The curious case of Kenneth J. Lawler and the $300,000 contract

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

This planet is full of strange phenomena and unique oddities, things that are hard to wrap a human brain around. Lakes so caustic they mummify animals. Creatures who can regrow limbs like you heal a cut. Immense structures and monuments thousands of years old, built with just stone tools and a basic understanding of leverage.

But in a world of the miraculous and the bizarre, a $300,000 CFL receiver might just take the cake.

That’s what Kenny Lawler became on Tuesday, leaving his home with the two-time Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers to become the CFL’s highest paid non-quarterback with the Edmonton Elks.

“I feel like it’s a testament to all the work that I put in all off-season grinding, everything that I did on the field. I feel like the number that they’re giving me is because of that. I come in, I work, I’ve accomplished these two Grey Cups and they’re preparing me to come in to be a leader, to make plays,” Lawler told the Edmonton media during his introductory press conference.

“That’s one thing that I do, I make plays. I’m gonna go out there, I’m gonna get it. I’m a grinder and I’m a workhorse and that’s what has to come from me.”

Simply put, anyone attempting to argue that Lawler isn’t talented has no leg to stand on. The 27-year-old was the league’s only thousand-yard receiver during the shortened 2021 season and only looks poised to get better. But being worth a $300,000 pay day is an entirely different matter.

For the last two seasons, the league’s highest paid receiver has been Derel Walker, who remains in Edmonton far below Lawler’s price tag. Walker famously earned $280,000 over a somewhat disappointing 2019 campaign with the Toronto Argonauts and entirely priced himself out of the free agent market ahead of the canceled 2020 season.

His signing with the Elks last year ultimately came in at $180,000, eventually prorated, as the league spent only to the salary cap floor and Walker fell well short of meriting that figure as well.

For a brief, shining moment, it seemed the league had learned its lesson about high-priced receivers, with a re-signed Lucky Whitehead setting the benchmark at just $200,000. Then Lawler and Saskatchewan’s Duke Williams looked poised to hit the open market and everyone lost their minds.

With 107 catches for 1,651 yards and 10 touchdowns in two seasons, Lawler is far less experienced or even productive than Walker was when he cashed in — and his suspension for a DUI last year provides a serious red flag — but the Elks have given him a contract that the Texas A&M product only dreamed about.

While a dynamic player with plenty to offer, this wasn’t a case of Lawler being generational in the eyes of new Edmonton coach and general manager Chris Jones either. It was simply what the market demanded.

“It’s really more in the likes of, he’s a very good player, the opportunity was there for us to get him, it presented itself,” Jones explained following the signing. “Certainly we had to come very strong because we weren’t the only ones that thought he was a prized commodity in this year’s free agency. We had to come very strong in order to make it happen.”

With the Bombers unable to spend frivolously, that competition came in the form of the B.C. Lions, who after re-signing all-stars Bryan Burnham and Whitehead still wished to top both their contracts with a two-year deal for Lawler worth $250,000 this year and $260,000 the next. That offer reportedly included a signing bonus, so often the lifeblood of CFL contacts and something the Elks couldn’t offer. So Edmonton swung for the fences to close the deal.

Ultimately though, it was the structure of the B.C. offer that pushed Lawler to look elsewhere.

“B.C. had a two-year deal and I felt like I couldn’t be able to do that. I wanted a one-year deal for just my reasons that I had and the guys that I was talking to on that end, they weren’t able to do that,” Lawler explained. “Really what sold me with the Elks was the one-year deal and obviously the financial gains that I was gonna get with that deal.”

In a league where players now have an NFL option window regardless of contract status and he was about to become the new financial benchmark at his position regardless, Lawler’s insistence on a one-year deal is somewhat puzzling. Nevertheless, he could not be swayed by the tax benefits and immediate security of a signing bonus.

On the B.C. end of things, co-general manager Neil McEvoy openly admits to being in the Lawler sweepstakes, letting his measured responses hide some clear irritation over the way it all played out. The league is a better place with the star receiver in it, he insisted, but the Lions will be happy to lean on their personnel department to find the next star, like newly signed receiver De’Anthony Thomas.

“The reason we have guys like Ryan Rigmaiden and Jim Jauch and Rob Ralph is because we know that those guys can bring in top-notch talent,” McEvoy noted. “Do we need to spend lots of money on a receiver when you have a bunch of guys coming into training camp that are first-year guys that we project are going be just as good?”

It’s a question that some might say should have been asked and answered before any offer was made, but hindsight can sometimes be a blessing.

Both the Lions and Elks were competing for Lawler for similar reasons. Both had cap space to burn, both want to surround inexperienced quarterbacks — whoever it ends up being in Edmonton — with the best weapons possible, cost be damned.

“It all fits into a puzzle and when you have the opportunity to get a great player and that opportunity presents itself, that’s what you do. You go after ’em and that’s what we did with Lawler,” Chris Jones emphasized.

The Green and Gold have certainly been bold in this case, as has Lawler, leaving himself vulnerable without a signing bonus guarantee. Becoming the highest paid receiver has not led to many success stories as of late and having one on your team doesn’t guarantee success for a young quarterback — just ask James Franklin.

Both sides will have to bear the consequences of this $300,000 experiment, one way or another.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.