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Argos assistant GM says he has authority to make deals in CFL free agency

Zimmerman says he has authority to make deals

TORONTO — Spencer Zimmerman will guide the Toronto Argonauts through the CFL free-agent waters.

Toronto heads into CFL free agency — which begins at noon ET on Tuesday — without either a general manager or head coach. Zimmerman, the club's assistant GM, has handled the general manager's duties since Jim Barker was fired late last month.

Head coach Scott Milanovich resigned shortly after to become the quarterbacks coach with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. So with Toronto president Michael Copeland spearheading the search for a new GM — who'll be responsible for hiring a head coach â€” Zimmerman said he has the authority to pull the trigger on free-agent deals.

"I have the full commitment from the ownership group and Michael Copeland to make the moves that are necessary for this football team to be competitive now but also in the future," Zimmerman said Monday. "For us it's really not about finding that one guy, I can't stress that enough.

"It's about finding the right fits and we're very very realistic about the values associated with those fits."

Zimmerman certainly faces a big challenge.

Toronto has many needs after finishing last in the East Division with a 5-13 record. The Argos did sign five Canadians — including kicker Lirim Hajrullahu and offensive linemen Chris Van Zeyl and Tyler Holmes — to extensions but 1,000-yard rusher Brandon Whitaker and linebacker Cory Greenwood, a native of Kingston, Ont., were among the 20 other players slated for free agency.

Zimmerman faces making personnel decisions without knowing what systems the Argos' coaches will run in 2017. Then there's trying to attract quality free agents to a franchise that's minus the direction and vision provided by a GM and coach.

Zimmerman has also never before called the shots in free agency. He's in just his second season with Toronto, promoted to his current post last month after serving as its director of American scouting and pro development in 2016.

Before joining the Argos, Zimmerman worked as Hamilton's co-ordinator of scouting and football administration.

"I don't really think there's a challenge," Zimmerman said. "In terms of our player acquisition philosophy, it's going to run (similarly) with the vision of the ownership group and Michael Copeland . . . that is to covet and attract players with certain intangibles that we believe make successful Toronto Argonauts.

"We have the ability to be active but we're definitely not going to be chasing players or going all-in on a certain player at the risk of mortgaging our model for cap management. I think the players we covet Tuesday will understand our organizational vision."

CFL teams will have a bit more to spend with the '17 salary cap increasing $50,000 to $5.15 million. But with over 150 players slated to become free agents, it's not nearly enough to keep everyone happy.

Hamilton, Ottawa, Calgary and Montreal all made moves with pending free agents Monday.

The Ticats signed American receiver Terrence Toliver to a two-year extension while the Grey Cup-champion Redblacks reached a one-year deal with defensive back Jerrell Gavins. The Als and linebacker Kyries Hebert came to terms on a two-year contract while the Stampeders earned agreements in principle with receiver Marquay McDaniel and defensive lineman Micah Johnson.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders, who finished tied with Toronto for the CFL's worst record, are expected to be active in free agency. Ottawa, with many veterans poised for free agency, could also have holes to fill.

Winnipeg GM Kyle Walters was busy in free agency the last two years. But having already re-signed quarterback Matt Nichols and added receiver Kenny Stafford and defensive end Tristan Okpalaugo as free agents, Walters doesn't expect to be busy Tuesday.

"We'll see what happens on the second or third day of free agency," he said. "Certainly if we can find a guy at any position we think is a solid football player that fits financially with what we’re doing then we'll make a play at that.

"But I don't see us going after any of the high-end guys."

A big reason for the abundance of free agents is the elimination of the option-year clause in contracts in the last collective bargaining agreement in 2014. Previously, deals contained mandatory option-year clauses so players signing a one-year contract were bound to the team â€” at its discretion â€” for another season.

Option-year players were allowed out of their CFL contracts if they signed with NFL clubs during a specified time each off-season.

The current CBA eliminated the option year for veterans â€” rookies still have the clause in their first contracts. That's prompted many players to sign one-year deals and have the ability to parlay a productive season into a more lucrative agreement in the off-season.

However, testing the open market is a calculated gamble for players and teams.

Teams allowing their stars to become free agents face either having to over-pay to keep them or losing them outright to a higher bid. Once the top free agents sign, though, there's a significantly smaller piece of the pie left for those who remain.

"From a management standpoint I don't mind these one-year contracts," Walters said. "Players in one-year contracts who have good years are generally a little bit easier to re-sign in-house.

"I believe a lot of the agents' work leading into free agency is going to be tempering their clients' expectations. The top guys are going to get their money but I think there's going to be a few guys looking around Day 2, Day 3 going, 'Oh oh, let me have a job.'"

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press