Toronto’s CFL team will wade into the free agent waters without a head coach and general manager in place, but the Argos do have a plan. They’ll be led by 27-year-old assistant general manager Spencer Zimmerman, who was promoted to the role when CEO Michael Copeland fired general manager Jim Barker last month. Zimmerman, who spent time as the co-ordinator of scouting and football administration for the Ticats before joining the Argos last summer, has full authority to make decisions when the market for players opens on Tuesday. Here’s our conversation.
Justin Dunk: How will the Argos approach free agency even though there is no general manager or head coach in place?
Spencer Zimmerman: For the past months and weeks the staff has been working hard to formulate a comprehensive and fluid plan going into free agency. We invested time in examining the roster, looking at our strengths, weaknesses. And really try to project some of the ascending players we have on the roster and correlate that with looking at our pending free agents, which we believe is the core priority in building the continuity of the team. We had the ability to extend Tyler Holmes, Anthony Coombs and Lirim Hajrullahu. And also from a long-term approach, we had the ability to extend Shawn Lemon and Corey Watman, which we felt was vital to the core of the football team. We have a lot of really capable football people on staff that understand looking at players values regarding cap implications and trying to assess the right fits for our football team. That’s the plan we’ve been executing.
Dunk: Are there challenges because you don’t have two key decision-makers on board, yet?
Zimmerman: We have a philosophy about acquiring players. Philosophically when it comes to player acquisition it has to be in simpatico with your core beliefs and your ethos of the organization, starting at the ownership group down on in regards to the types of players that we look to acquire. Obviously, their football skills, but from a free agency standpoint we really have to measure the intangibles that each player has and how they fit to our core beliefs. And that’s going to be a huge priority in the types of players we acquire. That really fits more with the organizational beliefs at a whole, starting from the ownership group through to Michael Copeland.
Dunk: What’s the philosophy while you’ve been preparing for free agency and looking to execute the Argos’ free agent plan?
Zimmerman: From our perspective, free agency is one metric in the player acquisition process and building a roster. Philosophically we’re not looking to target specific positions or players in free agency. We use the perspective of looking at our roster and gauging the supply of the market with certain positions. And also coupling that with the foresight of knowing some of the incoming players we’re going to be acquiring from our neg list. We’ve really attacked that whole model with the understanding that we need to manage the expectation of free agency with respect to our cap in terms of trying to build something that’s going to be sustainable and highly competitive, now and for the future.
Dunk: Why would Toronto be a viable destination for free agents?
Zimmerman: First and foremost, it’s the city, the organization, the world class stadium we have for players to come play in and live in. What we hope is players bring their families and significant others to set up roots in Toronto – a really special place to be and play. Organizationally, we believe and it’s known, that we have some of the best owners in professional sports. We have an opportunity and mandate that the players coming in and on Tuesday we’re going to have the ability to communicate to them that, it’s going to be a place that really fosters development and allows players to have all the resources they need to be successful and become leaders within the organization and community. And really feel that this is the best place for them to play football in the CFL.
Dunk: Outside of money, what might a pitch from the Argos to a free agent player include?
Zimmerman: Once we get the chance to communicate this, they’ll really see how infectious and excited we are about the vision for the future. They’ll have the ability to talk to Michael [Copeland] and see at that level where the organization is headed. We really think they’re going to be impressed and understand the commitment of the ownership group and what we have to offer. It’s about understanding the ability for them to come in here and be leaders on the team and in the community. For us, it shows with having the ability to re-sign Chris Van Zeyl because he embodies every intangible that we’re looking for when we talk about what we’re looking for in an Argonaut, he’s also one of the best right tackles in the league. That signals to players because he got to here our vision prior to re-signing and fully believed in it and that it’s going to be the best organization to play for.
Dunk: Might you use a player like the charismatic Shawn Lemon to help recruit players to come to Toronto?
Zimmerman: The players really are the best types of recruiters because they dictate the success that we are going to have on the field. That’s what we believe and that’s what we want the players to know: it’s about them. Everything that this football team does is to provide them with every resource possible to be successful and compete for Grey Cups year over year. Shawn Lemon is another guy that embodies some of the intangibles that we’re looking for. He’s highly competitive, he loves football and it is, aside from his family, one of the most important things to him in his life. Those are the types of players we’re looking to acquire.
Dunk: How important is free agency in the Argos’ team-building process?
Zimmerman: Every team is going to be different and for us we know it’s just one component of player acquisition. You would love to address some needs specifically because of the type of resume you’re hoping to get with a player you acquire in free agency. However, you really have to be continuously mindful of how fluid the player acquisition process is in the CFL, and that there are multiple avenues to acquire players. You have to go back to your core philosophy and beliefs of how you’re going to manage your cap, how sustainable it’s going to be for the future and to impute those proper values on the players to know that you’re going to field a very diverse and competitive team on both sides of the ball.
Dunk: Do you have final call to sign off on players’ contracts in free agency?
Zimmerman: Right now I have full autonomy to make the appropriate decisions that need to be made to ensure that the football team is going to be highly competitive this year and for years to come. Really our process it’s a complete process with the staff. We have a really good and strong football acumen staff involved. We’ve already spent countless hours going through those iterations in meetings about the potential of certain players coming to us, at the right values and how they’re all going to fit based on the players that are available to us. We have a plan in place that has all those iterations and when the appropriate decisions need to be made, they will be made.
Dunk: What role will coach Tommy Condell play in free agency?
Zimmerman: It’s important for us to have players know that what Tommy embodies and his ability to develop players, particularly quarterbacks and receivers and just his character, it’s going to be an added element of the process. Players can call former players in this league that are highly successful right now that Tommy’s coach and hear how instrumental he was in that process and how much football acumen he possesses to be able to help develop players. He’s someone who is really trustworthy and believes in developing players and giving them every opportunity to grow.
Dunk: Do you see Condell having a significant role on the coaching staff going forward?
Zimmerman: That’s going to get defined shortly once the appropriate management structure is in place. He’s been integral in this process right now, providing a perspective from a coaching lense, in the sense that he has coached offence and once upon a time a special teams coordinator in this league. He has that ability to look through different lenses to really see a players’ application for true value and utility under multiple offences. Knowing all the different types of offences and defences in this league and being able to have a different lense than a true personnel man or scout on how a player would fit schematically, if they’re scheme diverse and their adaptability.
Dunk: What’s the mood around the front office in advance of free agency opening?
Zimmerman: We have a lot of quality people on the staff that have really high football acumen and are very active and involved in the process. We look to measure ourselves as an organization by what we accomplish in November. We really feel that the vision that this ownership group has for this organization is going to be something really special. And to ignite and build on that it can be exciting if you get some of the right pieces that we’ve identified that fit our core Argo intangibles for players that fit into the mix.