May 5, 2022

Hogan: Inside The War Room

Argonauts.ca’s Mike Hogan was once again allowed inside the team’s War Room for the CFL Draft and the Global Draft. The only restriction was that he was not allowed to write about how the Argos felt about players that they didn’t select.

This year it was different.

Instead of one draft, the CFL opted to hold both the CFL Draft and the Global Draft on the same day; the latter starting at noon ET, the former at 8:00.

There was also something different about this draft day; other teams were making trades, which bolstered the adrenaline level of members of the front office.

The personnel department of the Toronto Argonauts met early Tuesday morning in Assistant General Manager Vince Magri’s office in the Coca-Cola Coliseum, located a hundred something yards east of BMO Field.

While there were discussions about the upcoming Global Draft, the conversation focused on a pair of trades that had been completed Monday night and Tuesday morning, altering the selection order of the first round.

With three picks in the first 15 spots and a several mock drafts under their belt, the discussion surrounded how things would change with the trades in and around the Argos first three selections.

To say the team was excited about the chain of events would be an understatement.

The biggest reason for optimism was that the Montreal Alouettes had moved up and acquired the first overall pick. The assumption was that they would now be picking Syracuse linebacker Tyrell Richards, the consensus choice to be the No. 1 pick. In the minds of the men in the room there was less of a chance the Edmonton Elks, who traded down from the first to the fourth overall pick, would choose the player the Argos wanted.

Three weeks before the draft Argonauts.ca asked Magri and Director of Player Personnel and National Scout Alex Russell for the names of three players they hoped would fall to the No. 6 overall pick, with the assumption that Richards wouldn’t be on the board. The pair gave the same three names in the same order. Two of those players were Gregor MacKellar, an offensive lineman from St. Francis Xavier, and Deionte Knight, a defensive lineman from Western.

Argonauts.ca arrived at the Argo offices at the same time as Senior Advisor Jim Barker. While walking from the parking lot, the same question was posed. The veteran talent evaluator opted to give just two names, one of which was MacKellar. He added that in his mind – and in terms of what the team wanted to accomplish – the team would “win the draft” if they selected those two players at No. 6 and No. 10, then at No. 15 were able to add running back Daniel Adeboboye from Bryant University.

The trades buoyed the spirits in the room. With the multiple mock drafts under their belt they felt that Montreal was certain to take Richards with the first pick. The consensus was that Ottawa would then choose Knight, the defensive lineman that Magri and Russell both mentioned. They hoped he would slide but didn’t think that would happen.

Those three members of the personnel group, along with General Manager Michael Clemons, proceeded to play out different scenarios, projecting what may happen. Every instance started with Montreal selecting Richards, but then the group started talking about the possibilities for Ottawa, the owner of the second pick. While Knight was the name most often mentioned, the Redblacks had options. How would the top ten picks change if they chose a receiver, or an offensive lineman?

Dozens of scenarios were discussed; few of which had Knight falling to No. 6, none of which had him falling to No. 10.

The attention turned to the Global Draft at about ten minutes to noon. The team had done its due diligence and it was now simply a matter of seeing who would be available when it was the team’s turn to pick.

CFL Associate Vice President of Football Operations Ryan Janzen welcomed teams via conference call. He’d go over the details of how teams were to make their selection; announcing a player’s draft number, name, position and school or club.

The Argos had the fourth overall choice. They had narrowed it down to two players they were higher on than any others. When it was their turn, Russell went on the conference call when prompted by Janzen and announced, “The Toronto Argonauts select player 34, John Haggerty, punter, Western Kentucky.”

He was one of the two players the Argos had hoped to land.

The 6’5” Australian just graduated from Western Kentucky where he was named a Conference USA Honourable Mention. He averaged 48.7 yards per punt and is not under contract with any pro teams, nor does he have an NFL minicamp invitation on the horizon.

With the second selection the Boatmen opted for Simeon Okanta-Wariso, a defensive end from England who played for Lubeck in the German League. He’s a member of the British national team.

In the third round the club selected 6’3”, 342-pound offensive lineman Otavio Amorim, a Brazilian who played for the Berlin Thunder in the European League of Football. He’ll bring a lot of nastiness to training camp.

Just over a half-an-hour after the draft started it was over. Russell saw he had received a voicemail from Okanta-Wariso letting him know he was pumped up about joining the team. He and some friends and family had been following the draft online. Magri reached out to Haggerty, while Russell contacted Amorim.

