As the countdown to CFL free agency marches on, fans have been thrilled to see a number of big-name talents return to the fold.
Behind the scenes, however, a financial bloodbath has been occurring. While the league’s attempts to cost cut in the aftermath of a canceled 2020 season are no secret, TSN insider Farhan Lalji joined the SportsCage on Wednesday to share just how harsh the contractual realities are.
“It’s a moving target, but one thing that has become obvious in talking to agents is that teams are serious about cutting costs,” Lalji said. “Talking to an agent about Willie Jefferson’s deal, he said, ‘I think you’re underestimating just how tough it is out there.'”
The reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player was the biggest non-quarterback domino to fall this off-season when he restructured with the Bombers on Tuesday. Jefferson’s new pact, valued a $205,000 in hard money with an $100,000 signing bonus, hacked more than $50,000 dollars off of the star defensive end’s pre-existing contract.
“I think it’s a really good deal [for the Bombers]. Quite frankly, I’m surprised he didn’t get more,” Lalji said. “That’s not a shot at the fact he renegotiated his own deal, it is just tough out there.”
The biggest fish in the 2019 free agent class, Jefferson posted a career-high 12 sacks, forced six fumbles and knocked down a CFL single-season record 16 passes in his first season in Winnipeg.
The six-foot-seven, 245-pound defensive lineman was a one-man wrecking crew in the 2019 Grey Cup, recording three sacks and forcing two fumbles to help the Blue Bombers upset Hamilton 33-12, hoisting the big silver trophy for the first time in 29 years.
Imposing a financial cut of that magnitude to a player of Jefferson’s caliber sends ripples throughout the league.
“It’s also a precedent-setting deal, because where do you rank Willie Jefferson among defensive players in the league? Adam Bighill is a $260,000 player, also in Winnipeg. He’s also going through a re-negotiation in the final year of his deal.
“What does it do for his deal? What does it do for Charleston Hughes and what he’s potentially going to come in at?” Lalji asked. “I know Charleston is a fan of Willie, but he’s that guy that puts his numbers out there when people gush about Willie and says, ‘Hey don’t forget about me, I’m pretty good too.'”
Jefferson is the most disruptive player in the league and an athletic freak that offensive coordinators are forced to scheme around. Lalji believes his $205,000 contract will likely ring in as the highest for a non-quarterback in 2021.
The player who held that distinction in 2019, receiver Derel Walker, signed late last week in Edmonton and his $180,000 contract amounted to a pay reduction of $100,000. According to Lalji, that should set a similar precedent for receivers.
“Derel Walker was a really, really important one for the receiver market, because this is a deep, deep receiver market,” he explained. “In B.C., when they paid Lemar Durant $175,000 — look I love Lemar. I coached against him in high school and he took a championship away from me, so love the kid.”
“I thought he would get less. When the Lions signed him to that, I said, ‘Wow, now Bryan Burnham’s got to get $200,000.’ But now Walker gets $180,000 and that changes the math for everyone else out there.”
The deals given to Walker and Jefferson have now set the market with plenty of high profile players left to sign, but with the CFL still facing accusations of collusion after directing teams to spend to the salary cap minimum, some players won’t be happy with what they’ll be getting. That could throw a wrench in the league’s so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” once teams get into the 2021 playoff race.
“I would imagine that when the season kicks off, there will probably be two or three elite players that have just said ‘No, call me when you are serious about money,'” Lalji said. “Those guys will be out there and everyone will be really tempted.”
Until then, teams are serious about cutting salary cap fat in order to protect the business. Walker and Jefferson have provided the ceiling, and now every CFL player knows what the market looks like.