On the verge of free agency, Ted Laurent poses a big problem

With just over a week to go before the start of CFL free agency, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats find themselves caught between a big man and hard place.

The Ticats currently have 32 players slated to hit the open market at noon on Feb. 9, including a number of starters and high-profile players (particularly on defence). While the team has re-signed a few depth Canadians and made a big splash in acquiring American defensive end John Chick, general manager Kent Austin has not been able to lock down any of his big name guys. At least not yet.

The likely reason: 303 pounds worth of Ted Laurent.

The Canadian defensive tackle is one of the preeminent names on the might-be-available list – right at the very top, depending who you talk to. He’s one of the best players at his position, a CFL all-star the last two seasons. And he’s just 28-years-old, meaning he should be both productive and durable as he’s missed just three regular season games in two seasons and one was for a death in the family.

Put another way: Ted Laurent is a beast, who also happens to be Canadian. In the CFL, that means he’s about to get paid.

But just how much Laurent is worth remains an open question, particularly in a marketplace that appears poised for some upheaval. The inclusion of one-year contracts in the last collective bargaining agreement – a move that many general managers think is bad for both the quality and marketing of the game – has fully come home to roost with a record number of players (in the 200 range) set to hit the market.

That’s a lot of players with their hands out, expecting to finally get a slice of the TV and stadium money that started flowing before the 2013 season. That the cap has gone up just $100,000, to $5.1 million, the last two years doesn’t seem to be a deterrent on expectations. But there are also plenty of options for general managers which devalues the market further: as usual, the blue chip guys will get paid, everyone else will fight for scraps.

There has, however, been a slight disturbance in the normally predictable CFL pay scale which values elite level quarterbacks first, elite level Canadians second… and then everyone else. While the deals signed by Chick in Hamilton ($160,000 per season) and receiver Weston Dressler ($175,000) in Winnipeg are reasonable, last December the Edmonton Eskimos gave productive but drop-prone receiver Adarius Bowman more than $250,000 a year in his new contract, then dropped $175,000 on American defensive tackle Almondo Sewell.

That’s a lot of money for that particular position and if Sewell – who was the other CFL all-star at defensive tackle but has the wrong birth certificate – is worth that kind of dough, then what is the Hamilton big man worth, particularly to a team starving for national talent (cough, cough Saskatchewan) or a general manager already on the theoretical hot seat (as they could be in Montreal, B.C. and Winnipeg.)

The only way for Laurent to truly know his true value is to hit the open market on Feb. 9, something the Ticats are desperately trying to avoid. They’ve made no secret of their desire to re-sign Laurent and remain quietly optimistic that they’ll be able to do so: all signs are that Laurent likes playing in Hamilton and would return – for the right price.

In the meantime, the rest of Hamilton’s pending free agents wait in limbo: if the team is going to invest a serious chunk of change in Laurent, that will obviously impact how they manage their cap at other positions. Spending big on Big Ted means having to find value at other spots, in the same way that paying receivers Brandon Banks and Luke Tasker last season meant relying on newcomers on their rookie deals like Tiquan Underwood and Terrence Toliver to fill out the roster.

On the plus side, the Ticats should have some money to spend, with or without Laurent. Between his deal and the possible departure of mid-to-big ticket items of receiver Andy Fantuz, kicker Justin Medlock and defensive end Justin Hickman (who’s almost certainly gone), Austin should be a factor in the market – and he may have to be.

And it’s unlikely that Austin, given his nature and acumen, will allow the team to be held hostage by the demands of one player: if Austin comes to believe he has to move on from Laurent, he will and quickly. There’s no doubt already a Plan B. And C and D, too.

That said, Plan A remains B.I.G.: the only question is how much and when.

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