The first day of Free Agency was held on February 14. Argonauts.ca’s Mike Hogan was permitted to sit in on the front office’s discussions and report on the day’s activities with just one rule; he was not permitted to write about any players that may have been discussed but did not sign with the team.
In recent years the first day of CFL free agency has been a busy one for the Toronto Argonauts. From a gargantuan contract offer to Bo Levi Mitchell in 2019, to a day filled with signings and a trade for kicker Boris Bede in 2020, to a surprising saga last year that netted the team running back Andrew Harris, the Boatmen have a history of making big splashes.
The Argos made significant moves on Day One of free agency this year, but only a small portion of the day’s work was unexpected.
Assistant General Manager Vince Magri was joined in his office at the Coca-Cola Coliseum by Director of Football Operations Alex Russell, and Senior Advisor Jim Barker. General Manager Michael “Pinball” Clemons would join the group later, as the longtime Mississauga resident was attending the state funeral for that city’s beloved mayor, Hazel McCallion, who recently passed away at the age of 101.
As it turned out, his services would not be needed on this day, because the quartet’s heavy lifting had already been done.
This year the league once again allowed teams to talk terms with pending free agents for seven days beginning on February 5, but they could not formalize an agreement or sign a contract until 12:01 on February 14.
The Argos took advantage of the lead-in period and believed they had agreements with four players. The offers weren’t binding, and while the team completely trusted the players and their representatives, there would be no certainty until copies of signed contracts were returned.
“It made today a little easier and straightforward,” Magri would tell Argonauts.ca after the day’s business concluded. “But the last week was pretty hectic, basically 24/7 non-stop.”
With most of the grinding complete there was mostly a lot of waiting to be done. There was some speculation about what other teams might be doing. There was also much conversation in regard to the morning’s biggest news, that the Montreal Alouettes were being purchased by the league.
Would that change how some of the Als free agents felt about their potentially soon to be former team? Would Montreal now be able to increase its financial offer to players who had made non-binding agreements with other teams? The Argos were comfortable they would sign one player in that situation, linebacker Adarius Pickett, but until the signed contract was returned there was a slight feeling of fear that something could change at the last minute.
There was ample time for that kind of conversation because of the work that had been done the week before.
Early in the negotiation period the team came to agreement with fullback Mario Villamizar, who had been with the BC Lions and will now compete for an opening created when Declan Cross announced his retirement following the Grey Cup win. A native of St. Catharines, Villamizar joins five of his former Laurier Golden Hawk teammates.
Pickett was the next player to commit to the Argos. The strongside linebacker was named the Alouettes Most Outstanding Defensive Player last year and brings a ton of talent and an equal amount of aggressiveness to the defence.
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He agreed to head to Toronto around the same time the Jordan Williams deal was made with BC, meaning the Argos potentially added two impact players in a relatively miniscule period of time. All that was needed was Pickett’s signature on a contract.
The next commitment came from the team’s primary target, Calgary defensive end Folarin Orimolade (pronounced fo-LARR-in orr-im-oh-LAH-day). One of the most underrated players in the league, the pass rushing specialist will be reunited with Argo Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Line Coach Corey Mace, Orimolade’s first positional coach with the Calgary Stampeders.
The final player to agree to head to the Argos was another high-energy defensive lineman, Thomas Costigan, who split his time between Edmonton and Montreal last season. The Argos have had their eye on him for some time. They had actually agreed to a trade with the Elks last year for Costigan, but it fell apart at the 11th hour and the two teams mutually agreed to take it off the table.
Patience had indeed paid off.
With those four deals done, there were only a couple of other players mentioned in terms of potential targets, one of whom was offensive lineman Darius Ciraco, Ottawa’s starting centre last season. He was someone the personnel types had talked about but had not made an offer to during the negotiation period.
It was unknown if the veteran was going to head west as a couple of teams had starting opportunities at that point, but a phone call would be made to Ciraco’s agent after the 12:01 official opening of the free agent frenzy.