The picks essentially fell where the front office thought they would, and Clemons and company were happy that each was available where they were. The personnel group pulled up the videos it had used during the scouting process and the happiness with the picks was reinforced.

After some discussion about how these players would fit into the Argos future, the downtime began as the group began a seven-hour wait for the main event.

At 2:30, after much random discussion ranging from why healthy snacks always taste worse than unhealthy ones, to the glory of air fryers, the focus shifted back to football and what may happen in the first 15 picks of the draft. Again, different scenarios were presented. What would happen if the board didn’t fall the way it was expected to? What if the unexpected happened and there was an early run on offensive linemen? Would Calgary break Double Blue hearts at pick five? The draft was still five-and-a-half hours away and the anxiety level was increasing substantially.

The most unexpected event of the day happened just before 3:00 when Defensive Coordinator Corey Mace brought an old teammate to meet the personnel department. Former NFL running back Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch and Mace were teammates for a couple of seasons with the Buffalo Bills and have remained close. Lynch also had the chance to catch up with Clemons, as the pair had previously been together on a trip to Barbados.

It was back to killing time until about 5:00 when a trade offer was made by another team. It involved multiple draft picks from each team being exchanged, including the No. 6 pick. It was an intriguing offer that led to a lengthy discussion among those in the room, with the final verdict being that the Argos were better to sit tight with picks 6, 10 and 15 as they saw a path to getting two of the top three players on their wish list as well as Adeboboye at 15. The team that initiated the talks reached out on at least two other occasions, but the deal was eventually declined.

It was also at this time that Magri wanted to do some additional mock drafts. He wasn’t 100-percent sure that the Redblacks would select Knight.

The mini mock drafts continued. What would happen if the Redblacks took one of the Ford brothers or Philpot brothers? How would that effect what B.C. would do with pick No. 3?

The speculation continued for several minutes and exemplified the kind of uneasiness that was no doubt also being experienced by the eight other teams.

The coaching staff had been meeting in their offices at BMO Field and headed across the parking lot at 6:45. They set up shop in a huge boardroom next to Magri’s office where things were starting to take shape.

Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie joined the personnel department and went over discussions the coaching staff had back at BMO. The biggest question the coaches had was the same one the personnel group did; what was Calgary going to do with No. 5, and also what would they do at No. 14? Among those now congregated in Magri’s office, those draft slots were the biggest mysteries to be solved.

Dinwiddie said the coaches had narrowed it down to four potential names the Stamps may have an interest in at No. 5.

After a quick pizza and wings break things quieted down substantially; it was truly the calm before the storm.

Magri’s desk was in the back-left corner of the office, facing the front door. Along the wall to his right was a giant whiteboard, ranking 75 players for the 74-player draft. Each player’s name, height, weight, and school were printed and attached to a rectangular magnet. The magnets were attached to the board in the order they were ranked and separated by position.

On the top row there were two names, of which was MacKellar’s was situated in the offensive lineman column. There were four names on the next row, including Knight, then two on the third row, including Adeboboye. He was the target at No. 15, but nothing was guaranteed – especially with Calgary picking at No. 14.

On the wall to Magri’s left was a big screen TV connected to his computer, which was showing a grid featuring the draft order. The rounds were across the top, the teams were listed in draft order down the left-hand side. There were logos in the top left corner of the boxes on the grid if a pick had been traded. When a player was selected, his name would be added to the grid. The squares showing the Argos picks were highlighted in yellow.

There was a rectangular table in front of the TV with a speakerphone in the middle. It would be connected to a conference call with the CFL office and the other eight teams. Alex Russell and Argonauts.ca would be sitting there. Clemons and Barker would be on a couch along the wall and facing Magri’s desk. Dinwiddie was sitting in a chair in front of the draft whiteboard, Manager of Football Media Chris Balenovich sat next to Dinwiddie with his computer on Magri’s desk, while the Argos new Content Manager Soheil Jamshidi floated around the room taking photos and videos. He’d be sending out graphics welcoming each new Argo as they were selected.

A TV was set up in the corner furthest from Magri’s desk. Everyone could keep an eye on the TSN broadcast that way, though the amount of discussion going on in the room meant there was no time to simply sit back and watch.

At 7:55, Russell called the league and joined the conference call. There was an obvious change in the mood of the room as the seemingly endless wait was concluding and a year of hard work was about to potentially pay off.

