An avid Argos fan & season ticket holder, Don Landry has covered almost every type of news from sports to music to talk radio in his 25 years of broadcasting and has conducted over 10,000 interviews with the likes of Prime Ministers, sports legends, showbiz stars, power brokers and many more. Follow Don on Twitter @argoslandry or visit his website at donlandry.com.
TORONTO -- A CFL off-season is like all others in pro sports. It can provide the excitement of big changes for fans of any given team, as well as heartache. Bring in a Ricky Ray and spirits are lifted. Say goodbye to a Byron Parker and a Kevin Eiben and hands get nervously wrung.
Have the Argos strengthened their team overall? Yes. Are they more vulnerable in some areas as they watch key veterans walk out the door? The answer to that, as well, is undoubtedly yes.
If you think that letting go of veteran leaders like Eiben and Parker is easy for those on the inside of the Argos football hierarchy, think again, says General Manager Jim Barker.
"It's hard for fans," said Barker. "They're players they've grown very close to. Anybody who thinks it was easy for me to watch Byron sign in B.C. or watch Kevin sign in Hamilton, doesn't know me very well. Those guys are...I care about them deeply. But I'm hired to do a job for this organization and that's what I'm doing."
"We needed to get better. You can't get better staying the same. We needed to have change."
Some of that change, in the addition and subtraction of a salary cap world, can mean saying so long to some valued vets. It also leads to the hope that the next generation replacing them is up to the task.
"Yeah, there's going to be some young players, but young players need to get an opportunity," said Barker. "We feel very, very confident in our ability to find those players. We've tried very hard to maintain as much continuity as possible. But in the world of a salary cap, that doesn't go up a whole lot every year, you have to make very tough decisions."
DEFENCE: ARE YOUNG GUNS READY TO REPLACE THE VETS?
It's certainly tough for Argos fans to see linebacker Kevin Eiben head out the door. Even tougher for them to swallow is the fact that he heads down the highway to the Hamilton Ticats, a team that is conceding nothing to the re-tooled Argos and have signalled through their own off-season of change that they will not stand politely by as Toronto tries to steam its way to a 100th Grey Cup appearance in their home stadium.
Eiben, as devoted and decorated as any Argos stalwart in recent memory, became expendable in the Toronto scheme of things, at least in part, after last season's developments. When he went down for the year with a torn pectoral muscle, the team's emerging linebackers (Ejiro Kuale, Anthony Cannon, Jeremy Unertl and especially, for ratio purposes, Tristan Black) shot forward and showed that the team could survive without his magnificent linebacking. Not to say that the team wouldn't be better off with depth in its Canadian linebacking corps. But this year's draft is thought, by some, to be particularly deep and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Argos expend a pick or two to replenish the position.
Losing Parker's ball hawking abilities on the corner seems a rather large hole to fill. The all-time league leader in interceptions for touchdowns (9) may not have the spring in his legs that he did when he was an NCAA slam dunk champion, but he has plenty left in his tank and will make an already ferocious B.C. Lions secondary that much more dangerous. So how do the Argos make do?
Sean Smalls seems set on one corner. New defensive coordinator Chris Jones was known for his man coverage schemes while in Calgary. Brandon Browner was a valuable player for Jones and the Stampeders, playing a physical brand of short-side corner. Smalls might fit the bill in that regard. On the other side, youngster Armando Murillo, heading into his second year, could get a long look. Newcomer Javes Lewis, signed last Fall, could factor in as well.
At any rate, with the loss of Parker and the releasing of half back Lin-J Shell, some young blood is about to be injected into the Argos' secondary on a full time basis, barring the off-season signing of a proven vet. How well the greenhorns perform will go a long way in determining the strength of the team's pass defence.
In the area of defensive leadership, the re-signing of linebackers Jason Pottinger and Jordan Younger as well as defensive captain Willie Pile ensure that the team is not lacking in that area.
Younger and Pile have both proven they can play at the linebacker spot or back in the secondary.
So far, the Argos are content to head into 2012 with pretty much the same defensive personnel up front. There will be pressure on Claude Wroten to step up big time. Ricky Foley remains a potent pass rush threat. Ronald Flemons and Kevin Huntley are dependable vets and if Huntley's injured shoulder heals well, he'll be expected to regain his form from 2010.
