WEATHER ALERT

Let the bidding begin

With CFL free agency looming, ‘legal-tampering period’ gives teams chance to woo potential players

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With just two weeks before the start of free agency on Feb. 14, we’ve reached the calm before the inevitable storm for front offices across the CFL.

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With just two weeks before the start of free agency on Feb. 14, we’ve reached the calm before the inevitable storm for front offices across the CFL.

And you won’t have to wait until the market officially opens to start hearing some major buzz around players. The league’s “legal tampering” period — known formally as the “communication window” — opens up Feb. 5, giving pending free agents a full week, until the 12th, to speak with others teams around the CFL.

Looking across the league, it’s clear some clubs will be busier than others over the coming weeks.

<p>NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p>
                                <p>Blue Bombers wide receiver and native Winnipegger Nic Demski is a pending free agent coming off a career year in yards gained and touchdowns scored.</p>

NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Blue Bombers wide receiver and native Winnipegger Nic Demski is a pending free agent coming off a career year in yards gained and touchdowns scored.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Calgary Stampeders, B.C. Lions and Ottawa Redblacks have been the busiest of the bunch, with each team managing to re-sign close to half their list of players on expiring contracts. Then there are others, including the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, that have barely scratched the surface, with the Ticats inking just one pending free agent in quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell — a player they only acquired from Calgary in November, once the season was complete.

Continuity is key in building a consistent winner and “winning” free agency is far from a recipe for prolonged success. Just ask the Redblacks, who were major players at this time last year, inking several prized free agents, only to finish in the bottom of the East Division with a 4-14 record.

That’s not to say there won’t be the potential for some major moves in the coming days. With the communication window opening soon, teams are going to get some much-needed clarity from players on things such as the likelihood of a return and the cost associated with keeping said player.

As we’ve seen in previous years, few, if any, players register contracts with other clubs during the tampering period, creating more of a game of chicken than anything else. That’s a roundabout way of saying even if a player opts to hear competing offers, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re guaranteed to be out the door.

Indeed, there’s plenty to look forward to as we inch closer and closer to a 2023 season. Before we look too far ahead, let’s take a look back at some of the biggest stories in the three-down loop over the last couple of weeks in the latest edition of CFL Rundown.

1) No one should be surprised that Mitchell signed with Hamilton, agreeing to a three-year deal that will pay him more than $500,000 a season. Despite some reports, Mitchell was never going to sign with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, given the club’s current level of instability, with a general manager, head coach and offensive co-ordinator all on the last year of their contracts. In Hamilton, Mitchell has a better chance of making the playoffs, is able to live in a better city and play for a better team, including under a coaching staff that will best serve his skillset.

2) The deal also makes a lot of sense for the Ticats. They needed to stabilize the QB situation after a rocky year with Dane Evans as their starter. It’s also a big year for Hamilton, with the city hosting the Grey Cup, and if the Ticats have any chance of breaking a CFL-long, 23-year championship drought, an upgrade over Evans was desperately needed. While Mitchell is certainly a step up from his predecessor, he also comes with a ton of risk. For years, Mitchell hasn’t been the same dominating player we’d become accustomed to seeing, with his last few seasons derailed by injuries and inconsistent play. He was beat out of his starting role in Calgary by sophomore QB Jake Maier midway through 2022, ending his decade-long run with the Stampeders rather unceremoniously. The CFL is a better place when Mitchell is at the top of his game, but that might prove too much to ask for a player who will be 33 next month and has thrown the same number of touchdowns (19) as interceptions the last two seasons.

3) One other interesting tidbit that has come out of the Mitchell negotiations in Hamilton, as first reported by TSN’s Dave Naylor, was the Ticats trying to give their new QB some guaranteed money. As part of the new CBA — which, by the way, hasn’t officially been signed, with both sides still working on a memorandum of understanding — players who play at least two seasons can re-sign with their respective club and have half the salary on the last year of a multi-year extension guaranteed. It was a critical part of the CBA, ensuring not only those players have the chance to sign for never-before-seen guaranteed money but also as an incentive to stay with the same team long term, creating the kind of continuity that had blown up since the arrival of one-year contracts. The Ticats felt that because they inherited Mitchell’s contract from the Stamps, they should be in the clear to offer a partially guaranteed extension. The CFL ultimately said no, their reason being it goes against the very nature of the new clause. That’s now created a bit of a loophole, where in the future teams might do a sign-and-trade, inking a player to a multi-year pact that’s partially guaranteed before trading him away. Sounds like the CFL is ready to fight that battle, too, if and when it comes.

