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May 3, 2019

Inside the War Room: Draft Day

Argonauts.ca’s Mike Hogan was granted access to the “War Room” on draft night. He’s able to share a behind-the-scenes look at what happened before and during the draft. The only stipulation was that he not mention the names of players that were not drafted by the Argos, or the teams that Jim Popp was talking trade with.

 

For General Manager Jim Popp and company, the draft started months, even years ago. Countless hours of preparation would culminate in a three-hour exercise that would see a total of ten players join the organization.

The player personnel department’s usual place of business is their offices at the Coca-Cola Coliseum, a modest par-3 east of BMO Field. On this night the “War Room” was moved to the defensive coaches’ office at the stadium, a mere one-minute walk to where the organization was holding a draft party for season ticket holders, an idea Popp himself had pushed hard for.

Argonauts.ca arrived at the Coliseum at roughly 4:00, four hours before the draft was to begin. The personnel staff was just wrapping up its final preparations in its usual gathering spot. The heavy lifting was done, now there was a lengthy wait for the proceedings to begin.

When the staff reassembled at BMO Field the jeans and sweatshirts were gone. Jackets and ties were the order of the night. As staff members rolled in there were some last-minute discussions about potential draftees, there was some conversation about that night’s Raptors game. It was mostly small talk, though there was some discussion about a couple of potential trades, none of which seemed to spark much interest.

“We’ve been wheeling and dealing all day,” Popp said when asked if his phone had been ringing often, “But there’s nothing happening.”

The General Manager and his Director of Canadian scouting Vince Magri sat at the head of the table. To their right, college and pro scout Justin Hickman and Director of Football Administration Catherine Raiche, to their left a pair of newcomers to the department, Coordinator of Football Operations/Logistics Alex Russell and Matt Black, who has moved from the defensive secondary to the scouting staff. Head Coach Corey Chamblin would spend most of the time before the draft in his adjacent office, before joining the group a few minutes before the draft, taking his seat just behind Hickman. The side of the table opposite Popp and Magri was vacant so they could see a giant screen on the wall, listing available players, or the draft order, which would be updated after each selection. There was also a giant-screen TV so everyone could watch the TSN broadcast.

Also in the room was the Argos Director of Video Jon Magri, who updated the draft and the list of available players, Manager of Football Media Chris Balenovich, Community Manager Adam Krueger, and this reporter from Argonauts.ca.

There was no suspense in terms of who the team would take with its first-overall pick, Shane Richards had been in Toronto for several days. The team wanted to spend more time with him and wanted to surprise fans at the draft party by having him enter the room and sign a contract in front of 200 or so witnesses.

Richards arrived in the draft room at 6:25, joined by his mother, father and two sisters. To avoid being seen and ruining the surprise, the family entered through the west side of the stadium, the opposite side from where fans were entering BMO Club, the site of the party.

After a brief chat with the staff, the Richards family headed upstairs to a private suite where they could relax before the big moment.

There was still roughly an hour-and-a-half to go before the draft was to begin. All eyes turned to the TSN screen as the CFL panel discussed what may lay ahead.

Then more waiting. It was a common theme of the night.

At 7:10 Popp discussed a trade offer and a potential counter offer. There didn’t seem to be much interest from anyone at the table to make the deal and the conversation ended quickly, but it would not be the last trade offer of the night.

At roughly 7:45 a TSN camera entered the room to get a shot of those assembled. Ten minutes later a conference call with the league began. CFL Senior Director of Football Operations Ryan Janzen took a roll call and explained how the draft would work. Each team would give its pick to Janzen, who would pass it on to the Commissioner. In the first round, a team had six minutes to make a pick, the time between selections would decrease as the rounds progressed.

In the past, picks were being leaked to the outside media. To prevent that from happening Janzen would read the latest pick over the conference call at exactly the same time Ambrosie was reading the name on the broadcast.

As that preamble concluded, Popp said, “It’s nice to be making your pick, and your pick is already signed.”

It was remarkably quiet in the room as Ambrosie opened the draft with the words “Toronto Argonauts, you’re now on the clock.”

While the speculation continued nationally, there was zero surprises about who the first pick would be. Popp planned to make the draft call at 8:05. He would announce the pick by giving the player’s number on the master list of eligible players, position and school.

He made the call, and after some small talk with Janzen made the choice.

“The Toronto Argonauts, with their first pick, select number 495, Shane Richards, offensive tackle, Oklahoma State.”