Janzen told the teams that they could remain muted on the conference call during the TSN broadcast. To eliminate the risk of the picks leaking out before being announced by the Commissioner, selections during the first two hours would be done via email from the team to the league, ranking the player’s draft number, name, position and school.

Also in the room were Player Relations Assistant and Football Operations Assistant Matt Black and Raven Clemons, the G.M.’s daughter.

The picks would be announced on the conference call by Janzen roughly five seconds before Commissioner Randy Ambrosie made the announcement on the broadcast.

It was finally go time.

Montreal’s selection of Tyrell Richards was anything but a surprise, setting up the first question of the night; who would Ottawa select?

The Argos still had them tentatively taking Knight, but the Redblacks threw the first curve of the night by selecting offensive lineman Zack Pelehos.

Magri’s earlier gut feeling had proven to be right.

While Pelehos going to Ottawa didn’t surprise anyone in the slightest, him going there with the second pick did. The Argos had projected the Gananoque, Ontario native was a favourite to go to the Redblacks with the 11th overall selection.

The speculation continued and the mock drafting continued. It was assumed B.C. would select an offensive lineman or one of the Philpot twins, who are from Vancouver. Virtually nobody expected the Leos to select defensive lineman Nathan Cherry. Edmonton then surprised many by selecting linebacker Enock Makonzo from Coastal Carolina, meaning there was only the Calgary Stampeders standing between the Argos and a player that Magri loved: Gregor MacKellar.

Argonauts.ca started talking to Magri several months ago, writing down prospect’s names and how he felt about them. In December Magri was asked about the top players in the draft; even before several top prospects opted to defer their draft year to 2023. He listed eight players that he thought the most highly of and were in early contention for the Argos top pick. The name he ranked first was MacKellar’s.

In January the same questions were asked about the top prospects. A list was made of two dozen players, where they’d fall on his list, and what range he thought they’d fall in the draft. There’s a notation next to MacKellar’s name: “#1,” not indicating the number of the round, but the ranking of the player.

When Calgary selected Jalen Philpot at No. 5, Magri was able to add a player he had been high on for months. At 8:44 he sent an email to Janzen and the St. Francis Xavier product was an Argo.

It isn’t just Magri that loves MacKellar. A former running back is also appreciative of what a talented offensive lineman can bring.

“Offensive linemen are the cerebral guys,” Pinball Clemons told Argonauts.ca. “But when you find one with fire there’s a tangible difference. He has that little extra fire inside; he’s a fighter, there’s no question about it. He’s a tough guy who will not only play to the whistle, but through the whistle.”

Both Magri and Russell received texts from other teams congratulating them on adding MacKellar; obviously the Argos weren’t the only team that loved him.

There was precious little time to celebrate as the Argos also had the No. 10 pick, acquired last season from the Edmonton Elks.

The talk was heating up about who may be left at No. 10. Could Deionte Knight actually fall that far? It seemed too good to be true, but there was a definite pathway there. If the Ajax native was there it was agreed upon that he was too good to pass up. If he was gone, would the Argos select Adeboboye at No. 10, or try to finesse him to No. 15?

For the second time a Philpot brother was selected immediately before the Argos were to choose. It cleared the way for the Argos to take Knight; that is if they wanted to go in that direction. There were other talented players on the board who were worthy of being picked there, and there was also the option to select Adeboboye then. That could turn the running back position into a Canadian spot, as he’d join Andrew Harris in the backfield.

Russell was the first in the room to passionately go to bat for Knight. When another player’s name was mentioned, Clemons took over the conversation talking about what Knights’ abilities would add to what the Argos are trying to accomplish. When Magri talked about not only the short-term impact the player named the top U SPORTS lineman in 2021 could have, but the long-term benefits of him donning Double Blue, the decision suddenly seemed easy.

Deionte Knight was a Toronto Argonaut.

There was almost a feeling of disbelief in the room as it started to sink in that both MacKellar and Knight were Argos. This was something that nobody had thought possible, but it had become reality.

“We were surprised,” Magri said of Knight being available at No. 10. “Talent wise he was good enough to go in the first round. We projected him in a bunch of mock drafts going in the top half of the draft. He was definitely worthy of being taken higher.”

Looking back on the notes from the months-earlier discussions with Magri, written next to Knight’s name was “First round.”

The trade with Edmonton was now in the books. Nick Arbuckle had been sent to the Elks in exchange for Deionte Knight and quarterback Chad Kelly.

