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Football CFL GMs will have no shortage of options in CFL free agency

Saskatchewan Roughriders' Jeremy O'Day speaks during a news conference held at Mosaic Stadium, in Regina, Sask., on Sept. 1, 2015.

Michael Bell/The Canadian Press

Jeremy O’Day’s first foray into CFL free agency as a general manager promises to be a unique one.

As of Friday, more than 190 players were scheduled to hit the open market at noon Tuesday. That number could change with teams signing prospective free agents before the deadline, but starting quarterbacks Mike Reilly, Bo Levi Mitchell and Trevor Harris are expected to headline a deep talent pool.

With only one quarterback on Saskatchewan’s roster, it’s a position of priority for O’Day, who was named the Roughriders’ vice-president of football operations/GM last month.

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“It will be interesting to see if everyone makes it to free agency,” O’Day said. “If they do, it’s really going to add a different dynamic because I don’t think there’s been one like it with the amount of franchise quarterbacks going to free agency.

“It’s a different year with the amount of players who’ll potentially be on the market. It’s a lot, but it’s also an opportunity.”

This won’t be O’Day’s first free-agency experience. In 2011, he became Saskatchewan’s football operations co-ordinator before being named assistant GM a year later. He was appointed vice-president of football operations and administration in December, 2015.

Toronto Argonauts GM Jim Popp also is a veteran of CFL free agency. But even he can’t remember seeing so many players poised to hit the open market.

“By sheer numbers, yes, it’s different,” Popp said. “There’s a lot of people waiting and wondering what’s going on.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how free agency is.”

There are many reasons for the abundance of free agents. They include:

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Veteran players being allowed to sign one-year deals. Many go this route to not only keep their options open at season’s end, but also be better able to cash in quickly following a solid campaign.

The uncertainty regarding the 2019 salary cap. That figure was $5.2-million last year, but the current CBA is scheduled to expire in May. As well, the league’s minimum salary in 2018 was $54,000.

The CFL not allowing players who sign contracts this off-season to collect signing bonuses until after a new CBA is ratified. Essentially, there’s no reason to justify signing immediately.

More options outside the CFL. The eight-team American Alliance of Football (AAF) begins play on Saturday, while the rejuvenated XFL has started preparing for its 2020 reincarnation. The AAF’s standard player contract covers three years and US$250,000 – $70,000, $80,000 and $100,000 – in base salaries with a chance to earn more with bonuses.

Regardless of the reasons why, the end result is an abundance of available talent that gives GMs many options to fix whatever ails their teams.

In the CFL, the quickest fix often comes at quarterback. Reilly was the league’s highest-paid player last year at more than $500,000 with the Edmonton Eskimos, but he’s expected to set a new benchmark (around $700,000) in free agency.

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Reilly, 34, hasn’t missed a game the past three years and thrown for more than 5,500 yards each season. After guiding Edmonton to a Grey Cup title in 2016, Reilly was the CFL’s top player the following season. He has 88 TD passes the past three years.

Reilly’s timing to hit free agency couldn’t be better. Only the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (Jeremiah Masoli) and Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Matt Nichols) have established starters under contract.

Reilly will help determine what Mitchell (Calgary Stampeders) and Harris (Ottawa Redblacks) can command on the open market. However, a big challenge for GMs is trying to sign free agents while not knowing what the salary cap will be.

“It’s going to be a little difficult because you don’t want undershoot it and miss out on players, but you don’t want to overshoot it and be in cap violation,” O’Day said. “It’s unique but we dealt with that five years ago [when the last CBA was expiring].”

Mitchell, 28, has led Calgary to two Grey Cups (2014, 2018) and been named the CFL’s top player twice (2016, 18) since becoming the starter in 2014. At age 28, the native of Katy, Tex., – who is 69-15-2 as a starter – is definitely in his prime.

Mitchell worked out for seven NFL clubs this off-season, but he has not signed a contract. CFL sources say if Mitchell opts to remain in Canada, he’s not necessarily a lock to return to Calgary and would explore all of his options.

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Harris, 32, enjoyed his best CFL season last year, setting career highs in passes attempted (615), completed (431) and passing yards (5,116) while leading Ottawa to a Grey Cup berth.

“There’s obviously the big three who’re getting all of the attention,” O’Day said. “But if you look at the group as a whole, there’s a lot of guys who’ve been starters in our league and been very good players.

“I know from the fans’ perspective it’s probably a little nerve-wracking not knowing where everyone is going to be, but it’s pretty exciting.”

That second group would include Zach Collaros (Saskatchewan), Travis Lulay and Jonathon Jennings (both B.C. Lions). Kevin Glenn, 39, is a long-time CFL starter who didn’t throw a pass last year backing up Reilly, while Brandon Bridge, 26, of Mississauga, Ont., started some games the past two seasons with the Riders.

Darian Durant, 36, who retired last year, has hinted at a possible comeback in 2019.

Teams missing out on the quarterback sweepstakes and those not needing one will still have money to spend. And there’s no shortage of options:

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Receivers Derel Walker (28, two-time CFL all-star coming off knee injury) and Greg Ellingson (three straight 1,000-yard seasons with Ottawa) are both up for grabs.

Defensive linemen available include Micah Johnson (30, 14 sacks last year with Calgary), Willie Jefferson (28, 10 sacks last year with Saskatchewan), Shawn Lemon (30, 11 sacks last year with B.C.) and Odell Willis (34, 11 sacks with Edmonton)

Linebacker Larry Dean (29, 96 tackles, East Division’s top defensive player with Hamilton), offensive linemen SirVincent Rogers (32, right tackle with Ottawa) and Sukh Chungh (26, missed just three starts in four years with Winnipeg) and defensive back Delvin Breaux (29, top shutdown defender with Hamilton) also are top free agents.

O’Day said fit is as important as talent when deciding which free agents to pursue.

“It’s a situation where you have to choose them and they have to choose you,” he said. “Ultimately it’s a two-way street.

“You must have buy-in from the player and team.”

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Traditionally, Popp hasn’t been overly active in free agency. Similar to O’Day, he says fit is always important when looking to add talent.

“Every situation is different,” he said. “I always listen to what people are looking for, listen to agents or players who want to change addresses.

“Like I said, it definitely will be interesting.”

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