"Thanks for helping us end a 28-year championship drought, but by the way, we’re gonna need you to take a pay cut."
That’s the message Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters is going to have to, unfortunately, deliver to the majority of his players in the next month and a half.
Sure, he’ll word it better than that, but it won’t be an easy conversation to have with anyone, let alone star players such as running back Andrew Harris, left tackle Stanley Bryant and kicker Justin Medlock, who are in need of new contracts.
The Bombers have 32 players set to hit the CFL open market on Feb. 9 unless they’re able to agree to a new contract with the Blue and Gold before then.
Walters chatted with local media for more than 30 minutes during a conference call Thursday afternoon to discuss all the challenges surrounding this year’s free agency as teams will be working with smaller budgets.
"I think a lot of businesses and a lot of people globally have had very difficult discussions and decisions and we’re no different," Walters said.
"It’s no fun being in this spot where we win the Grey Cup for the first time (in a long time) and we figured we tried and did a pretty good job of bringing the majority of those players back to try and make a repeat of those things and didn’t get an opportunity. Now you’re looking at a list of free agents that you would hope you’d be talking back-to-back Grey Cups (with) and now it’s a bit demoralizing. It’s tough and demoralizing to look at all the names of the guys that led us to the Grey Cup and how difficult it’s going to be to keep the core together."
With the 2020 CFL season cancelled owing to the pandemic and uncertainty around what a 2021 campaign will look like, the pockets for all nine teams are more shallow than usual.
Walters wouldn’t give a specific number on what he’s been told he has to work with, but it’s expected clubs will spend closer to the salary cap floor of $4.75 million as opposed to the $5.35-million ceiling.
As for the players who are under contract for 2021, by no means did they dodge a bullet. Many of them, especially those with high cap hits such as linebacker Adam Bighill, defensive end Willie Jefferson and quarterback Zach Collaros, will very likely be asked to renegotiate their contracts.
"Believe me, we’re looking at all the options and none of them are great," he said.
"You’re going down scenarios where even a young player making a few thousand more than the minimum, do we ask him to take a cut to lose a few thousand dollars? Again, we’re exploring all options... It’s not very pleasant phone calls with agents and things of that nature, but you have to figure out a way to get to the assigned cap number that we’re working for."
Players have been very loyal to the Bombers in recent years, with several key pieces happily re-signing with Winnipeg for less money than what they’d likely get elsewhere. This time around, Walters wouldn’t fault anyone for waiting until February in order to see if another team could, somehow, make them an offer that would more closely resemble a normal contract. Walters also claimed there’s been no agreement between teams to ensure everyone will play nice during free agency and not turn contract negotiations into bidding wars.
"I would say confidently for one of our free agents if we put a comparable offer, or in the ballpark offer, versus another team, the player would stay here and I’m confident to say that... Although this year is a little bit different," said Walters.
"If Player A is asked to sign to a specific number that’s substantially less than what it’s used to make and then somebody would pay that, then you can’t blame these players this year for exploring all options. After going through a year without making a paycheque, I think it behooves them to explore all options and you can’t blame them for that."
Making things even more complicated is the fact teams haven’t seen the players in a year. Which players sat on the couch all year? Which players used the time off to take their training to the next level? At the end of the day, it’s going to be a bit of a guessing game.
"One of the GMs said it’s potentially ‘buyer beware.’ You’re not going to know. For a young guy that was on your negotiation list that you signed, we would generally get out to free agent camps and invite them out to get eyes on them, but that’s going to be limited by the sounds of things," said Walters.
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"Your veteran guys, you rely on your training staff. Al (Couture, head athletic therapist) and Brayden (Miller, strength and conditioning specialist) have very good relationships with our guys and they’re going to have to dig. You’re not going to know until you see them, which makes this off-season even more challenging than a normal one."
It’s no secret the most compelling name on the Bombers’ list is Harris. The Winnipegger, who was named the 2019 Grey Cup MVP and most outstanding Canadian after rushing for 134 yards while adding 35 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns, will be 34 by the time a 2021 season kicks off. Walters said Harris has shown zero signs of slowing down, so his age isn’t a concern, but the two sides haven’t entered contract negotiations as the team needs to sort things out with the players who are currently under contract and due bonuses this off-season. Those conversations will ultimately decide how the team approaches free agency.
"Andrew becomes a free agent on Feb. 9. Some of these other guys are owed money prior to that," Walters said.
"You need to prioritize those guys first and foremost. So, you make a decision on them and have an idea of where you’re at before moving on to your guys with expiring contracts on Feb. 9. But no, Andrew would be a priority for sure."
Taylor Allen Reporter
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.