Price tag could force Bryan Burnham to open market, but bidding war unlikely: Lalji

Bryan Burnham is looking for a pay raise and for the first time in his CFL career, he may have to look outside of Vancouver to get it.

The B.C. Lions locked up their top offensive weapon earlier this week, signing explosive playmaker Lucky Whitehead to a two-year extension valued at over $200,000 annually. While the deal had Lions fan rejoicing, the hefty price tag has brought into question the future of his 2021 running mate.

Burnham first joined the Lions in 2014 and at 31, he’s tied with Hunter Steward and T.J. Lee as the team’s longest tenured player. That run has been nothing short of spectacular, with the receiver named a league all-star in each of the past four seasons, but after taking a pay cut last season, the economics may no longer make sense in B.C.

“Burnham was in a position a year ago where he could have signed early before the free agent window opened for about $160,000,” TSN insider Farhan Lalji said in an appearance on Donnie and Dhali. “He chose not to, thought there would be somebody on the open market that would hit it out of the park and make him want to leave. There wasn’t, and eventually he signed for $135,000 to come back to B.C.”

“When you’re Burnham and you see what Lucky Whitehead is making, you’re not going to settle for what you made previously. Can the Lions get Burnham done in the $160,000 to $170,000 range? Possibly. Do you want be paying receivers that amount of money? Hard to say.”

At the time of his free agency foray last year, Burnham reportedly entertained the idea of signing with the eventual Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He eventually opted to return home and produced 67 catches for 965 yards and five touchdowns, but it now appears that he will have to venture afield again.

With 6,616 career yards and 38 touchdowns to his credit, the Tulsa product wants to be paid like a number one target, something that is now impossible with the Lions. However, just as there were unexpectedly few suitors in 2021, league opinion remains decidedly mixed on what Burnham is worth on the open market.

“There’s some people that view Burnham as this guy that wins contested balls, that’s a leader, that’s a veteran in your organization. There are others that view him as a 31-year old who makes contested catches because he can’t separate anymore,” Lalji explained, citing his own unofficial polling of six CFL GMs.

“There’s a wide range on how Burnham is viewed, so I don’t know if you throw him out in the open market that there’s going to be four or five teams that want to pay him a huge dollars.”

That will be especially true if other top targets like Winnipeg’s Kenny Lawler and Saskatchewan’s Duke Williams hit the open market at the same time. The Bombers in particular are expected to have difficulty retaining their playmaker, with a star quarterback and elite linemen demanding raises.

The Lions do not have such an issue and may have the money in the bank to give Burnham the contract he deserves, but that likely only happens if their hopes and dreams in other areas of free agency are already dashed.

“Maybe the Lions can get him in that $160-170,000 range and maybe they can to pay receivers that much for at least one more year, because there aren’t going be those elite offensive and defensive linemen that you can go out and pay and get in free agency,” Lalji said. “I think all those guys are going to get signed by the time we get to February 9.”

That scenario could leave Lions’ fans rejoicing in February, before muddling through another horrific season in the trenches.