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Hogan: Inside the 2021 Draft War Room

Argonauts.ca’s Mike Hogan was allowed inside the team’s “War Room” for the 2021 CFL Draft. He shares his insights now as to what led up to the Argos’ picks in each round. The only guideline was that he was not allowed to talk mention the names of players the Argos did not select.

 

This year would be different. There was more talent available in this CFL Draft, yet there was more uncertainty than in any previous draft year. Many more NCAA players than usual were able to go back to school for another season, another unique aspect to this draft.

With the cancellation of the 2020 season, last year’s draft class will be entering a CFL training camp for the first time, as will some of the players selected on Tuesday night, potentially leading to an unusually high number of first-year pros. Teams had to determine how many players they wanted in camp this year, with an option to pick a player they wouldn’t see until 2022 at the earliest.

There was also the question of trying to figure out which teams were interested in which players. In the past, scouting departments were able to see other teams at work. Were they paying a lot of attention to one or two players at the combine? Had they been calling a player’s coach often? Would a team be drafting to add a player immediately, or one that they would be willing to wait on for a year, or two, or three? The high number of players drafted by, or signing with NFL teams threw another question at personnel departments.

In other words, nobody had the slightest idea of what was going to happen.

The Argos entered the night with picks 7, 12, 25, 30, 33, 47 and 52. There was a chance that the club may trade up, or trade down, depending on how things were unfolding. General Manager Michael Clemons and Vice President of Player Personnel John Murphy were open to both options.

The depth and uncertainly of the evening led to an incredible amount of drama. In the week leading up to the draft, Argonauts.ca asked Murphy and the Argos Director of Canadian Scouting, Vince Magri, to name three players they’d be happy with if they were available with the seventh pick. Both named four players, each naming the same player three times, while agreeing that the other’s fourth name was a distinct possibility of going seventh overall should they be still available.

In the near future one of those three players would become an Argo.

The team did seven full mock drafts in preparation for the real thing, selecting at least four different players with the seventh-overall pick.

A Zoom room opened just before 6:00 p.m. ET, an hour before the draft began. Picture the room being like a group of friends gathered for a fantasy draft. There was little talk about the draft itself, but enough good-natured trash talk and storytelling to loosen everyone up.

There were 20 people in the room. Members of the personnel department, coaches, the video team, and three members of the communications department, including this humble typist.

As the clock neared 7:00 p.m., General Manager Michael “Pinball” Clemons addressed the group. He wanted to make sure that everyone understood their contributions were vitally important and urged everyone to give their opinion.

“What scares me is if everyone winds up in the same place because we all can’t think alike,” Clemons told Argonauts.ca. “There are times where we’re not in total agreement.”

That would be evident as the evening progressed.

At 6:55 a role call was held by the CFL’s Associate Vice-President of Football Operations Ryan Janzen, who was hosting a conference call featuring all nine teams. Magri would be dialed into the call for the Argos, and the rest of the team’s “War Room” would be able to hear Janzen make the announcement of the picks.

This year, to eliminate any leaks to the media, each team would email its selection to Janzen, with Magri and Murphy doing that for Toronto. The selection would be forwarded to CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie and TSN, the host broadcaster. The pick would be announced to the teams by Janzen at the same instant Ambrosie was making the announcement on TV.

It was a busy Argo Zoom room, so someone had to play the role of traffic cop. It’s not unusual for either a General Manager or a Head Coach to lead the way on draft night, depending on the culture of the group. In this case it would be Head Coach Ryan Dinwiddie that would lead the discussion, floating the name of a prospect for consideration, or calling on a specific coach or member of the personnel department for their insight.

“We let people show their personalities,” Clemons explained. “If (Dinwiddie) wasn’t the guy, someone else would have taken that role. Vince, Murph or I could have chaired the floor, but the coaches are used to being in a room with Ryan. It makes it easier for the coaches to be involved in the conversation.”

Just after 7:00 Randy Ambrosie announced the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were on the clock and the 2021 CFL Draft was underway.

Despite the homework, the hours of discussion and the multiple mock drafts, nobody was prepared for what would happen in the first round. While there was always discussion about which player a team would take, there were enough surprises to keep everyone on the edge of their seat.

At one point in the first round Defensive Line Coach Mike Davis said, “This has been a weird draft so far.” Nobody disagreed even slightly.

At times another team’s selection was questioned, while other times a loud, sharp profanity was uttered as a team selected a favourite player of someone on the Argos staff. While this was going on the constant message reiterated by the head coach was that an offensive lineman would be there at pick seven; but would it be the man they wanted?

