It's too early to release a projected depth chart. I say this every March, yet here I am releasing my first projected depth chart of the 2022 season. It's a tradition.
The Toronto Argonauts will continue to make moves between now and the start of the 2022 season, and of course there’s the CFL Draft coming up in May, but we probably have a pretty good sense as to what the roster will look like on opening day.
Overall, I expect the 2022 Argos to be better than the 2021 Argos, and that team finished first in the East Division and took a 12-0 lead into the second half of the Eastern Final. But that doesn’t mean there aren't holes here and there or questions to ask. Let’s take a quick look at each positional group, discuss projected starters, assess depth, and layout potential concerns.
Quick Take: We’re good here.
The Skinny: Barring a disaster, this is McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s job this season, and it should be. For reasons beyond my understanding, MBT is one of the most polarizing players in recent Argos' history. If you’re not happy with him as the starter or you’re on the fence, consider that Bethel-Thompson has never once had a season in which the offense was designed for him. He’s played in offenses intended for Ricky Ray, James Franklin, and Nick Arbuckle, and yet led the league in touchdown passes in 2019 and guided his team to first place in the East last season.
This will be the best season of McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s career.
The battle for the backup job is very interesting. Antonio Pipkin has starting experience, and has to be considered the favourite, but Chad Kelly might have the most raw talent of anyone in the QB room. I still really like Cole McDonald, but he didn’t show enough in his limited playing time against Edmonton late last season for me to bet on him. Maybe a full year up here will make a difference.
Quick Take: Good on paper, if no one gets hurt. The Argos should draft a Canadian RB.
The Skinny: Andrew Harris and D.J. Foster should be a fantastic one-two combo. John White had moments last year, but neither he nor Foster were built for success in short yardage situations, and their combination didn’t require much additional planning from opposing defenses since they have a similar skillset. Most of Foster’s magic came when White was also on the field and Coach Dinwiddie was able to scheme positive situations for him.
Foster is a great back when you don’t know he’s getting the ball. That’s perfect for the role he had early in the season, but not so much for an every-down back. This is why he didn’t look like the same guy after White’s season-ending injury. Being a magician isn’t easy when the audience knows where to look.
With Harris healthy, Foster could look fantastic. Linebackers will be reluctant to leave the box prematurely on Foster’s jet or swing action out of two-back sets, and there’s nothing better for an intelligent play-caller like Coach Dinwiddie when the defense has to pick their poison.
I was surprised at how little AJ Ouellette was used last season. Unless there were injuries I didn’t know about, my assessment of his ability seems to have been much higher than the coaching staff’s. This concerns me a bit because I’m not sure this staff will be comfortable with what they have should either Harris or Foster suffer an injury. Foster is #2 on the depth chart, but as we saw when White went down, he’s not really a replacement for Harris, and there isn’t a replacement for Foster on the roster.
The other thing to consider is that this current backfield setup doesn’t naturally take advantage of Harris’ National status. For Winnipeg, RB was a Canadian position with Brady Oliviera and Johnny Augustine backing up Harris. This was a huge advantage that allowed them to start 11 Americans on defense. I expect the Argos to draft a Canadian RB and I wouldn’t be surprised to see FB Dion Pellerin get some looks as a ball-carrier in the preseason, even though he didn't have a single carry last year. Pellerin was the first back drafted in 2020 and he was the lead back at Waterloo. Foster could then substitute essentially as a slot back without having to keep Harris out there every snap.
Quick Take: Wait, what? We have fullbacks?
