December 27, 2010
One of the off-the-radar teams in free agency discussions thus far has been the Toronto Argonauts. They don't have as many potential free agents as the likes of the Alouettes and Stampeders, with only nine guys on the official list, but there are some key players there. Soon after officially taking on general manager duties as well as his head coaching responsibilities after the season, Jim Barker told The Toronto Sun's Terry Koshan that the team was hoping to bring back all of their potential free agents (he listed 10, including the nine on the CFL's list and defensive lineman Eric Taylor). So far, he's making good progress on that front; the team agreed to a new contract with special teams ace Bryan Crawford last week, and Sportsnet's Arash Madani reported today they've signed receiver Jermaine Copeland (pictured above leaping into the end zone Oct. 9 against Saskatchewan) to a new deal as well.
According to Madani and Sportsnet's Perry Lefko, Copeland's deal is worth over $100,000 per season. As Madani pointed out in a later tweet, that's a significant raise over last year but a significant pay cut from the estimated $200,000 Copeland was believed to be making in Calgary. It's tough to check that, given that CFL teams are often unnecessarily secretive around salaries and contract lengths, but it sounds about right.
Is this a good deal for the Argos? Well, it could be. Copeland's 33, so he's at an age where he can still contribute, but perhaps not exactly in his prime. His stats were down considerably this year; he had 81 catches for 1,235 yards and 12 touchdowns with the Stampeders in 2009, and those numbers dropped to 48 catches for 639 yards and three touchdowns in 2010. However, he also went from a pass-focused offence with Henry Burris under centre to a run-focused offence with Cleo Lemon at quarterback. That's going to affect anyone's stats.
Calgary also had a deep receiving corps that presented defences with a variety of matchup problems, while the Argonauts didn't have a lot of receivers who drew attention. Copeland's 639 receiving yards were a team high, with hybrid RB/WR Andre Durie finishing second with 632, mostly from screen passes. Chad Owens and Brandon Rideau both showed promise in the passing game, but Copeland led the way. He's a proven CFL receiver and one of the best currently on Toronto's roster. If he plays the way he did this year and if the Argonauts find a more consistent pivot (either via Lemon improving or starting a new signal caller), Copeland could have some great seasons left. After all, this is a guy who made this play just last year:
The effects of age are difficult to forecast in football, though, particularly at wide receiver. Some players are still great in their later years; Jerry Rice was still putting up 1,000-yard seasons after he hit 40, Milt Stegall was terrific in his late 30s and Ben Cahoon's still getting it done at 38. Other older receivers can fall off a cliff, and that descent can often happen quite unexpectedly; Randy Moss is also 33, and he went from three straight 1,000-yard-plus years to a horrible season that's seen him traded, cut and benched. Not all of that can be definitively ascribed to physical effects, but Moss hasn't shown the same kind of speed or effectiveness he used to.
Copeland could be like Rice and Stegall and have many more productive years yet to come, or he might be set for more of a decline. What does bode well for the Argonauts is that Copeland is a solid team guy by all accounts, though; if his speed does start to go, he can probably still be a valuable mentor for younger receivers and alter his game accordingly.
The Crawford signing has less question marks around it. Crawford has proven to be one of the best special teams aces in the league over the years, and he led all players with 26 special teams tackles this season. He can also contribute as a fullback and a tailback, and he's particularly effective on fake punts and field goals; he picked up 121 yards on just six carries this season. He's 28, so he should still have plenty of good seasons left in him, and he's been a valuable community ambassador for the Argonauts' franchise over his six years with the team. Bringing him back looks like a very smart move.
With Copeland and Crawford locked up, the focus turns to the Argonauts' other free agents. A key area to watch could be the defensive line, which features four players who could test the free agency waters; Taylor, defensive end Ronald Flemons and defensive tackles Adriano Belli and Kevin Huntley.
Of those four, Huntley might be the biggest loss; he turned in a great performance at tackle this season, recording nine sacks and 41 tackles. Flemons would also be tough to replace; despite being more known for his goal-line gaffe, he was a strong presence at defensive end this season, putting up eight sacks and 53 tackles. Belli was hurt for most of the year, but delivered a strong playoff performance and is a key community ambassador for the club. Taylor didn't make as much of a statistical impact as the others, but still recorded three sacks and 17 tackles. If the Argonauts lose all of them, they'll have big holes to fill on the line. Jim Barker may be off to a good start in his new personnel rule, but he's still got plenty of work to do this offseason.