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Fantuz slipping away from Roughriders with CFL free agency looming

Saskatchewan Roughriders slotback Andy Fantuz, left, makes a catch on Sept. 17, 2010.

Troy Fleece/The Canadian Press/Troy Fleece/The Canadian Press

Brendan Taman isn't expecting to reach a last-second deal with slotback Andy Fantuz.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders' general manager still has a week to sign Fantuz before the start of CFL free agency Feb. 16. But Taman figures if he gets Fantuz's signature on a contract it will be after the native of Chatham, Ont., hits the open market.

"We're probably maybe one, two max, conversations away from him hitting free agency, which right now I foresee that happening," Taman said Tuesday. "We had discussions with his representatives since mid-September last year and weren't able to work something out so it's probably likely.

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"I hope to have Andy back here but any time a guy hits the open market you get a little bit less confident. I'm not as optimistic as I'd be before [Feb. 16]and we'll see where it goes but it doesn't mean he can't come back to us."

The 2011 season was a miserable one for Fantuz, who missed half the CFL campaign while attending the Chicago Bears camp before being released and returning to Regina. The six-foot-four, 220-pound receiver had just 13 catches for 175 yards and no TDs in four games with the Riders before being shut down for the rest of the season with an ankle injury.

But Taman doesn't expect that to deter rival GMs, who will instead look at Fantuz's 2010 campaign when he was named the league's top Canadian after recording 87 catches for a league-leading 1,380 yards and six TDs.

"That was a tough year for him, it sort of mirrored our year as a team on the whole," Taman said. "The NFL didn't work out, he never really got healthy and came here and hurt his ankle.

"He's a pretty good Canadian football player and any time you have that on the market it's a little scary for the team that has him on the market. He commands a big buck and someone might buck up a bigger buck than we can."

And unfortunately for Taman, there will be plenty of potential suitors for Fantuz.

The prevailing sentiment heading into free agency has long been that the Edmonton Eskimos covet the veteran receiver and will heavily pursue him, especially considering Eskimos GM Eric Tillman was the Riders' GM when the club – with Fantuz in tow – won the '07 Grey Cup. Also the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts would offer Fantuz the opportunity to play closer to home.

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There are plenty of other proven veteran CFL performers poised to join Fantuz on the free-agent market next week. Included are defensive lineman Aaron Hunt and defensive backs Dante Marsh and Ryan Pillips of the Grey Cup-champion B.C. Lions, defensive lineman and linebacker Rod Davis of the Edmonton Eskimos, Saskatchewan tailback Wes Cates, defensive end Justin Hickman and kicker Justin Medlock of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Montreal Alouettes veteran offensive lineman Scott Flory and Argos' linebacker Jason Pottinger, defensive backs Byron Parker and Willie Pile and offensive linemen Taylor Robertson, Rob Murphy and Dominic Picard.

Among the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' prospective free agents are backup quarterback Alex Brink and starting offensive linemen Brendon LaBatte, Glenn January and Steve Morley. But GM Joe Mack said last week he's hopeful to have Brink as well as up to a pair of the linemen signed before the start of free agency.

Trouble is, the CFL free agent market already boasts a number of proven veterans also looking for jobs. Among those released this off-season include running backs Joffrey Reynolds and Avon Cobourne, offensive linemen Patrick Kabongo and Alexandre Gauthier, kickers Luca Congi and Damon Duval, linebacker Barrin Simpson and defensive back Lin-J Shell.

Another interesting potential free agent is linebacker Kevin Eiben, who has spent his entire 11-year CFL career with Toronto. A three-time CFL all-star and a Grey Cup champion, the 32-year-old from Delta, B.C., is coming off a 2011 campaign that not only saw him lose his starting position but also spend most of it on the sidelines after suffering a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in August.

The Canadian Press

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