It’s time for the CFL to embrace restricted free agency

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

The large amount of roster turnover from year-to-year is a common complaint among CFL fans.

Free agency has gotten out of control since the introduction of one-year contracts for veterans. Well over 100 players reached free agency in February with dozens departing for new teams including household names like DaVaris Daniels, Patrick Levels, Micah Johnson, DeVier Posey, and Chris Ackie.

Dissent will only grow until the league addresses the issue — potentially as early as two years from now when the current CBA expires. Fortunately for the league, there’s a fairly simple solution at hand.

It’s time for the CFL to embrace restricted free agency. North America’s four largest sports leagues use it to limit the movement of young talent between teams. It works for them and it would work for the CFL.

NFL and NBA players cannot become unrestricted free agents until they have accrued four years of service. For MLB players, that number grows to six years. It takes NHL players the longest to qualify for unrestricted free agency — they must have seven years of service or have reached the age of 27.

Most American players become unrestricted free agents after just two seasons in the CFL. This means they can reach the open market twice as quickly as NFL players, which is problematic for reasons that we’ll discuss in a moment. Under the new CBA, national players take slightly longer to reach unrestricted free agency at three years of service.

The CFL should follow the NFL’s example and adopt a four-year structure for restricted free agency. This means that teams would have the opportunity to match a contract offer from a rival club for any of their players with fewer than four years of service.

Take Ryan Brown as an example. The six-foot-six, 270-pound defensive tackle put up eight sacks and two forced fumbles over two years (2018-2019) with the Alouettes. He recently turned 25 and figured to be a large part of Montreal’s defence for years to come. Instead, he inked a one-year deal with B.C. in free agency worth $120,000.

That’s great for Brown, but what about fans in Montreal? Teams need players that they can showcase over a number of years. Marketability matters and it’s tough for fans to remain engaged when players move so freely from one city to the next.

If the CFL had restricted free agency as outlined above, the Alouettes would have had the option of matching B.C.’s contract offer to retain Brown’s services. His restricted free agent rights would remain with the team through 2021 until he had completed his fourth year in the league.

The key to this system is that it doesn’t cost players any money; they are still eligible to negotiate with teams across the league for the highest possible dollar figure. It just means that fewer players will end up switching teams, which is something that fans desperately want.

Restricted free agency would still apply to players who are released early in their careers.

Let’s use Ricky Collins as an example. The six-foot, 200-pound receiver was cut by the Blue Bombers prior to training camp in 2016 and quickly found a home with the Roughriders. Though his career started in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan would have held Collins’ rights through his first four CFL seasons.

Collins was traded to Hamilton in August 2017 after a little over a year with the Riders. This means that his remaining restricted free agent years (two and a half) would have belonged to the Tiger-Cats.

The pass catcher was cut by the Ticats in September 2017 and signed with B.C. the following February. As a two-year veteran, Collins’ rights would have belonged to the Lions for another two years.

Finally, Collins was inked to a three-year deal by the Eskimos in February 2019. Under restricted free agency, the Lions would have had the option of matching Edmonton’s offer before the receiver was able to leave.

Even though he changed teams a number of times, Collins would never have been able to leave a city without his current club having the option of matching a competing contract offer.

Restricted free agency wouldn’t impede players from signing in the NFL, either.

CFL players who can sign in the NFL should obviously be free to do so, but any time spent south of the border shouldn’t count towards years of service in the CFL.

This means that players who left for the NFL before completing their fourth CFL season — Alex Singleton, Chris Streveler, William Stanback, Bralon Addison — would not be unrestricted free agents upon their return to Canada. They could still negotiate a contract with any of the league’s nine teams, but the club for whom they most recently played would have the right to match that deal.

The NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB all utilize restricted free agency to limit the movement of young players. It allows teams to develop talent over longer periods of time and reap the rewards of effective scouting and coaching.

Implementing a similar system would help the CFL build roster continuity, increase marketing opportunities, and appease fans. That seems like a best-case scenario for all parties involved.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.