Toronto Tea Leaves
When the Toronto Argonauts selected University of Calgary interior offensive lineman Peter Nicastro in the first round of the 2021 CFL Draft, they may have left us some tea leaves to read regarding their overall plan in the trenches for the upcoming season.
A few weeks ago, Argos Communications Manager, Mike Hogan, told me Peter Nicastro was Plan A for the Argonauts. They loved New Mexico State tackle Sage Doxtater, but in the days leading up to the draft, they decided taking Nicastro was the ultimate goal in the first round. My interpretation of what transpired on draft night is they felt strongly Doxtater would be taken prior to them being on the clock, but they felt somewhat comfortable in their primary target, Peter Nicastro, still being there for them with the seventh overall pick. Rather unexpectedly, Doxtater was still available when it came time for Toronto to make their pick, and an intense discussion ensued in the virtual war room. According to Hogan, with the clock ticking down, Director of Canadian Scouting, Vince Magri, reminded the room that Nicastro was Plan A, and they made the selection.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve wondered to myself why there was a lengthy discussion before the pick was made. Nicastro was Plan A, and I absolutely believe this, and there he was waiting for them when Toronto’s turn came. I fully understand fielding calls and listening to offers from other teams, but it sounds like this was all internal discussion.
Mike Hogan mentioned to me that Doxtater hadn’t been available at seven in any of the mock drafts they’d done in preparation for the real thing. The only explanation I can come up with for the hesitation on draft night is they wondered if they should draft Doxtater and gamble on Nicastro still being available when they came up again in the second round. Clearly, they didn’t think Doxtater would make it there since they didn’t have him sliding as far a seventh in any of their simulations, but Nicastro falling that far seemed possible.
The CFL Scouting Bureau didn’t have Nicastro on any of their three Top 20 prospect lists, Marshall Ferguson didn’t have him getting selected in his four-round mock draft, and CFP’s Connor O’Neil and Wade Zanchetta didn’t have him among their top 30 prospects heading into the draft. I liked Nicastro more than most, though I’m not as good a talent evaluator as Marshall, Connor, or Wade, and even I only had a third-round grade on him.
I believe Nicastro would have been there for Toronto in the second round. I think the delay in making the pick was because many of the Argonauts coaches and staff also believed this was likely. However, there was no guarantee, and several teams had already gone off the board in the first six picks.
The fact that they picked Nicastro instead of Doxtater in the first round tells us they were willing to risk not getting their top-rated tackle, but they weren’t willing to risk not getting their top-rated interior lineman. That they were able to pick Doxtater in the second round is amazing, and a huge win for the Toronto Argonauts, but let’s not lose sight of what their decision-making process means.
It means the Argonauts believed they needed a backup guard and center for this season. And it obviously means they thought Peter Nicastro was the only player in the draft who could answer the brief. For what it’s worth, I agree with their assessment. As much as I like Nicastro as a guard, I think he’s an even better center. There were other players I felt had a higher ceiling, but of the 100-plus players I evaluated, he was the only one I felt was ready enough to play both guard and center in 2021 if needed.
They wouldn’t have risked missing out on taking Doxtater if they viewed Nicastro as anything less than a capable interior backup with the ability to step into a game situation this season if called upon. So what does this say about the big picture on the offensive line for the Argonauts?
When I made my first depth chart a few months ago, I noted that while Toronto didn’t have many offensive linemen under contract, most of the guys they had were young with a high ceiling. Turning 36 this year, Philip Blake is the elder statesman of the group by almost a decade. He’s a lock to start at left guard, with Dariusz Bladek playing right guard. But wait, didn’t Blake finish the 2019 season playing right guard? And didn’t Bladek play more left guard than right? And weren’t they both playing in Saskatchewan under Coach McAdoo who is now the offensive line coach in Toronto? Yes, yes, and yes. But a lot of weird things happened to Saskatchewan’s line in 2019.
Blake’s starts at left guard were because Brendon Labatte was injured. Bladek’s starts at left guard were because both Labatte and Blake were injured. When Bladek also suffered an injury, Labatte came back to left guard, and Blake slid over to right guard. But, in the only game in which Blake and Bladek were healthy and Labatte was not, Blake started at left guard and Bladek started at right guard. So, unless the Argos trade for Labatte, this is how the guard positions will likely look under Coach McAdoo in Toronto. Cody Speller will start at center where he played for the Blue Bombers during their 2019 Grey Cup run. Barring injury, a trade, or a sudden retirement, this is how the interior of the Toronto line will look on opening day.
The tackle spots are not as easy to forecast, though Jamal Campbell is a heavy favourite to start on the right side. Campbell has always been more comfortable on the right going back to his days playing right tackle at York University. He spent the first six games of 2019 in Toronto backing up at right guard, he backed up at right tackle for a game, then he started at right tackle for the remaining 11 games. He played well, his play improved throughout the season, and he signed a three-year contract extension before becoming a free agent. There’s not much doubt they see him as the starting right tackle.
Isiah Cage might be a slight favourite to start at left tackle, but being the first American lineman we’ve talked about is what makes this less of a guarantee. Cage started the first nine games of 2019 at left tackle before suffering a season-ending injury in Moncton against Montreal. The Argonauts would love for a Canadian to win this job, giving them all sorts of flexibility elsewhere, but if an American is going to start somewhere on the line, this is where it will be.
Of the remaining offensive lineman on the roster, only Dejon Allen is a natural interior lineman, but he’s never taken a snap in the Canadian game, and even he had his best two years playing left tackle at the University of Hawaii. Shane Richards started the 2019 season at right guard before suffering an injury. He returned to the lineup in Week 15, but he didn’t start another game. Eric Starczala played some games at center while at Guelph, and Maurice Simba took some snaps at guard, but everything about these guys screams tackle, and it’s where they’ve played their best football. Theren Churchill, Dylan Giffen, American Blake Camper, and newly signed American Jalen Burks are all pure tackles. This brings us back to Peter Nicastro.
Here’s what Toronto’s brass might have been thinking heading into the draft: If there is an injury at the center position in 2021, Philip Blake is an experienced center who can fill in. But he’s also our best guard, so who fills in for him? The coaching staff might feel comfortable putting in Allen, Richards, or Simba, but what if there’s a second injury in the interior like there was with Coach McAdoo’s line in Saskatchewan in 2019? What if it’s Blake?
There wasn’t a multi-game solution to this problem on Toronto’s roster. That was the urgency in drafting Nicastro. That was why they were willing to risk losing out on Sage Doxtater, a consensus first round pick. It worked out brilliantly anyway, but it might not have. Taking Nicastro was the correct move. Doxtater may have a long and successful career as a tackle in Toronto, but he’s returning to New Mexico State this fall, so he certainly wouldn’t have been able to do anything about the potential hole in the interior in 2021.
The Nicastro pick also lets guys like Shane Richards focus their training on the tackle position. Richards has transformed his body and looks to be in tremendous shape. A camp battle for two tackle spots featuring he, Campbell, Cage, Churchill, and Giffen is sure to produce two strong starters as the Argonauts look to pull an about face with a positional group that caused to much strife in 2019.
And we got all this from the Argos taking Peter Nicastro over Sage Doxtater in the first round of the CFL Draft. That’s reading the tea leaves.