The Skinny: All four fullbacks on the roster are outstanding football players, but they were used as special team aces – which is fine, though we should probably think about this a bit. If they’re not better blockers on the line than backup OL (they’re not), they’re not being used as lead backs on running plays (they’re generally not), and they’re only going to be targeted on 1% of drop backs (it’s actually 1.1%), why are they on the field at all on offense? The answer is either:
1. They shouldn’t ever be on the field on offense if this is what the offense looks like.
2. What the offense looks like needs to change to make use of these athletes.
3. Coach Dinwiddie doesn’t have “his kind” of fullback on the roster, so personnel changes need to be made.
Most CFL teams don’t use their fullbacks as traditional fullbacks, but Coach Dinwiddie’s offense barely had a place for them in 2021. Outside of Dion Pellerin’s two-point convert in overtime to beat the BC Lions, do you remember the fullbacks? I remember them as tight ends in short yardage situations that generally didn’t go well and I remember them being ignored when lined up as receivers. None of the fullbacks had a single carry last season. They were targeted six times, catching all six passes for 47 yards. Efficient, I suppose.
Coach Dinwiddie surely sees the flaw in their deployment last year and will fix it this season. The simplest solution is to get Cross more involved in the passing game, get Pellerin and Robo some carries, and get Carbone lined up with his hand on the ground leading Harris out of the I in short yardage situations.
Quick Take: The Argos are strong across the board, but who will step up when they need a big play?
The Skinny: There’s going to be a battle for playing time at receiver this season. The Argos should be able to march out five great starters each game and have two other starting-caliber players ready to spring off the bench. DaVaris Daniels and Eric Rogers will be on the boundary side. The field side is tougher to predict, but a rotating combination of Kurleigh Gittens Jr., Juwan Brescacin, Markeith Ambles, Brandon Banks, Daniel Braverman, and Chandler Worthy is a good start.
The strength of this group could also be its weakness. Opposing defenses won’t be able to key on one or even two guys. There are very few teams in the league who provide this challenge. Even the Z position, which sees by far the fewest number of targets league wide, is a strength for the Argos with Gittens Jr. lining up there. Last season at Z, he was second on the team with 50 receptions for 605 yards.
Where this could become an issue is that they don’t have “the guy”. With the game on the line, when you absolutely need a huge play, where are you going with the ball? Most teams have an immediate answer to that question. With the Argos, you’d think it would be Daniels, but that wasn’t really the case last year late in nail-biters. He’s their best receiver, but he had fewer catches than Ricky Collins Jr and fewer yards than Gittens Jr. with one more game played. Yes, they went to him for the sensational 360 touchdown catch in Hamilton to put them ahead with four minutes left, but in the last few seconds of that same game, it was Dejon Brissett who came up big with a diving grab to set up the Bede game-winner.
Quick Take: They’re much better than you probably think, but what’s their identity?
The Skinny: Based on my social media interactions, it seems Argos fans have concerns about this group. I'm not worried, but I get where the concerns are coming from.
Remember that the line suffered more injuries than any other positional group. Last year’s projected starting left tackle, Isiah Cage, missed the entire season due to injury, and Cody Speller, their projected starting center, spent the entire season on the suspended list. This forced guard Philip Blake to begin the year at center while rookie Peter Nicastro got up to speed after missing a lot of time during camp due to injury. Blake was injured in the opener which didn’t help matters as he laboured through the early stages of the season in a position he's no longer suited to play. Blake would go on to miss three midseason games, and right when he came back, right guard Dariusz Bladek got hurt and missed the following three games. Right tackle Jamal Campbell missed the final five games of the season, and Nicastro missed the final four. So, coming down the stretch and into the playoffs, the Argos were starting their 2nd string left tackle, their 2nd string left guard, their 3rd string center, their 3rd string right tackle, and Dariusz Bladek. This was a catastrophe of a season for the offensive line, but nevertheless they averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the run game and allowed the third fewest sacks despite leading the league in passing attempts.
When healthy, this is a solid line. They’re also very young aside from Blake, so they should show a lot of improvement this season, especially Nicastro and Dejon Allen who are no longer rookies. The issue I have is I don’t know what their identity is. Are they a run-blocking line? Not really. Nicastro and Allen graded well there, but there wasn’t really a hole or side you could always count on. This really showed itself in short yardage situations, including quarterback sneaks, which were a disaster all season. Are they a great pass-blocking line then? Sometimes, but it was rarely a pretty pocket. The centers struggled to pick up blitzes regardless of who was in there, the tackles didn’t handle speed well, and the guards couldn’t set a high shelf with consistency. They didn’t allow a lot of sacks, but both Arbuckle and Bethel-Thompson had trouble stepping into throws and took a lot of hits just as they released the ball.
