How Jim Barker and the Argos quietly won free agency

A hot topic around this year’s Grey Cup was how Toronto Argonaut general manager Jim Barker was going to manage his extensive list of 26 free agents. More than half of Toronto’s 24 starters were set to hit the market on February 9. Included in this group were five Canadians and both of Toronto’s top pivots — 2015 Argonaut Most Outstanding Player Trevor Harris and future Canadian Football Hall of Famer Ricky Ray.

For better or worse, this year’s free agent period gave Barker the opportunity to set the course for the future of the entire Argonaut organization.

And he nailed it.

Sure, Barker lost some talented players. Greg Jones, as strong a tackler as any CFL linebacker, will likely have a great season in Saskatchewan. Running back Curtis Steele, another recent ‘Rider addition, could very well do the same. Euclid Cummings is expected to become a force along the Bombers’ revamped defensive line, while veteran slotback Chad Owens should be a nice veteran addition to the Ticats’ offensive attack.

The biggest loss of all comes in the form of Trevor Harris, who, at 30, signed a two-year contract with Ottawa to serve as Henry Burris’ back-up in 2016 before becoming the club’s starter in 2017. But as much as losing Harris hurts, Barker has every reason to be confident in his quarterbacking.

The tandem of Barker and head coach Scott Milanovich has repeatedly proven to be the class of the CFL when it comes to developing young quarterbacks. Between Ottawa’s Harris and Hamilton’s Zach Collaros, half of the CFL’s East Division will be quarterbacked by Toronto-developed products by 2017.

As such, it will come as no surprise if sophomore pivot Logan Kilgore proves he’s ready to play come June. The Argos also still have Adrian McPherson under contract who, despite being known mostly for his abilities as a runner, has recorded eleven touchdowns to just six interceptions in his six-year CFL career.

Barker’s willingness to move on from the players listed above — all internationals — shows the amount of trust he has in his scouts to find the next wave of import talent.

The reason I believe Barker’s free agent moves should be celebrated is that he used these savings to bolster the most crucial part of any CFL roster – Canadian talent.

Barker locked up starting defensive end Ricky Foley on Dec. 9, just six days after extending Ray. Promising, second-year linebacker Thomas Miles was extended on Christmas Eve. Starters Jermaine Gabriel (safety) and Wayne Smith (guard) were re-upped on February 5, while starting weak-side linebacker Cory Greenwood was extended on the 9th.

All Canadians, all re-signed.

The lone impact Canadian Barker failed to re-sign was defensive tackle Cleyon Laing, a negotiation he was never going to win with the level of NFL interest Laing was garnering. Laing, who had a breakout season in 2015 with eight sacks, is now a member of the Miami Dolphins.

Barker then used the cap space he’d saved on American talent by picking up quality Canadians from across the league.

Josh Bourke, the CFL’s only current national starting left tackle, was signed to a two-year deal worth a reported $230,000 per season. Brian Bulcke, an oft-injured but effective defensive tackle, was signed away from Hamilton. Corey Watman, a former first round selection of Saskatchewan, was signed to become the Argos’ new sixth offensive lineman. And Lirim Hajrullahu, coming off a tumultuous 2015 campaign, signed a one-year contract with Toronto that will be a steal should he regain his 2014 form.

Barker’s approach to free agency wasn’t quite as clear cut as I’m making it appear — young Canadians Brendan Gillanders, Natey Adjei, and Zander Robinson were allowed to sign elsewhere, while Americans Keon Raymond and Bryan Hall were brought into the fold — but Barker’s overall strategy was clear: save on Americans, spend on Canadians.

And it’s a brilliant strategy. With the size of the Canadian talent pool being just a fraction of its stateside counterpart, finding impact Americans is and will always be significantly easier than finding quality nationals.

Success in the CFL is often a byproduct of two factors: quarterback play and Canadian content. In the case of the 2016 Toronto Argonauts — thanks to Jim Barker’s shrewd free agent moves — they will be in goods hands on both of these accounts.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.