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Argos Preseason Opener Raises Concerns About The Defending Champs

The outcome of preseason games is not to be taken seriously. However, the Argos’ loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats this past weekend raised some concerns heading into the 2023 CFL regular season. The combination of sloppy play and, more importantly, three key injuries left a damper on the Boatmen’s 2023 debut.

Argos Preseason Loss To Hamilton Raises Concerns About The Defending Champs

Although the Argonauts rallied late to superficially make a game of things in their 27-22 loss to the Ti-Cats.

The team’s overall performance out of the gate was lacking in several areas.

A poor preseason opener can be a great teaching tool for a coaching staff. But there are some other concerns for Toronto that stretch beyond shaking off training camp rust and refocusing.

Latest News On Argos Injuries

Elbow tightness in his throwing arm prevented Chad Kelly from playing, and a left shoulder injury to superstar receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr gave Toronto cause for alarm in their return to action on Saturday. To compound matters, the Argos also saw projected starting cornerback Robert Priester leave Saturday’s game against the Ti-Cats with a right ankle injury.

It wasn’t a great way for the new-look Argos to open their calendar year.

With a short week coming up before Thursday’s preseason finale, Chad Kelly could be shelved until the team’s regular season opener on June 18th as a precautionary measure. A less than ideal way for the Argos’ newly appointed leader to take hold of Toronto’s offense.

The Argonauts’ brain trust wants to play Kelly in the preseason. He was slated to play at least two series in the exhibition opener. However, when dealing with an injury to a quarterback’s throwing arm, you must tread carefully even if the Grey Cup hero gets full clearance from Toronto’s medical staff.

Another pressing matter from this past Saturday was the injury of Kurleigh Gittens Jr.

The standout pass catcher’s day ended early on Toronto’s second offensive possession after he was walloped near midfield. Gittens was attended to on the field for a few minutes before receiving attention on his left shoulder on the sidelines. He wisely did not return to action.

The early word is that Gittens Jr. will miss practice this week.

Beyond some late testing that suggests otherwise. Toronto appears to have dodged a bullet on Saturday. But one has to wonder why a player as important as Gittens was playing when Chad Kelly wasn’t.

Although his right ankle injury didn’t appear serious on Saturday, the Boatmen also can not afford to lose Robert Priester. Especially with another standout from the secondary last season, Maurice Carnell IV, on the shelf recovering from ACL surgery, which should keep him out until the latter stages of the summer.

The jack-of-all-trades defensive back, Priester is a pivotal figure this season, with All-Star Jamal Peters in the NFL. The options behind him are very green.

Newcomer Qwantez Stiggers, who recorded an interception on Saturday, had an up-and-down day in his CFL debut. The ultra-talented but extremely raw defensive back was flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty on special teams and missed two defensive tackles.

Another new entry onto the Argonauts roster, Keith Washington, could see extended playing time along with second-year player Caleb Holden if Priester misses any action.

Preseason Opener Raises Questions About Argos Backup QB Position

Chad Kelly’s absence from Saturday’s game crystalized the elephant in the Argos QB room. The uncertainty attached to Kelly is even greater when you consider the options behind him.

In some cases, a rebuilding team can go the inexperienced route behind an unproven starter. But the Argonauts are not in that position. They have high expectations, and the team’s roster composition of veterans is built to win it all again.

The presumed leader in the clubhouse to be the Argos’ top backup, Ben Holmes, doesn’t look like he is leading the pack anymore after his dismal performance on Saturday. Holmes was off target on his throws (3/8 for 36 yards), threw two interceptions, and lacked any command of an offence he should have some familiarity with.

Indoor league standout Cameron Dukes was arguably the most entertaining player to watch on Saturday. He finished the day 15 of 21 for 152 yards. His streetball style was on full display. He threw caution to the wind while throwing some underhand windmill passes in the process.

Dukes threw for two touchdowns, one on the game’s final play and his first, a gorgeous corner route to receiver Rajae Johnson from 18 yards out. The follow-up two-point conversion pass to Dejon Brissett also displayed Cameron Dukes’s unique improvisation ability.

At a minimum, Cameron Dukes deserves a shot to stick around Toronto’s roster as a developmental #3 QB on the practice roster. His unorthodox style of play might need to be reigned in by Ryan Dinwiddie. But the small-school diamond in the rough has potential.

Bryan Scott took advantage of extended playing time on Saturday. It wasn’t perfect, and it’s difficult to gauge based on the players he was playing against. But like Dukes, Scott showed surprising command and poise for a player who has never played a CFL game.