Blake is a proven guard, and I think you can build around Nicastro with Bladek and Campbell, but I don’t want to give up on Allen either. I was hard on him last season because his pass protection was rough early on, but he improved more than anyone. Cage has also been a starter at left tackle, so we can’t rule him out, and I love all the young depth in Theren Churchill, Dylan Giffen, Justin Lawrence, Shane Richards, and Jonathan Zamora, so this group is in good shape for the future. Maybe we see them establish more of an identity this year.
Quick Take: There was hype last year. This year we’ll see results.
The Skinny: There was no positional group across the league that got more preseason hype than the Argos defensive line in 2021, so it was disappointing when they didn’t produce at anywhere near their level of expectation. The Argos finished second last in the CFL in sacks, and allowed a league worst 5.7 yards per rush. This doesn’t look good on paper, but the film tells us a different story.
The Charleston Hughes signing was a huge miss and Cordarro Law, Fabion Foote, and Drake Nevis didn’t really get to contribute much, so my projected starting four for last season certainly didn’t carry this unit, but the Argos found gold elsewhere. Shawn Oakman proved to be an elite force and Kony Ealy was a difference-maker when healthy. Coach Mace is going to have a blast moving both of those guys around. The emergence of Sam Acheampong and the continued development of Robbie Smith was exciting to watch, and they’ll both continue to get better. And Shane Ray, in the brief glimpses we had, showed the potential to disrupt.
The lack of sacks last season and the struggle to stop the run were system issues not personnel issues – and philosophical ones at that. After Coach Jones came in to relieve Coach Young, the Argos were content to let teams run and they didn’t blitz very often. This was part of the bend-but-don’t-break mentality that honestly worked very well for Toronto until Dane Evans became possessed in the second half of the Eastern Final.
Coach Mace will be far more aggressive in both stopping the run and sending pressure. Adding Ja’Gared Davis to this group with a full season of Foote means they don’t even need to hit on some of the lottery tickets they’ve brought in with guys like veteran Adrian Tracy and All-SEC end Jachai Polite. The Argos may not lead the league in sacks in 2022, but I’d be stunned if they weren’t in the top half.
Quick Take: It’s a strong group, but who’s replacing Dexter McCoil?
The Skinny: On paper, we’re talking about two positions, and one of them is filled by Henoc Muamba, who is still one of the best linebackers in the league. There was no drop-off from Muamba last year. When he was on the field, the defense was significantly better against both the run and the pass. The stats back that up, but it’s pretty obvious on film too.
The loss of Cameron Judge should be a big deal, but he just didn’t play well last year, likely due to injury. I don’t know if incoming LB Wynton McManis will contribute at a higher level than Judge will for Calgary this season, but I’m confident he’ll be better than Judge was in 2021.
My concern is the sudden retirement of Dexter McCoil. The Argos don’t have an answer for this. McCoil wasn’t technically a starter when everyone was healthy, but he was one of the most important players on the defense because he allowed the team to be so multiple. Out of 3-4 looks, he lined up in the box, in the slot, way off the ball, and out wide. He could cover just about anyone in man and was a solid run defender. When there were in-game injuries, he was able to fill in at WILL, MAC, SAM, and field halfback, and though he wasn’t called to, he could have stepped in at safety.
I’m very comfortable with the depth at linebacker, especially when it comes to the Canadians. Trevor Hoyte was very impressive in his rookie season, and I feel good about a healthy Jack Cassar relieving Muamba.
Quick Take: This is the best secondary in the CFL.
