Argos GM Jim Popp is giving three Canadian quarterbacks a shot with CFL team

TORONTO — General manager Jim Popp is doing his part to give Canadian quarterbacks a shot with the Toronto Argonauts.

The Argos now have three on their roster. They signed veteran Brandon Bridge of Mississauga, Ont., and Regina native Noah Picton as free agents this off-season before taking Ottawa’s Michael O’Connor in the third round, 20th overall, of the CFL draft Thursday night.

Bridge, Picton and O’Connor will battle incumbent James Franklin and veterans Dakota Prukop and McLeod Bethel-Thompson in training camp.

Popp said talent is the overwhelming reason why Bridge, Picton and now O’Connor are with the club. But Popp is also looking ahead to the possibility that Canadian quarterbacks could count as nationals on CFL rosters.

“There are discussions and talks about making the quarterback who’s Canadian counting as a Canadian on your roster,” Popp said Friday. “I don’t know what the rules will be, if it will actually take place or when … but there’s enough strong talk that there’s a chance for it.

“And it plays to your favour if you have one of a few Canadian quarterbacks who we feel can actually play in the CFL. We know Brandon can. Now, the first thing we look at is talent and if they can play. But if they’re Canadian and the rules change … that’s another extra benefit.”

CFL teams dress 44 players per game. Twenty-one are Canadian (national), 20 are American (international) and three are quarterbacks of any nationality.

Many league officials believe if Canadian quarterbacks counted as nationals, clubs would keep them and develop them much like they do with Canucks who are positional players. With the CFL and CFL Players’ Association currently negotiating a new agreement — the present one expires May 18 — there’ve been suggestions a change regarding Canadian quarterbacks could come about.

Bridge is Toronto’s most experienced Canadian quarterback. The six-foot-five, 235-pound Bridge is entering his fifth CFL season with his third team following previous stops with Montreal and Saskatchewan.

The five-foot-eight, 177-pound Picton participated in Toronto’s training camp last season before returning to university football with the Regina Rams. Picton is Canadian university football’s all-time passing leader (11,494 yards), stands second in completions (835) and seventh in TDs (71).

The selection of O’Connor is certainly intriguing. The six-foot-five, 235-pound quarterback spent four seasons at UBC (2015-18), leading the Thunderbirds to a Vanier Cup title and being named game MVP his first year at the school, after redshirting at Penn State.

O’Connor has all the intangibles coaches look for. Physically, he’s big, strong and can make all of the throws but he’s also very cerebral, articulate and is willing to be coached.

“Any quarterback that carries all of those different attributes is valuable,” Popp said. “With that pick, we could’ve taken anybody from an offensive lineman to a special-teams player but we drafted the quarterback because we feel he can compete for a job no matter what his status is.”

O’Connor was Canada West’s second-leading passer last season (337.6 yards per game), completing 222-of-316 passes (70.3 per cent) for 2,701 yards with 14 TDs and just four interceptions.

Over four seasons at British Columbia, O’Connor amassed 9,900 passing yards. On Thursday night, he became the highest drafted Canadian quarterback since 2001 when Ottawa’s Jesse Palmer went in the second round, No. 15 overall, to the Montreal Alouettes.

“He has first-round talent in the CFL draft,” Popp said of O’Connor. “He fell back simply because he doesn’t count as a Canadian as of today.

“I never thought he’d make it out of the second round and it was a big dilemma for us even at No. 9 (where Toronto took Laurier defensive lineman Robert Smith to open the second round) to maybe take Michael there. Talent-wise he was worthy of being the first pick of the draft, it’s just there were other guys who could count as a national or Canadian.”

Toronto got a look at O’Connor in 2018 when he attended its training camp before returning to school. O’Connor is currently attending the Seattle Seahawks’ rookie mini-camp.

“We got to know him well (in 2018) and saw what he was capable of doing,” Popp said. “And he’s only going to get better.”

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