Done. The months of preparation, the video study, the interviews with players and their coaches, the live workouts, the mock drafts, the contract discussions, all to arrive at the player the Argos deemed worthy of the top pick in the draft.

Immediately after the selection, and before the pick was announced on TSN, Popp and Chamblin would walk down a long hallway and outside to a stadium concourse. They’d meet the Richards family, then move inside to speak to the enthusiastic fans gathered for the party.

After Popp and Chamblin spoke, the fans were in for a big surprise, in fact, a 6’6”, 334-pound surprise, as the newest Argo was introduced to cheers so loud they were easily heard in the War Room. The surprise was magnified when Richards, Popp and Chamblin signed a contract on the stage, two years plus an option.

The room exploded. Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” played over the speakers as Richards was presented with an Argos #68 jersey with his name on it. It was a great moment to be a fan of the Double Blue.

Quickly, Popp and Chamblin headed back to continue prepping for the ninth-overall pick. The night was far from over, and the GM was about to make his toughest decision of the night.

Another GM called to make a serious trade offer. He offered his first rounder – slightly higher than the ninth pick – to the Argos for the ninth and the 20th overall picks.

The discussion immediately became intense. The Argos wanted a specific player but knew that they’d either get that player, or another very good player with whomever fell to them at nine. Was it worth giving up the 20th pick, which could be another very good player in what was universally looked upon as being a deep draft, in exchange to move up a couple of picks or so?

The eventual consensus was that it wasn’t worth it and they passed on the proposal, though they were really tempted to make the deal.

When their pick came up it was a choice between two players. There was serious discussion weighing the pros and cons of the two potential picks. After everyone at the table had their say, it was decided that Robbie Smith, a defensive end from Laurier, would become an Argo.

“He’s very strong,” Popp said of Smith. “He can stand up and take people on. He can really close fast and get upfield, and we feel like he can be a really good special teams player. We feel he can make the team now, not down the road, but now.”

Popp and Chamblin spoke to the Brampton native on the phone before the pick was announced by the league, then the pair headed back to the party. They explained why they chose Smith, then announced that last year’s third-round pick, receiver Regis Cibasu from Universite de Montreal, had agreed to terms. Again, as a surprise, Ciabsu was introduced to the crowd and presented with a #83 jersey. The crowd roared its approval.

As the night progressed, and with at times a lengthy wait between picks, the room sounded much like a group of friends gathered for a fantasy draft. Some of the other teams’ picks were praised, others questioned – exactly like in every other War Room around the league. When it was over, ten players had been selected by Toronto, including UBC quarterback Michael O’Connor, whose selection was cheered so loudly at the party it was heard loudly and clearly in the War Room.

For Popp and his staff, the night’s work ended at exactly 11:00 when he announced the Argos were selecting offensive lineman Eric Starczala from Guelph.

It was then time to exhale, enjoy a beverage, and take stock of what had been achieved.

Collectively the group was surprised that a couple of players dropped to them, most notably Laurier wide receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr., Justin Hickman was astonished the Argos were able to get him where they did.

“We had him ranked fairly high,” Hickman told Argonauts.ca after the draft. “To get him where we got him was great value. When I watched the film I saw a playmaker, someone who when he got the ball in his hands made things happen. He goes and gets the ball, he’s got some slither, he’s got some wiggle, he’s going to bring some toughness to the position. I think he can be an immediate starter.”

The ironic thing is that the two players being debated with the No. 23 pick were Gittens and offensive lineman Maurice Simba from Concordia. Simba was still there when the Argos picked at No. 29. They literally got both of their men.

Vince Magri was pumped about Gittens and one other player specifically among those not chosen with pick numbers one and nine.

“We’re thrilled to have Michael O’Connor,” he said. “We had him right up at the top of our board. So was Kurleigh Gittens and we definitely didn’t think he was going to be there at that pick.”

He went back to praising the QB.

“Looking around the league right now he’s probably just as good, if not better than a lot of guys who are under contract,” said Magri.

He also pointed out how happy they were to get defensive back Jamie Harry from Ottawa where they did.

It wasn’t a perfect night, no draft gives a team everyone it wants. There were a couple of cases where a player was selected two or three picks before the Argos were ready to choose them, but invariably they were happy with who they drafted instead.

The next stop is to look at these players in camp. Some will head back to school, others may sign with an NFL team, but don’t be surprised if a handful of them make either the team or the practice roster this season, meaning the Canadian talent on the Argos is improving.

That was the goal from the time Randy Ambrosie opened the draft.