The Skinny: This positional group is ridiculous. It was ridiculous last year and they went and added CFL All-Star DaShaun Amos and Royce Metchie without losing anyone. Jamal Peters, Shaq Richardson, Jeff Richards, Jalen Collins, and Chris Edwards are absolute studs. But you could take them all away and I’d still feel good about this secondary. Robertson Daniel is a starting caliber boundary corner, and I’d confidently start Treston Decoud and DaShaun Amos at any position in the secondary. All three of these guys would be starters on any other team, so it’s mind-boggling to think they may be coming off the bench. As I write this, I can’t help but think there has to be a trade coming or a retirement we don’t know about being contemplated. Decoud and Amos need to be on the field, but there isn't a spot for them.
I’m interested to see what Coach Mace does with the safety position. I think Crezdon Butler is the best safety on this team, but the fact that Metchie was brought in, a proven starting safety, tells me management wants to go Canadian at that spot. Probably because they’re losing a Canadian starter at WILL. It makes sense, especially because you need to dress Canadian special teams ace Josh Hagerty, who also plays that spot.
The remaining question is who fills in for Chris Edwards at SAM for the first six games while he serves his suspension? Richardson has played there before, so you could move Richards over to boundary half and start Amos or Butler at field half. It just seems foolish to move two starters who played so well in their positions last year. Robertson Daniel is a nice option at SAM. He has some experience there too and he’s probably not starting otherwise, so you don’t have a lot of moving pieces. Ultimately, I think it will be Butler at SAM to start the season. He played there a few years ago in Saskatchewan and he looks so comfortable in the box. Teams love him at halfback and safety because he’s a veteran who sees the field so well, but he’s also a good tackler who times blitzes perfectly, things you get more opportunities to do at SAM.
Quick Take: Bede's back, and everything non-Bede will be better.
The Skinny: Toronto’s specials teams weren’t great last year. They were excellent at kicking field goals and that overshadowed some of the specials teams problems they had.
Punt protection was a critical issue all season. Most of the blocked punts were early in the year, but there were a number of breakdowns and close calls throughout. Honestly, when you have to say “most of the blocked punts”, you can stop right there.
Punt and kickoff coverage was generally good, but they also had serious lapses. Late in the season, Ottawa’s DeVonte Dedmon took a kickoff back 100 yards to put the REDBLACKS up by 11 in the second half. And who could forget Papi White’s 92-yard punt return touchdown in the Eastern Final to let Hamilton back in the game? Not me.
These seemed to me to be coaching and scheme issues, not personnel issues. I really like Coach Nelson as a human being and he’s an elite linebacker coach. But he hadn’t coached special teams in Canada in almost 30 years and his unit’s performance was a reflection of that.
The hope is that Toronto’s new Special Teams Coordinator Mickey Donovan can set things right, and I believe he can. He’s had recent special teams coaching success in the CFL with Montreal, and previously in Canadian university football with Concordia, McGill, and Western.
In terms of personnel, an explosive returner is all that was missing, and there look to be a few options this season. Brandon Banks was the best returner in the league a few years ago, and he has expressed interest in the job. I’m also interested to see what rookie Darece Roberson can do back there.
My concern on special teams might not seem like a big deal, but it is. I’m relatively worried about who the holder will be on field goals. Boris Bede not only had a career year in 2021, he was the best kicker in the CFL. His holder was McLeod Bethel-Thompson. You never want your starting QB to be the holder, so the job is often given to either the backup QB (which allows you to keep your options open for fakes), or the punter (who has all the time in the world to work with the kicker at practice). Bethel-Thompson was the backup quarterback when the season began, and Bede being both kicker and punter couldn’t hold for himself, so the job was given to MBT. Once it became clear that Bethel-Thompson would be the starting QB going forward, Coach Nelson experimented with different holders in practice and it didn’t go well. That’s why Bethel-Thompson was still holding when Bede knocked through six field goals in the Eastern Final. Honestly, I wouldn’t mess with it. With almost 20 years as an offensive coach, I’m firmly against having your starting QB double as the holder, but kicking is weird, and in this case I’d make an exception. It’s such a mental game, and change is never good when it comes to such things.
That's the whole ball of wax. Now we sit back and wait for one of two things to happen. Either the Argos will cut or trade away half the players I listed as starters an hour before you read this, or their own depth chart, when it comes out months from now will look nothing at all like mine. It's a tradition.