4) With Mitchell Mania now over, it’s going to be fascinating to see where some of the other QBs land. Trevor Harris is of particular interest, as it appears a return to the Montreal Alouettes is now in question. In an interview with Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette, Harris said the uncertainty around the club’s ownership and front office — the Alouettes still don’t have a president in place — has prevented him from signing an extension. If I’m Harris, I’m leveraging a desperate Roughriders team into a lucrative contract. Saskatchewan needs a proven QB in the worst way, and Harris, while far from elite, is by far its safest and best option. That leaves Evans as a potential target for Montreal.

5) More on the QB front, Jeremiah Masoli agreed to restructure his contract with the Redblacks. As per Threedownnation’s Justin Dunk, the deal is good for both sides, as it frees up about $75,000 in salary cap space, while Masoli pockets an additional $30,000, as he earned a much larger signing bonus, which is taxed at a significantly lower rate.

6) In talking with several teams across the league, what’s clear is the price tag for free-agent receivers is going to be high. Topping that list is Alouettes receiver Eugene Lewis, who is apparently looking for upwards of $300,000 for his services. The 29-year-old is coming off a solid season, reeling in 91 passes for 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns, en route to being named the East nominee for most outstanding player. Other notable receivers in need of a contract for 2023 include Kenny Lawler, who made $300,000 with the Edmonton Elks last season, Winnipeg’s Nic Demski, Kurleigh Gittens Jr. out of Toronto and Hamilton’s Tim White, among others.

7) Breaking the bank on a top receiver has proven to be a fool’s game in recent years. In 2019, when Toronto inked Derel Walker to a one-year, $275,000 contract, making him the then-highest paid receiver, the Argonauts finished the year 4-14. It was the same story last season, with Lawler chasing big money in Edmonton and the Roughriders inking Duke Williams for north of $250,000. Neither club made the playoffs last season, suggesting that money is better spent elsewhere.

8) The Redblacks upgraded their offensive line in a big way this week, signing Canadian guard Drew Desjarlais to a two-year contract. The deal makes Desjarlais the highest-paid O-lineman in the CFL, paying him $250,000 this season, with a bump to $260,000 in 2024. Desjarlais is a solid addition, with the 25-year-old winning back-to-back Grey Cups with the Bombers, where he started in his first year and was named a West Division all-star his second, before spending last year in the NFL. But that’s a significant price to pay for an interior lineman and it shows just how deep some teams need to dip into their pockets to attract key players. Desjarlais did approach the Bombers, but they couldn’t afford his asking price, nor did they want to move on from Geoff Gray or Patrick Neufeld. The Roughriders offered more money than the Redblacks, but Desjarlais went with a city and coaching staff that made him more comfortable.

9) Other notable signings: OL Derek Dennis (CGY); DL James Vaughters (CGY); LB Bo Lokombo (B.C.); DB Money Hunter (OTT).

10) The Bombers are an interesting case. They have several key pieces returning this season, but when you look at their pending free agents, it’s clear they’ve got to figure out their receiver situation. With Dalton Schoen yet to sign an NFL contract, the belief is he’s destined to return to Winnipeg, though the Bombers might have to restructure the deal for the CFL’s leading receiver. As far as starters from last season, Drew Wolitarsky is also under contract for 2023. Not under contract, though, are Demski, Greg Ellingson and Rasheed Bailey. Given Ellingson’s injury-filled season, it’s likely the Bombers move on, while Bailey could also be hitting free agency depending on what the cost to retain him will be.

11) Less obvious is what’s happening with Demski. I wrote weeks ago that I could see the Winnipeg native testing free agency, if only to get a better idea of what he’s worth. He’s got the advantage of carrying a Canadian passport and is coming off a season in which he recorded 10 touchdowns — more than double his previous season-high of four. While Demski is versatile, both a threat as a runner and pass-catcher, he’s never had 1,000-yard season — his highest being 772 yards last year — and has been susceptible to injury in recent years. Demski has to be a priority for Winnipeg, but the feeling is if he isn’t re-signed, it’s because they can’t agree on a price point. It could end up being a decision between re-signing Demski or pursuing the likes of Lawler or Lewis.

Jeff.Hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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