The box score gods initially credited Scott with an out-of-this-world stat line. “16/18 for 155 yards and two scores”. He was, however, 10/12 for 94 yards and a score. Nevertheless, It was a solid performance all-around for a player with an uphill battle to secure a roster spot.

Alternate QB Options

Toronto has to decide who will back up Chad Kelly in short order, despite having a delay until their opening game.

Even if the Ole Miss superstar doesn’t have lingering elbow issues. The Argos are only one play away from entrusting their defense of a Grey Cup to two neophytes at quarterback.

Notwithstanding that, in the CFL, the #2 QB on game day carries significance in short yardage and red zone packages. That’s unless Toronto wants to chance Kelly’s durability by having him retain that role from last season.

The all-in approach on Chad Kelly could become an all-is-lost proposition if an injury occurs.

Toronto’s front office may need to consider adding a veteran pivot.

Whether that would be signing someone like Antonio Pipkin, or the unique possibility of trading for Dane Evans, or brace for impact Nick Arbuckle.

Or maybe the Argos can trade Ben Holmes back to the USFL’s New Jersey Generals for Dakota Prukop. Based on his controversial dismissal from the Generals, I am not sure that former Grey Cup-winning coach Mike Riley would want Holmes back.

In all seriousness, this perspective may change in the coming weeks with Chad Kelly staying healthy and playing at a top level all season. While his backups improve over time. But in late May, it’s challenging to feel secure about the Argos’ overall quarterback position.

Storylines Heading Into Preseason Game #2

The Argonauts are quickly back in action on Thursday night, as they will wrap up their two-game preseason slate with the Ottawa Redblacks at Guelph University.

Beyond what decision is made with Chad Kelly and how his backups perform in the final phase of the preseason. It’s a crucial game for many players on the back end of the Argos roster.

Even though Toronto won’t play their first regular season game until 17 days after their preseason finale, final roster cuts can come as early as this Friday, June 2nd.

RB Deonta McMahon was one of the brightest stars of Toronto’s preseason opener. The FCS superstar had 46 yards on seven touches, averaging 6.8 yards on four rushes.

Despite the promising glimpses of McMahon’s elite shiftiness, squirming onto the Argos’ active roster won’t be easy. The only path McMahon has is potentially usurping Javon Leake. But the latter’s elite return ability makes that possibility very challenging.

I know there’s an unwritten protocol between CFL teams where practice roster players are not typically poached in droves. However, the rest of the league’s eight teams could buck that trend and sign away McMahon and other talented Argo players who land on their reserve unit.

With that in mind, Wide Receivers B.J. Byrd (5-44-2 touchdowns) and Rajae Johnson (2-30-1 major) are coming off impressive debuts in Double Blue. Notwithstanding that, the two American imports are in an uphill battle to wrest away roster spots, with Canadian receivers Dejon Brissett, Tommy Nield, and David Ungerer as near-locks to make the active roster. The inclusion of someone like Byrd on the final 45 may come at the expense of another American reserve receiver.

Toronto also has uncertainty at offensive tackle. Particuarly at left tackle. The Argos don’t have a clear-cut candidate to assume the role Philip Blake admirably filled a year ago.

Isiah Cage and Trevon Tate, two oft-injured players, did not play in the opener. Instead, deep reserves Alex Singleton and Aron Johnson got some playing time with less than favorable results. Neither player is a lock to make the team’s roster. A viable depth option needs to emerge before training camp ends.

Lost in the injuries from preseason game #1 was how poorly Mickey Donovan’s unit played. For backup players to solidify roster spots, they must perform better in this area on Thursday.

Toronto’s all-star punter John Haggerty’s stat sheet looked good against Hamilton (9 punts for a 50.6-yard average). But his lack of hang time led to an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown and another near td later in the game. The coverage units didn’t help with poor open-field tackling and ill-advised penalties.

Furthermore, the strategy to incorporate defensive back, Adarius Pickett, side by side with Javon Leake on kick returns as a lead blocker, one borrowed from his time in Montreal, might need some rethinking or tinkering by Mickey Donovan.

The Ti-Cats wisely kicked the ball directly to Pickett, who admirably tried to make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation. Nevertheless, the All-Star Sam backer was in over his head, comically trying to return kicks.

Toronto’s special teams need to be more refined and consistent than they were a season ago. It has been the Argos’ most maligned unit since 2021.

As the Argonauts deservedly basked in their glory all offseason, General Manager Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons stressed the importance of the football club not falling into the trap of previous Grey Cup winners in Toronto’s recent history.

The idea of chasing greatness is to maintain it.

The Argonauts’ sloppy start to the preseason could be a blessing in disguise for the team moving forward. Toronto can’t rest on their laurels from last season. No matter how great it was.

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Mike Mitchell Reporter
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