Big man a big get for floundering Argos

Spencer Zimmerman made a big splash Tuesday in his first move at the Toronto Argonauts’ acting GM.

Toronto signed veteran offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl to a three-year contract extension. The six-foot-six, 312-pound tackle was scheduled to become a free agent next month.

Van Zeyl has spent the bulk of his 10-year CFL career with Toronto. An eight-year starter, he’s three times been named an East Division all-star and earned league honours in 2013.

Re-signing Van Zeyl, 33, is important for two reasons. First, he’s a veteran Canadian with experience, having played in 123 regular-season games, tops among active Argos.

But as crucial is the optics of the move. It’s a sign that it’s business as usual for the Argos despite two gapping holes in their football operations department.

Last week, the Argos fired general manager Jim Barker following the club’s dismal 5-13 record last season. President Michael Copeland said at the time he felt change was necessary and could “only be delivered through a fresh perspective and new leadership.” Three days later, head coach Scott Milanovich left the team to join the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars as a quarterbacks coach.

The timing of Barker’s dismissal was peculiar given that he was busy preparing for the 2017 season. He had re-signed four pending free agents and scouted the NFLPA Bowl in California.

Traditionally CFL teams make such decisions shortly after season’s end to give the replacements time to assess the roster, make any coaching changes before perspective candidates have landed jobs and decide on personnel well before the start of free agency, which this year is Feb. 14. But Toronto fired Barker less than three weeks before free agency with 21 players – including Van Zeyl – scheduled to hit the open market.

When Barker was dismissed, Toronto promoted Zimmerman to assistant GM after serving as the club’s director of American scouting and pro development last year. And when Milanovich left, the Argos named former Hamilton assistant coach Tommy Condell as a special adviser.

Copeland had said the club wanted Milanovich to remain in 2017 but that ultimately his future would be decided by the incoming GM.

Toronto had until Tuesday to request permission from other CFL clubs to speak to members of their organization about the vacant GM post.

According to league sources, the Argos hadn’t reached out to the Grey Cup-champion Ottawa Redblacks to talk with assistant GM Brock Sunderland, a finalist for the GM job in Montreal that went to Kavis Reed.

Ditto for other potential candidates, including Saskatchewan executives John Murphy and Jeremy O’Day, B.C. Lions executive Neil McEvoy, former Riders GM Brendan Taman and Hamilton GM Eric Tillman, who earned a Grey Cup ring as Toronto’s general manager in 1997.

The Canadian Press contacted Jim Popp when Barker was fired, but the former Montreal Alouettes GM declined comment.

Exactly who the Argos are considering as Barker’s replacement is generating plenty of talk in CFL circles. When Barker was let go, Copeland said he’d spent a lot of time with senior-level CFL and NFL individuals who’d won championships about what it would take for Toronto to be successful.

That suggested Copeland wouldn’t be afraid to look outside the box for perspective candidates. An Argos official said Tuesday that Copeland has been conducting interviews for the GM post but won’t divulge who they are.

The new general manager will be responsible for hiring a head coach.

If the Argos do indeed look outside the box, they’d be in keeping with a recent trend.

Reed got the GM job in Montreal despite having never held the post before and this week the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers hired John Lynch, a former player and broadcaster, to their post. Despite having never been a general manager before, Lynch received a six-year deal.

• CP

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