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  • Writer's pictureBen Grant

Toronto’s Curious Roster Moves

Over the course of this 19-month offseason, the Toronto Argonauts have made more roster moves than any other team in the CFL, and it’s not even close. You could field a competitive team consisting entirely of free agents Toronto signed in 2020 who are no longer on the roster. But these were never random transactions. Every player the Argonauts brought in was better than the player he was replacing. This has been a calculated and meticulous rebuild to the point where the Argonauts may now have the best roster in the league on paper, despite having the second worst roster when they last played football.

With all these roster moves, CFL fans and analysists alike have become somewhat desensitized, so it’s not surprising little has been made of Toronto’s recent flurry of transactions over the past two weeks.

But these are different.

For the first time in this marathon offseason, the Argonauts have released talented players with promise and upside without replacing them with someone who is clearly better. This isn’t to say these new additions have no chance of success. For years the Argos have discovered unheralded players from small schools who went on to become league stars. It’s just that this sort of exchange hasn’t been Toronto’s M.O. this past year.

The most curious moves were releasing defensive backs Mike Tyson and Ermon Lane. Tyson, a tactical, physical player, who only just signed with the Argos in January, was a sixth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2017, and he also spent time with the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers. Lane, once the most sought after WR in Florida, converted to the defensive side of the ball during his time at Florida State which likely led to him being undrafted despite oozing talent. He became an Argos fan favourite on social media, often posting about how excited he was to come up to Toronto since signing with the club over a year ago. Both Tyson and Lane were expected to seriously compete for a starting roster spot at safety or SAM.

Making these moves even more curious is that Shamar Busby and Andrew Soroh, the two defensive backs they brought in following the release of Tyson and Lane aren’t of the same mold. Shamar Busby out of Southeastern Louisiana is a National, for one thing. He wasn’t selected in the 2019 CFL Draft, but spent some time on Saskatchewan’s practice roster after being released by Ottawa during training camp. Busby was primarily used as a corner in college, and he just wrapped up the 2021 Spring League season where he played nickel corner for the Alphas. Busby will probably fall in behind the other Canadians at field corner and has to be considered a long shot to make the team.

Andrew Soroh had a great college career at Florida Atlantic where he played almost exclusively in the box as a linebacker. Undersized as a backer at 6’0”, 206, he was moved to free safety by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2019 preseason. The New York Guardians of the XFL kept him at free in 2020, but he still looked uncomfortable in space, as converted linebackers often do. The Argonauts could be considering him as a safety behind Alden Darby, but he’s not nearly as ready to hit the field as Lane or Tyson were, so he’ll need time. If there’s any immediate plan for Soroh it would be as a SAM, but his man coverage simply isn’t as strong as other options currently on the team.

The switch the Argos made in their quarterback room was also interesting, releasing Kelly Bryant and picking up Kenji Bahar. Bryant, who signed with the Argos back in February, two weeks after his cousin Martavis, simply hasn’t been able to catch a break in his young career. At Clemson, Bryant found himself buried for two seasons behind eventual first round pick, Deshaun Watson. Bryant got his opportunity in 2017 and led the Tigers to the ACC Championship and a spot in the CFP Playoffs. Despite his success, he was replaced in the offseason by Trevor Lawrence who would go on to be drafted first overall in this year’s NFL Draft. Bryant transferred to Missouri, but he struggled and went undrafted. Kelly Bryant had as high a profile in college as just about any current CFL quarterback. His replacement, Kenji Bahar, set numerous school records in college, but flew under the radar at Monmouth. He must also be considered a long shot to make this football team, especially because they’ll be trying to get Nick Arbuckle as many training camp snaps as possible.

