As the CFL season is set to get underway on Thursday, the quarterback landscape across the league could look very different by the time 2019 rolls around.
Mike Reilly and Bo Levi Mitchell, winners of the last two CFL Most Outstanding Player awards, are entering the final season of their existing deals and joined by a number of other high profile quarterbacks, a list that includes Ricky Ray, Trevor Harris, Zach Collaros, Brandon Bridge, Jonathon Jennings, Travis Lulay and Kevin Glenn.
It’s not a coincidence: the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2019 and big-name players have timed their deals to end at the same time. What makes matters more complicated, there has been a directive from the league office that states payments for pre-season bonuses cannot occur until a new CBA has been agreed upon: a move that will be a major factor in holding up extension discussions.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the quarterbacking situations across the CFL.
Eskimos general manager Brock Sunderland has said there have been talks with Reilly’s camp about remaining in Edmonton but admitted that the CBA is hindering negotiations. Reilly is the only athlete in the CFL earning over $500,000 in 2018, making the 33-year-old the highest paid player in the league. It will take a major investment to keep Reilly in green and gold.
One potential suitor in the Reilly sweepstakes – should it get to that – could be the B.C. Lions. Ed Hervey, the new general manager in Vancouver, held the same role in Edmonton when he brought Reilly to the Eskimos by trading a second-round pick to the Lions in January 2013. Hervey and Reilly won a Grey Cup together in 2015 and have a strong relationship.
Potentially bringing Reilly back to the Left coast would mean the end of Jonathon Jennings as the Lions’ triggerman. This is a critical year in the 25-year-old’s career: Jennings regressed in 2017, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns after passing for 5,226 yards and 27 touchdowns in what appeared to be a breakout season two years ago. Hervey restructured Jennings contract in the off-season to make it essentially a “prove-it” deal.
Meanwhile, in Calgary, Mitchell is fully recovered from the shoulder injury he played with for most of the 2017 season. The setback prevented Mitchell from being able to do his normal workout routine, however, the 28-year-old still arrived at Stampeders training camp down 20 pounds.
With his contract set to expire and having posted an unbelievable 56-10-2 record – not to mention a championship and a Grey Cup MOP – Mitchell may look to pursue an NFL opportunity and, at 28-years-old, it’s not out of the question.
“He could get a shot,” one NFL scout said.
CFL quarterbacks earning an NFL chance is not unprecedented. Ray used his early CFL success and turned it into a shot in the NFL when he spent the 2004 season with the New York Jets. The four-time Grey Cup champion enters what some believe could be the final season of his CFL career and if Ray does retire after the 2018 campaign, rising talent James Franklin appears to be the Argos starter in waiting.
But Franklin could have some competition. When it became obvious the Ticats were going to trade Collaros, executives around the league felt his preferred destination was Toronto. His fiancee lives and works in the area and Tommy Condell, the man under whom he had his most successful stint in Hamilton, is the Argonauts offensive coordinator. In the end, Collaros landed in Saskatchewan, but he too will be able to choose his own destination next year.
Another former Argo quarterback, Harris extended his deal for just a single season with the Redblacks. The 32-year-old has proven he can get it done during the regular season, leading Ottawa to the playoffs with a league-high-tying 30 touchdowns passes one year ago but if Harris wants a raise from the $450,000 pact for 2018 a post-season win is a must.
Lulay has a Grey Cup championship on his resume and Glenn has won playoff games. Thee two current backups could easily be starters in different situations on other teams. Lulay needs to prove he is back to 100 per cent from a torn ACL after playing well (1,693 yards and 10 touchdowns in six games) last season. Glenn has been dubbed as the best insurance policy in the league because of his ability to learn new schemes quickly.
Bridge learned from Glenn in Montreal and Saskatchewan and regardless of the 26-year-old’s birth certificate, Bridge is an intriguing talent who brings a rare combination of size and athletic skill set to the field. After throwing for 1,236 yards, 10 touchdowns and flashing the ability to escape and run when he needs, Bridge seems ready to lead a franchise.
Obviously, much can change in a year – particularly with an entire CFL season still to be played. But the expiring CBA and with most of the big name quarterbacks set to hit the free agent market – including Reilly and Mitchell – the landscape behind centre could look very different when quarterbacks are spinning passes in 2019.