At that time there was a lengthy, unexpected break. Magri sent the Knight selection to the league at 9:11, but TSN was in some non-draft segments on their broadcast and the pick wasn’t announced until a full 15 minutes after it was made.

The advantage was that it gave added time for the Argos to figure out how best to get Adeboboye at No. 15.

There was also an option to attempt to trade up in the 11-14 range to make sure Calgary didn’t break the Argos hearts at No. 14. The assumption was that Winnipeg already had a wealth of talented Canadian running backs and Adeboboye was far from being a need pick.

As players fell off the board, the only thing that would keep the Argos from, in Barker’s words, “Winning the draft,” was if the Calgary Stampeders liked Adeboboye. Dinwiddie had said that there was a feeling among the coaches that the Stamps may go running back at this spot.

The time period between the Bombers selecting Tyrell Ford and Calgary’s pick being announced was six minutes; it felt like six hours.

In the interim there was discussion about who to take if the Toronto-born running back wasn’t available. It was clinical, with almost zero enthusiasm. What would turn an already a great draft into a spectacular draft was completely beyond their control.

Many stared at the names remaining on the draft board, looking at what would to a degree be considered a consolation prize. Others focused on the TV, while some just stared at the speaker on the table, seemingly trying to will Ryan Janzen into making the pick a little quicker.

At 10 minutes before 10 o’clock Janzen was about to make the Argos draft a perfect 10.

“With the 14th pick, Calgary selects player number 511, Josiah…”

Before Josiah Schakel’s last name was announced the room erupted. It was not a knock on Schakel, far from it; but everyone realized how important this selection was and how fortunate the team was that nobody snatched him up first. It sets up a potentially dynamic duo of Canadians in the backfield with Andrew Harris and Daniel Adeboboye.

“He’s not Andrewish necessarily,” explained Dinwiddie. “But he’s got the skill set to do that. He can catch the ball out of the backfield; we feel he’s physical enough where he can do some things in the run game as far as blocking and running the ball. We feel he’s versatile and adds special teams value, so he’s going to add depth and feel he’s going to be a big player down the line who can make an impact year one.”

The head coach wouldn’t commit to running back becoming a Canadian position but loves the flexibility it gives the team.

From this point on, anything the Argos would add would simply be icing on what was already a very tasty cake.

One area the Argos desperately need to improve upon this season is on special teams. While kicker Boris Bede was sensational, too often the Argos gave up big plays without creating enough of their own. That was about to be addressed with the third-round pick as McMaster’s Enoch Penney-Laryea was chosen.

Arguably the best athlete in the draft, he was chosen to become an instant contributor on special teams. It also allows him to refine his skills as a football player, while allowing the coaching staff to determine at which position they can maximize his obvious skills. The Argos had him ranked as the second-best special teams player in the draft.

In the fourth round the Argos may have surprised some by going back to the offensive line. The depth the Argos have there is substantial, but the fact that Laurier’s Braydon Noll was available at No. 35 was impossible to ignore. He was someone who routinely was off the board much earlier than this in the Argos mock drafts.

Daniel Kwamou was chosen with the No. 44 pick. Argonauts.ca spoke to Magri before he flew to Edmonton for the Western Regional Combine and asked if there were any players that he thought would make the trip worthwhile he immediately mentioned the UBC linebacker who has fought injuries throughout his career. Kwamou impressed enough to be invited to the National Combine, then solidified his standing with a solid performance there.

The final three selections of the night were Texas State defensive back Eric Sutton, whose draft stock fell after a rough combine, but showed enough on film that the Argos were willing to select him. Chase Arseneau from McMaster is a 6’4”, 240-pound tight end who could be developed into a tight end/fullback while contributing on special teams, and U-Ottawa’s Michael Pezzuto is a defensive lineman who showed some potential as someone who could get after the quarterback.

When Pezzuto was chosen just after 11:30 it wrapped up a long, but highly rewarding day for the Argos. There were the obligatory high fives and hugs, and the personnel department hung around, sat back and discussed at an updated depth chart, figuring where and how the new players fit into the 2022 plans.

“In the top 15 picks we got more physical,” said Magri. “We got bigger, stronger, tougher. We added high character guys and guys that can all come in and compete for a chance to make our roster.”

Mission accomplished.

The work was complete on the 2022 draft. How much down time would the personnel department get? None, as practices for the East-West Bowl – the U SPORTS top prospects game – were being held at McMaster the next morning. After what had just unfolded in the previous 15 hours, the sleep would be short, but exceptionally sweet.