Overall, it's a good unit. Different scheming may be all the change it needs.
RECEIVING CORPS: WHO STEPS UP?
As explained in a previous column, the Argos believe they've found their ace receiver in Jason Barnes. To emerge as such, he'll need the other pass catchers around him to show they are credible threats as well. Barnes, along with Fred Stamps, helped the Edmonton Eskimos rule the inside passing lanes last season. Will head coach Scott Millanovich leave him in there, or see if he can be as effective on the outside?
Andre Durie has shown that his pass receiving talents have risen to more than capable levels. He could have more balls thrown his way this season and if he does, not much chance he'll be seen as underrated anymore.
A wildcard in all of this is Maurice Mann. Obtained in a deal with Hamilton last season, Mann suited up just twice for Toronto and caught only two passes. The Argos didn't get a very good look at him at all, but hope for great things from him in 2012. He's had success in this league, particularly when he was on the receiving end of passes thrown by - wait for it - Ricky Ray, in Edmonton.
Sammy Tranks didn't see much action in his rookie season. He could use a good camp to crack the line-up.
OFFENSIVE LINE: CHANGES SUBSTANTIAL
It's the offensive line where the most, if not noticeable, possibly important changes have been made. It's here as well that the Argos take some calculated gambles. The team brass is reasonably certain that Edawn Coughman can be a full-time tackle and he did show great promise after veteran Rob Murphy was injured. One assumes he'll get the chance to be Ray's blind side protector on a regular basis in 2012, unless ratio changes elsewhere on the roster force a non-import starter into the slot.
Losing Dominic Picard stings. He was the only Argos lineman to play all 18 games for the team last season. Rock steady, he hadn't missed a game in two years. Really good linemen are difficult to find; even more so if they're a centre. But Picard's departure, it seems, was expected. Hence the signing of former Saskatchewan lineman Marc Parenteau two days before free agency began. Parenteau, like Picard, played all 18 games at centre for his team last year. But it was his first as a full-time centre which might lead some to wonder if he'll be an adequate replacement. Chris Van Zeyl will be back to help lead the unit, as will Cedric Gagne-Marcoux. Joe Eppele filled in admirably during last season's injury crunch. Is he ready for prime time?
Solid offensive line play is a must for the Argos in 2012. Milanovich knows this. He comes from a Montreal Alouettes team that has done simply a sensational job of allowing Anthony Calvillo, not a noted scrambler, to work his passing magic. Now, it's also certain that Calvillo's ability to read, react and throw quickly was a boon to the offensive line in front of him, as well. It will take the Argos offensive line, which will see a batch of new regulars together, some time to find cohesion. They need to keep Ray upright. And he'll need to get the ball out quickly, at least while the line is developing its tightness as a unit.
JARIOUS JACKSON: ALWAYS HAVE A BACK UP PLAN
It's true that Eiben's sure handed placements on field goal and extra point attempts were not adequately replaced in his absence, but that glaring weakness has been addressed with the addition of free agent quarterback Jarious Jackson, who handled those duties well for the B.C.
Lions in 2011.
More importantly, Jackson provides the Argos with something no contending team should be caught without - a dependable, experienced back up. If Ricky Ray goes down, you'd not want to see your aspirations for a Grey Cup appearance spin down the drain because you don't have a good bullpen guy ready to step in. As for the addition of Adam Tafralis, as it stands now, he can battle B.J. Hall for the third string spot. Hall showed plenty of athletic ability in workouts last year. He's raw, but would be worth another look at camp in June.
All in all, the 2012 Argos appear to be superior to the 2011 version, even if that superiority has come at the price of some familiar, much-loved faces.
Wed Jun 12 at 8:00 pm EDT
Investors Group Field
|vs Montreal||Thu Jun 20||7:00 pm EDT|
|vs Hamilton||Fri Jun 28||7:00 pm EDT|
|@ BC||Thu Jul 4||10:00 pm EDT|
|vs Saskatchewan||Thu Jul 11||7:30 pm EDT|
|Full Schedule >|