Uncertainty reigns as CFL free agency opens

It’s that time again for CFL general managers to create their wish lists and open their chequebooks.

CFL free agency begins at noon ET on Tuesday with over 140 players slated to hit the open market. Once again Canadian starters will be front and centre with running back Andrew Harris – one of the league’s three 1,000-yard rushers last year – and defensive linemen Ted Laurent and Justin Capicciotti expected to garner much attention.

And they won’t come cheaply. Top Canadians are coveted as CFL clubs must have at least seven in their starting lineup. The six-foot-one, 303-pound Laurent, a Montreal native, has been a league all-star the past two seasons with Hamilton while the five-foot-11, 202-pound Harris, from Winnipeg, has twice run for over 1,000 yards.

The six-foot-three, 253-pound Capicciotti, a 26-year-old Toronto native, had 23 sacks the last two years with Ottawa.

The abundance of free agents is largely the result of the CFL eliminating the option year from veteran contracts and allowing players to sign one-year deals. In 2014, the salary cap went from $4.4 million to $5 million, giving some players – particularly starting Canadian offensive linemen heading into free agency – the chance to sign lucrative deals exceeding $200,000 annually.

The ’16 cap is $5.1 million but the $50,000 increase doesn’t come close to covering the raises most free agents expect, creating difficulties for Wally Buono and other CFL general managers.

“I guess for the media and fans it’s an exciting time,” said Buono, the B.C. Lions head coach/GM. “For us, it’s about making hard decisions.

“The landscape has changed and I’m not sure today everybody knows what the landscape is going to be. I wish I knew . . . Part of our business is knowing when to take a risk and when not to. It’s like Kenny Rogers says (in hit song ”The Gambler”), you’ve got to know when to hold them and when to fold them.”

CFL general managers will pay handsomely to either re-sign their top pending free agents or get those on the open market. But once the elite players are gone, the big question remains just how much money will GMs have for remaining free agents?

“What’s going to happen is the market isn’t going to be able to afford all these free agents and some people are going to have to maybe accept offers that were lower than their expectations,” Buono said.”But more and more people are willing to go to free agency and take the risk because the gains for them might be greater.”

The uncertainty of free agency creates many questions, including some for Buono and the Lions. With Harris expected to move on, B.C. could pay less for an American running back and use the difference to attract Capicciotti, a Simon Fraser alum.

Winnipeg GM Kyle Walters isn’t looking to re-sign receiver Nick Moore, and shedding his reported $175,000 salary could help in the pursuit of Harris as the Bombers try to return to the CFL playoffs for the first time since 2011.

One of the top players expected to be available on Tuesday was national running back Jerom Messam, however Monday night it was announced that he re-signed with the Calgary Stampeders.

The six-foot-three, 245-pound Messam, of Brampton, Ont., ran for 1,006 yards combining his 2015 campaign with Saskatchewan and Calgary. With Stampeders star Canadian Jon Cornish retiring, Messam –  theCFL’s top Canadian in 2011 and a two-time 1,000-yard rusher • seems a logical replacement.

Other interesting questions include:

• Does Montreal pass on 33-year-old Canadian tackle Josh Bourke and use his reported $225,000 salary to chase Laurent?

• Does receiver Shamawd Chambers, the top Canadian in Edmonton’s Grey Cup win last November, re-sign with the Eskimos, or does the Markham, Ont., native return to southern Ontario with either Toronto or Hamilton?

• Which of its 30-plus free agents – including American kicker Justin Medlock and Canadian defensive linemen Laurent, Brian Bulcke, Michael Atkinson and Hasan Hazime –  will Hamilton re-sign?

• Will Toronto re-sign kicker Swayze Waters, who battled injuries last year, or pursue Medlock, a former Argo?

• After being active in free agency last year, which free agents, including Capicciotti, veteran defensive tackle Keith Shologan and defensive back Jovon Johnson, can Ottawa GM Marcel Desjardins re-sign?

• Will quarterback Trevor Harris remain in Toronto and compete with veteran Ricky Ray for the starting job or leave?

• How many of Edmonton’s free agents will follow former head coach Chris Jones, now Saskatchewan’s head coach/GM?

Just because players sign lucrative free-agent deals, it doesn’t teams will honour them. Many NFL general managers create cap space by either renegotiating existing contracts or releasing high-priced veterans outright.

Walters renegotiated a number of deals in Winnipeg in December to free up money for free agency, something Buono said is becoming the norm in Canada.

“What you’ve seen in the NFL is a lot of teams restructure contracts to make it more cap-friendly and I’d think we’re starting to get into the same boat,” he said.