The answer would be yes, but remarkably there was still a discussion about whether or not to take him when it was announced the Argos were on the clock.

Peter Nicastro is a 6’2”, 300-pound interior lineman from the University of Calgary. He’s a player the Argos loved. Both Murphy and Magri had him on their list of the three desired players which they shared with Argonauts.ca. But there was a catch; Sage Doxtater was still on the board and they loved him too.

The debate started to intensify. The club loved Nicastro, but was he a better candidate to slide to the Argos’ next choice, 12th overall? There was no question they would love to get both players, but how? Doxtater was a player most had projected to go in the draft before Nicastro, but the latter could become an Argo this year, while the former had committed to return to the NCAA for one final season at New Mexico St.

They talked about the comfort level of losing one of the two players, and how much losing each one would hurt. As time wound down on the clock, the Argos were given a warning by Janzen about them running out of time. Magri spoke up and talked about how they as a group had hoped to get Nicastro all along because a) he was really good, and b) he was a natural interior lineman as opposed to the tackle types the Argos already have in quality and quantity.

His was the deciding voice and Nicastro was an Argo at pick number seven.

Dinwiddie was happy, “We just got a kid who makes us better,” he said to the group.

Magri was elated about the team’s decision.

“He is very strong, very tough, very gritty, nasty, and is very quick. His quickness and his ability to naturally bend and recover from precarious positions is at a very high level. His versatility was also a factor. He’s played mostly guard, but he’s started several games at centre at Calgary. He plays to the whistle, he finishes blocks.”

The compliments were flowing, but the head scout was just getting warmed up.

“Prior to 2021 free agency, we didn’t have a natural Canadian centre on our roster, which changed with the addition of Cody Speller. This gives us another guy in that stable that’s got a lot of playing experience at both guard and centre. He’ll compete at both.”

Then it was on to pick 12. The conversation turned to what the team would do if Doxtater was drafted in the ensuing four picks. Options were given, especially with the Argos already having one o-lineman they desperately wanted.

When the twelfth pick rolled around, the exceptionally large target was still in sight. When Dinwiddie asked the group “Do we go with Doxtater?”, Offensive Line Coach Stephen McAdoo’s easily distinguishable baritone voice entered the conversation. He emphatically said “Yes” before Dinwiddie got to the second syllable of the tackle’s name.

Of the seven picks over the course of the evening, this one would be the quickest consensus of all. To a person, the staff was overjoyed that it was able to land both Nicastro and Doxtater; something it didn’t think would be possible.

“We had similar grades on them,” Magri explained to Argonauts.ca in a phone conversation after the draft was over. “The fact that one is available now, the other is going back to school played into it. With another year of school, and at his size (6’7”, 350) and athleticism there is a chance Sage could have an NFL opportunity at the end of next year, which would delay him showing up.”

The club wouldn’t pick again until No. 25 overall, a pick that the Argos had never owned since the league dropped the pre-draft territorial exemptions in 1985. Amazingly, in 36 drafts the Argos had never drafted in that slot.

For a while it looked as though that draft spot would be cursed. In what would have been a comical stretch if the stakes weren’t so high, it seemed like every player the team started talking about as a possibility was immediately drafted as the discussion was going on. This went on for four or five consecutive picks.

The consensus was to grab a defensive player, but which one? The name that kept coming up time and time again was that of Luiji Vilain, a 6’4”, 245-pound defensive end who spent the first four years of his career – including a redshirt freshman season – with Michigan but is transferring to Wake Forest for 2021.

“When he was coming out of high school, he was the number two rated prospect coming out of Canada, second only to Chuba Hubbard,” Magri explained. “He has incredible athleticism and physical traits. Going to the University of Michigan for a kid from Canada is a big feat in itself. It was unfortunate that he had a string of injuries that took him off the field for his early developmental stage. With the talent they have it made it tough for him to work his way back into the rotation as they’re bringing in five-star recruits every year. He’s healthy, he’s a great kid, he loves football, he’s highly competitive, and very smart.”

Magri was exceptionally open with Argonauts.ca leading up to the draft. While discussion about prospects is always something he likes to participate in, he was extremely honest about some of the players the Argos really liked, and those they really didn’t.

After one of the conversations, Argonauts.ca compiled a list of the athletes Magri had targeted in the first two rounds. Players they didn’t like were obviously not included, nor were players who the Argos felt would stick in the NFL. A list of seven names was mentioned as possible first-rounders, six more were listed as potential picks at No. 12.

