there.
The sneaky important story: The offensive line
The last time we saw this group they gave up three sacks in the playoff loss to Hamilton. On the bright side, two of those were to Ja’Gared Davis, so need to worry about him getting to Bethel-Thompson anymore! I’m curious to see the growth of Dejon Allen, who as a rookie started all but one game at the always critical left tackle position. The same goes for rookie star Peter Nicastro, who manned the centre position with distinction before a late season injury kept him out of the playoffs.
How does the team properly replace right tackle Jamal Campbell, who after five stellar years of service is now in Saskatchewan? Isiah Cage is great when he is on the field but has only played in 11 games for the team after missing the entire 2021 season due to a training camp injury that ended his year before it had a chance to get started. Finally, can I see a guard/tackle combination of Shane Richards and sixth overall pick Gregor MacKellar? I have no idea if it would be effective from a football sense, I just want to see what nearly 650 pounds of linemen looks like on a second and short.
The actual most important story: The defence must improve
There is a reason Toronto went out and signed Davis and helped lure Adrian Tracy (sneaky good signing, he was ultra-productive as part of the Tiger-Cats defensive line for many years) out of retirement. Out of all the playoff teams, Toronto gave up the most points and finished eighth in both sacks created (29) and yards allowed per play (6.4). Corey Mace takes over as defensive coordinator and if things go right, he will remain in that position without the team brining in a ringer like they did last year with Chris Jones.
There is plenty of talent on this team with Shaq Richardson, Henoc Muamba, Shawn Oakman, and the eventual return of strong-side linebacker Chris Edwards, but the final results need to reflect the results on the field and not just the number of players selected to the All-Star team. The hope is that Davis can settle down the defence and create more one-on-one scenarios for pass rushers like Oakman.
The other sneaky signing was the addition of 2019 All-Star defensive back DaShaun Amos. We all know how this works, offensive players like Harris and Banks will get all the headlines, the mystery quarterback Kelly will get more attention early on than he probably deserves but for Toronto to take that next step it will come down to how the new additions on defence merge with the existing players.