The Argos coaching staff is in town and had been meeting all day at their BMO Field offices. Shortly before noon, Head Coach Ryan Dinwiddie left his group to sit in with the personnel department. He had worked closely with Clemons and company in the pre-free agency period and reiterated he hoped they would kick the tires on a couple of players if they weren’t signed early in the process.
At 12:01 there was silence in the room and you could hear four clicks on Magri’s computer as he sent formal contract offers to Orimolade, Pickett, Costigan and Villamizar. He followed up with each one’s agent via text message, aside from Pickett, who he texted directly as the linebacker was representing himself.
Barker then left the room to make a call to Ciraco’s agent to see where his client stood, to let him know what kind of money the Argos had available for him, and if there was still a chance his client would be interested in coming to Toronto. Barker came back into the room all smiles; Ciraco would be interested in that kind of deal. The team then had some math to do before making a formal offer.
Almost immediately two texts came back to Magri; the first from Orimolade’s agent saying the contract looked good, then from Pickett, who said he was reading it over. The linebacker – the only one of the four offers they had some worries about due to the change in Montreal’s ownership situation – became the first one to return a signed contract.
It was 12:14. Thirteen minutes later a signed contract was returned by Orimolade’s agent and the Argos had their two biggest targets signed, sealed and delivered. Dinwiddie called each player to welcome them to the organization.
Along with the trade for Jordan Williams, the Argos front seven suddenly looked a lot different.
It was after 1:00 and the group was still discussing how to structure an offer to Ciraco, and how a potential deal with the offensive lineman would change any potential discussions with other players that may fall through the cracks on Day One, something that happens every year.
They were also having discussions about two specific players and whether they would make one of them an offer. There were varying positions on which of those players would best fit what the Argos were trying to do. Those discussions would re-surface several times throughout the afternoon.
At 1:15 Villamizar returned his signed contract, 14 minutes later Costigan did likewise. Less than an hour-and-a-half into free agency the Argos had their four targets all under contract. Anything that would happen subsequent to that was just icing on an already sweet cake.
The conversation about the two players came to the forefront again with Dinwiddie sharing his opinions on both players. They also sent a formal offer to Ciraco and within a few minutes the deal was reached and at 2:44 the final contract of the day was returned.
There was zero drama during the day, aside from the slight fears that crept in about Pickett after the Montreal sale, but the linebacker was indeed a man of his word, proving those worries to be totally unfounded.
For the next few hours the discussion continued about other teams’ moves, and the continual debate about the two other players, neither of whom had been signed by day’s end.
It was a calm, cool, collected Tuesday; just the kind of day Magri was hoping for.
“I don’t like surprises,” Magri said with a deadpan delivery, before taking Argonauts.ca through the day’s accomplishments. “It went well. A lot of the guys we felt comfortable with during our talks through the negotiation window all came through. We were thrilled to have Darius come through at the last second. It was a good haul for us, I think we got better today. It was both quiet and very productive.”
When a team wins a championship there are usually two ways a team can go; retain the overwhelming majority of players and fine tune the roster; or use the championship as an opportunity to rebuild.
The Argos seem to have been able to a bit of both. They’ve re-signed several highly productive players, while adding a few new starters to the equation.
Clemons didn’t arrive at the office until the early afternoon but had been kept up to date via text messages and a phone call with Magri. Nothing done on this day was something Clemons hadn’t already worked through with his staff.
When he took over as General Manager, Clemons called the Argos staff together for an initial meeting. At that time, he said he wanted to make the Argos a boring team; in other words, there would be no surprises because the team would be expected do the right thing the right way all the time.
On this day, with the level of preparedness executed, he got his wish.
“Having a little bit of fizz sometimes, shaking up the ginger ale is not bad,” the general manager told Argonauts.ca after the day was done. “I’m very happy about the additions, they’re solid. We got some security for the offensive line and some real quality players on the defense.”
Overall Clemons is happy where the team is, but admits they’re not done yet.
“We really feel good about where we are. We are hoping to add one or two more players, but we’re also looking to go out and find some young people who make our roster at different positions.”
The first day of free agency had come to a conclusion, but the work to continually try and upgrade the roster is a never ending one.