As the Argos entered the fourth round, there was still one name on the list that Magri thought could be considered as the team’s second rounder, with a quick caveat; it was more likely he would be considered at No. 25.

While the name of Tommy Nield was mentioned – most prominently by Magri –  as a potential pick in the third round, the strong consensus was that Vilain was the better fit, especially with the knowledge that just before the draft the team had signed receiver Dejon Brissett, last year’s second-overall pick, to a contract.

Magri is not a loud man by nature. He picks his spots when to assert himself in any conversation. As discussion went on about who to take with the No. 30 pick, either Nield or a player more suited for special teams, (though Nield is expected to be a teamer as well) with Carleton’s Trevor Hoyte, a 6’1”, 215-pound linebacker, being given the most consideration. Magri stepped up and pushed hard for Nield. He was backed by Alex Russell, the Argos’ Coordinator of Logistics and a key member of the personnel department.

Perhaps the biggest proponent of drafting Hoyte was Linebackers Coach and Special Teams Assistant Coach Kevin Eiben. He saw the combination of physical ability, above-average intellect and high character. Eiben had been silent for most of the evening but was now motivated to go to bat for his guy.

While the discussion about taking either Nield or Hoyte became very intense, it was noted that the Argos also had the No. 33 pick. Magri reasoned that the 6’3” receiver from McMaster was the top player on their board and was by far the best value pick left. He also said there was a better chance Nield would be selected in the ensuing two picks.

It’s not that he didn’t love Hoyte, far from it. He just thought this was the best way to get both. The room agreed and selected Nield.

He may have been right, as Edmonton took receiver Dominic Johnson with the 32nd pick. Again, the preparation and understanding of other teams’ needs paid off, as the Argos used the subsequent pick to select Hoyte.

Mike Clemons has often said, “If you’re the smartest person in the room it’s your own fault.” The addition of Hoyte may ensure that’s the case for everyone involved with the team. His major at Carleton is astrophysics and he’s a three-time Academic All-Canadian, as well as being the OUA All-Star SAM linebacker in 2019. His roommate at Carleton was Jack Cassar, who was an Argos’ second-round pick a year ago.

The heavy lifting was done. The team had no picks in the fifth round and two in the sixth. Aside from the Doxtater selection, no picks were unanimous, but in terms of the final round everyone was in agreement that no bodies would be needed for this season, and drafting players who were either going to the NFL or back to school would be the best way to go.

They really liked University of Saskatchewan 6’3”, 200-pound defensive back Josh Hagerty for his physical play. During the interview process, he indicated that he was willing to go back to school and once again compete for a Vanier Cup. This was exactly what the Argos needed to hear at this stage, and it became an easy pick.

With the final selection the team rolled the dice on Benjamin St. Juste, a cornerback from the University of Minnesota who was drafted by Washington in the third round of last week’s NFL Draft. The number of players drafted this late in the draft who make the CFL is incredibly low, so this was a case of almost zero risk, but potentially incredibly high reward.

With that pick, the league’s number 52 of 54 on the night, the Argos’ 2021 CFL Draft was over.

The team was exceptionally happy with the way the night went; though it would be safe to say all nine teams in the league would say the same thing. After it was over, there was one person was still flashing his million-dollar smile, and for one main reason; the team had fulfilled the GM’s number-one goal.

“I was concerned that we weren’t going to be able to shore ourselves up on our offensive line,” Clemons told Argonauts.ca after the draft was over. His major concern was “If a rally (a run on offensive linemen in the first round) happened as it did in the many mock drafts that we did, where we didn’t get the offensive linemen that we hoped for. As it turned out, the guys that we hoped for were there. We’re elated. There’s a real feeling of comfort and relief in being able to add more depth to the offensive line.”

Clemons went on to individually sing the praises of the young Canadian offensive linemen already in the fold. Philip Blake is a veteran, but Jamal Campbell, Dariusz Bladek, Cody Speller, Shane Richards, Theren Churchill, Maurice Simba, Dylan Giffen (still unsigned) and Eric Starczala are all still young. It sets up an incredibly competitive training camp with ten players fighting for, in all likelihood, six game-day roster spots; and that’s with Doxtater going back to the NCAA this season.

But that discussion will be held starting Wednesday and filling up the hours between now and the opening of training camp. As people said their goodbyes and exited the Zoom room on Tuesday night, they did so with smiles on their faces. The hard work had paid off and the team that’s considered to have the best Canadian talent in the league had become even better in that category.