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Plenty of big-name players on Argonauts' defence slated to become free agents

Mike (Pinball) Clemons Mike (Pinball) Clemons - The Canadian Press

Keeping Toronto's staunch defence intact promises to be a big challenge for Argonauts GM Mike (Pinball) Clemons.

Toronto has already lost defensive coordinator Corey Mace, who was hired last month as the Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach. And linebacker Adarius Pickett, the East Division's top defensive player last season, tops the list of key Argos defenders who are slated to hit the CFL free-agent market next month.

The 2023 campaign was a historic one for Toronto (16-2). It established a club record for most regular-season wins while tying the CFL mark with a defence that led the league in sacks (68), turnovers forced (27), interceptions (27), fewest rushing yards (83.6 per game) and was tied with Hamilton for most fumbles recovered (15).

However, a dominant regular season ended with a gut-wrenching 38-17 lost to eventual Grey Cup-champion Montreal in the East final. A BMO Field gathering of 26,620 — the largest crowd for an Argos game since they moved there in 2016 — watched the Alouettes force nine turnovers.

"We couldn't be more proud of the group," Clemons told reporters via Zoom on Tuesday from the CFL meetings in Nashville, Tenn. "I've never had a season where every guy has returned and that's a fact of life.

"But our desire to sign every guy, or as many guys as we can, is still there and we do believe the majority of our roster will remain intact. We still have that hope and while it's not easy, it's not supposed to be."

Pickett (105 tackles — five for loss — six sacks, forced fumble, two fumble recoveries) and fellow linebacker Wynton McManis (79 tackles — five for loss — four sacks, four interceptions and a fumble recovery) were two of Toronto's defensive linchpins. McManis is also a pending free agent.

"We've spoken to them ... the conversation is certainly ongoing," Clemons said of the pair. "They will decide."

Other potential free agents include defensive lineman Brandon Barlow (nine sacks), defensive backs Robertson Daniel (four interceptions, two fumble recoveries) and Jamal Peters (four interceptions). And stalwart cornerback Qwan'tez Stiggers, the CFL's top rookie, is eligible for the '24 NFL draft.

Clemons didn't sound optimistic Canadian linebacker Henoc Muamba, the MVP and top Canadian in Toronto's '22 Grey Cup, would return in 2024. He spent all of last season on the injured list.

"I believe he's transitioning but I hate to draw those conclusions for players," Clemons said. "So I think speaking to him directly is probably best."

Last season, Toronto signed quarterback Chad Kelly — the CFL's 2023 outstanding player — to a three-year, $1.865-million extension that made him the league's highest-paid player. That deal kicks in this year, creating some cap pressure for the Argos.

"It certainly has and it's not just the signing of (Kelly)," Clemons said. "It's the number of players that were all-stars this year.

"They look at what Chad makes, they look at the 16-2 season and how well we played during the course of the season. That has put what is undue pressure on trying to get all of our guys back."

The six-foot-three, 197-pound Stiggers (five interceptions, 56 total tackles) remains under contract with Toronto. Although Stiggers didn't play football collegiately, he qualifies for the NFL draft as his graduating class is up.

If Stiggers is drafted, Clemons suggested the Argos won't prevent him from pursuing an NFL career.

"If he does get drafted there's a good chance we may give him the ability to be mobile," Clemons said. "The real update is there's no update until something transpires."

Clemons isn't overly concerned that some Argos will follow Mace to Regina.

"We knew and understood that day (Mace becoming CFL head coach) was going to pass," he said. "The thing is there are great players all around our league and if he takes some of ours, there's a chance we might take some of his.

"There happens to be a few other players that are lurking out there in other leagues as well. We'll just do our best to come up with our best roster by prioritizing our own guys first."

Clemons did confirm Toronto has re-signed its top receiver, veteran DaVaris Daniels (52 catches, 1,009 yards, eight TDs).

"He's a tremendous young man who is one of those guys who helped create the culture in our locker room," Clemons said. "We're hoping another (signing) completes itself before the week ends."

But that's unlikely to be a new deal for running back A.J. Ouellette, the CFL's fourth-leading rusher this season (1,009 yards, 5.2-yard average, eight TDs).

"Not a lot to report there," Clemons said. "He's obviously a culture guy in our locker room, everybody loves him.

"There are a few things we're trying to accomplish early here and with DaVaris, that is one of them and after we try to secure a few more of those things we'll then proceed with more serious negotiations with those core guys."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2024.