NFL exodus is CFL’s best marketing tool

Properly defined, it is an exodus. Mass exodus? Too strong. Blood-letting? A reach. Brain-drain? Same thing.

But the number of players leaving the CFL to try their hand in the NFL is soaring once again, and in the immortal words of Max Ehrmann in Desiderata, the football universe is unfolding as it should.

The announcement on the weekend of the signing by the Arizona Cardinals of Toronto Argonauts defensive lineman Tristan Okapalaugo (above) represents something of a new standard for recent football migration . Okapalaugo is the 16th CFL player to sign an NFL contract this off-season, one more than the previous high in 2013 and in the top three in the last couple of decades, when the now-defunct option-year clause was the primary method of escape.

For those keeping score at home, here’s the unofficial list to date:

Dexter McCoil, LB, Edmonton, to San Diego

Willie Jefferson, LB, Edmonton, to Washington

Steven Clarke, CB, B.C., to Tennessee

Colin Kelly, OL, Ottawa, to San Francisco

Eric Rogers, WR Calgary, to San Francisco

Terrell Sinkfield, WR, Hamilton, to Minnesota

Erik Harris, DB, Hamilton, to New Orleans

Freddie Bishop, DL, Calgary, to NY Jets

Buddy Jackson, DB, Calgary, to Dallas

Swayze Waters, K, Toronto, to Carolina

Cam Marshall, RB, Winnipeg, to Seattle,

Jeff Fuller, WR, Calgary, to Seattle

Cleyton Laing, DT, Toronto at Miami

Josh Johnson, DB, B.C., to Jacksonville

Aaron Grymes, DB, Edmonton, to Philadelphia

Tristan Okapalaugo, DL/LB, Toronto, to Arizona

Put all these guys in the same locker room and you’d have the makings of a decent squad. It’s the kind of thing that ties up CFL fans in knots during the off-season, seeing a favoured player get up and leave for a league where they can add another zero in their paycheque, or more, even to be on the practice roster.

What you are not likely to hear, however, are similar moans and groans from general managers in the CFL because whether you like to admit it or not, there’s a benefit for the second-best football league in the world for this annual churn of talent to take place.

Three-down teams haven’t been able to compete with the NFL on salaries for decades of course, and when CFL players price themselves out of even their own market, a regeneration of sorts must take place.

In Vancouver for example, it’s why Wally Buono doesn’t even flinch when players like Solomon Elimimian or Manny Arceneaux, to name a recent pair who have left the B.C. Lions, to try the NFL, because chances were good he soon would not be able to afford them.

With those two and many others, there’s also a good chance they were coming back anyway having been chewed up as training camp fodder in the NFL. Last year, for example, nine CFL players were signed during the off-season. The only one to make a significant impact was ex-Hamilton defensive back Delvin Breaux, a regular last season with the New Orleans Saints.

Yet for all the talk about how important U.S. television exposure is to the CFL for getting players south of the border to give Canada a chance, the best marketing tool the league has going it is for 16 players to sign back home.

As was pointed out in no uncertain terms elsewhere this weekend on by a CFL player who lamented the loss of revenue sharing given back by his union and other atrocities associated with being cut prior to a roster bonus,  there’s plenty of room for debate about the current economic model.

But as was also proven again this month, CFL free agency is alive and well, sparked by the major concession gained by players in collective bargaining of one-year contracts for veterans. The brain-drain, blood-letting, exodus of players heading to NFL training camps is a good thing too.


Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.