CFL Pass

Veteran quarterback Matt Nichols on Toronto Argonauts radar this off-season

TORONTO – Free-agent Quarterback Matt Nichols is on the Toronto Argonauts’ radar.

But that shouldn’t be surprising given Toronto posted a 4-14 record last year to miss the CFL playoffs for a second straight season. What’s more, the Argos have just one quarterback – sophomore Canadian Michael O’Connor – under contract for 2020 with veterans McLeod Bethel-Thompson, James Franklin and Dakota Prukop all slated to become free agents Feb. 11.

“I think everything has to be on our radar,” John Murphy, Toronto’s vice-president of player personnel, said regarding Nichols. “I’m not trying to avoid giving a direct answer but I think everything has to be evaluated and be done properly to ensure when you do come to your best decision, it was done by having all the information at hand.”

Nichols, 32, was released this week by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He became expendable after the Grey Cup champions signed quarterback Zach Collaros to a two-year contract extension.

Winnipeg acquired Collaros from Toronto on Oct. 9 prior to the CFL trade deadline. He became the starter late last season, going 4-0 in leading the Bombers past Hamilton 33-12 for their first Grey Cup title since 1990.

Collaros, 31, started 2019 as Saskatchewan’s starter before suffering a concussion in its regular-season opener. With the emergence of Cody Fajardo, the Riders dealt Collaros to Toronto in July.

Collaros never played a down with Toronto before heading to Winnipeg.

The six-foot-two, 211-pound Nichols spent five seasons with Winnipeg, going 40-24 as a starter. He led the Bombers to a 6-2 record before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in a 32-16 home win over B.C. on Aug. 15.

Nichols finished 171-of-240 passing (71.25 per cent) for 1,936 yards with 15 TDs and five interceptions. He didn’t have a 300-yard performance in 2019 prior to his injury.

Over his four starts, Collaros finished 67-of-97 passing (69.1 per cent) for 851 yards with four TDs and just one interception. He also didn’t record a 300-yard passing game.

Overall, Nichols was a 68 per cent passer with Winnipeg, throwing for 14,977 yards with 89 TDs and 42 interceptions. And while he was just 1-3 in the playoffs, Nichols completed 92-of-142 passes (64.8 per cent) with six TDs and no interceptions.

“When you say this club has had a struggle consistently winning football games and you have a quarterback who’s consistently won football games, yes, every consideration should be given to examining him,” Murphy said.

Three quarterbacks started games last season for Toronto. Bethel-Thompson had the most (13, 4-9 record) with Franklin (0-4) and Prukop (0-1) being the others.

Despite his record, Bethel-Thompson led the CFL in TD passes (26) and 300-yard games (nine) and was third in yards (4,024). He also boasted a 68 per cent completion average with 13 interceptions in 493 pass attempts.

Bethel-Thompson started eight games for Toronto in 2018. He compiled a 2-6 record while completing 198-of-303 passes (65.3 per cent) for 2,193 yards (two 300-yard performances) with nine TDs and 10 interceptions.

“I think MacLeod has received unnecessary flak for the production,” Murphy said. “There’ve been conversations (between Argos and Bethel-Thompson).

“I’d bet it’s not to the degree of conversation that he’d like or expect. But the due diligence that’s necessary in this scenario . . . it’s not a quick fix. I don’t think the Toronto Argonauts are best suited to be saying there’s any one individual and it’s cut and dry and just walk away and not evaluate that position.”

There’s been plenty of evaluation for Murphy and Toronto GM Mike (Pinball) Clemons to do since their hiring Oct. 8. Their appointments came with the Argos still having four regular-season games to play, which were followed by season-ending exit meetings, the decision to replace head coach Corey Chamblin with former Calgary assistant Ryan Dinwiddie and preparing for CFL free agency Feb. 11.

Toronto has signed four potential free agents to contract extensions but still has 29 players poised to hit the open market. In addition to three quarterbacks, that list includes such veteran stalwarts as receivers S.J. Green (team-high 85 catches, 1,039 yards, four TDs) and Derrel Walker (65 catches, team-high 1,056 yards, five TDs), centre Sean McEwen and defensive lineman Cleyon Laing (both Canadians) and defensive backs Jermaine Gabriel (another Canadian) and Trumaine Washington.

Murphy expects most of those pending free agents to test the market before deciding upon their CFL future. However, Murphy said currently, neither Franklin nor Prukop are in Toronto’s immediate plans.

Something Toronto and other CFL teams must contend with this year is a window for pending free agents to speak with other franchises. As part of the CBA between the league and CFL Players’ Association reached last year, clubs can make formal offers to pending free agents between Feb. 2-9.

At noon ET on Feb. 9, the CFL will provide clubs with all registered offers made to pending free agents. Then the original teams will have an exclusive 48-hour negotiating period to talk with their potential free agents.

If no offer is accepted by the player, he’ll become a free agent at 12:01 p.m. ET on Feb 11.

Murphy is good with this new wrinkle.

“Any time the CFL can be talked about more, to me we’re doing good ideas,” he said. “In other sports, these types of things are like gangbusters.

“Things like major league baseball’s winter meetings, the NHL or NBA trade deadline, the NFL draft, free agency or combine frenzy. I can’t see that’s a negative or bad thing.”

But the window could create a scenario where multiple teams bid on players and invariably increase their worth. However, Murphy isn’t overly concerned.

“Will it drive somebody’s value up? Yes,” he said. “But you know, what?

“It will also end up driving somebody else’s value down.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2020.


More on this: 737 stories