Another swap in this wave of transactions was releasing LB Jason Beck and signing LB Eli Mencer. Beck was perhaps the most underrated signing the Argonauts made in 2020, earning All-MAC honours at Eastern Michigan. He is an outstanding defensive football player with the versatility to line up as a linebacker or in slot coverage. Like most Americans, he would probably have needed at least half a season to get acclimated, but he is the prototype CFL cover-backer who would have fought for time by the end of the year. Eli Mencer is a project. A good project, but still a project. He will be a CFL linebacker, but he really hasn’t played the position before. He didn’t see consistent work until his senior year at Albany where he lined up primarily as an edge rusher. He’s an outstanding pass rusher, but as a CFL linebacker, he lacks the coverage ability to line up anywhere but MAC, which is entirely new for him. It wouldn’t be surprising for Mencer to make the practice squad, but he wont likely dress for the Argonauts this season.

The last of these “one in, one out” positional moves was releasing WR Jawill Davis and signing WR Jaylen Smith. Unlike the other transactions, the incoming Smith is unquestionably a better receiver than Davis, but that’s not why Davis was in Toronto. While Davis was unlikely to see time as a receiver, the skill he brought to the table was on special teams as an accomplished kick and punt returner. Statistically, with the New York Giants, the return numbers Davis produced were significantly better than the NFL average, with 7.4 yards per punt return and 24.4 yards per kickoff return. The Argonauts have other options on special teams, but Davis had a real shot at winning both jobs. Conversely, there’s not much chance of Smith being a steady special teams contributor. He wasn’t used at all on specials as a senior at Louisville, and he saw limited action there as a junior. In his preseason stint with the Baltimore Ravens, Smith was thrown out there on both coverage units, but looked lost. As a pure receiver, Smith had two good seasons at Louisville when Lamar Jackson was his quarterback, but looked like a completely different player after Jackson left. He could find himself in the mix as a backup possession receiver in Toronto, but with so many other options who are special teams contributors, this seems unlikely.

The Argonauts also signed RB Greg McCrae this week, though this was to fill the void left by the retirement of Karlos Williams back in April. At 5’10”, 182lbs, McCrae looks a lot like the rest of the Argonauts backfield, but he still needs to develop his hands and pass protection. As a pure runner, he suits the CFL game quite well with good interior toughness, vision, and change of direction. But in a league where pass protection and receiving skill for a back are king, McCrae will also be in tough to make this roster.

All of the players the Argonauts released over the past two weeks seemed to have a legitimate shot to make the roster, and possibly even start, whereas it’s unlikely any of the new signings will see the field this season. Since Lane, Tyson, Bryant, Beck, and Davis clearly weren’t cut to make room for these incoming players, what was the reason for their release?

Due to the unusual CFL scheduling this season, NFL training camp will immediately follow CFL training camp. Is it possible these players are looking for an NFL camp opportunity and negotiated their release with the Argonauts in order to be immediately available for any American team that comes calling?

With the level of talent on the Argonauts roster, there is certainly a possibility any of these players might have been cut during training camp, which would certainly hamper any opportunity they had to sign with a team down south. As much as it’s an unfair assessment, NFL teams don’t typically get excited about signing players who were cut by a CFL team.

Was there possibly a lack of commitment from these players in Zoom meetings and playbook work? For the first time since they were signed, there is suddenly very real accountability. The CFL has seen hundreds of American players over the years who had the ability to play, but not the dedication. Americans who view the CFL as a league in which they’ll be able to play without the same level of commitment required to play in the NFL are never successful. Could this have been the case?

Or are these recent Toronto departures caused by the same reasons we’ve seen a rash of retirements over the past few weeks? Has the prospect of having to follow Canadian NHL team-level COVID-19 protocols for much less money turned players away? Was the three weeks notice given to them by the league not enough time for these players to get their affairs in order, leave the jobs they had, or possibly get themselves in shape?

The answers to these questions will probably never come out, but it’s worth paying attention to the roster transactions around the league over the coming weeks to see if this is an anomaly or a trend. As far as the Argonauts are concerned, while they have been unfairly criticized over the past 19 months for stockpiling free agents, this appears to have been an intelligent endeavor. They have the talent surplus to weather significant personnel losses should quality players continue to disappear in the final days before training camp.

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