Worth the wait? Revealing the longest tenured negotiation list player at every position

Photo courtesy: Carolina Panthers

While barely understood by most fans, the negotiation list is the foundational building block of every CFL roster.

This top secret list of 45 players per team allows football operations departments across the league to discover hidden talents and claim them for their own at any point in the player’s career, without a pricey bidding war throwing off financial equilibrium.

The rights of players on the list are owned exclusively by the team that claims them until a contract is signed and prospects can be added and subtracted at will. The limited number of spots means most players spend a relatively short period of time on the list, added as protection when interest is shown and a deal may be imminent. Others spend years stashed away without ever knowing it, as CFL teams bank on their NFL failure.

For the most part, it is quarterbacks who are added early and stay longest on team’s highly private list of prospects. In fact, of the top 13 players with the longest tenure on a single franchise’s neg list, nine ply their trade throwing the football. There are exceptions to every rule however and each position group has outliers that some team covets enough to wait years for.

Here is a peek behind the curtain at the longest tenured neg list player from every position group, listed from shortest to longest duration.

Photo courtesy: Cincinnati Athletics

Kicker/Punter: James Smith, Cincinnati
CFL rights owned by: Saskatchewan Roughriders
Time on neg list: Eight months
Current status: Free agent

Cover Jon Ryan’s ears because the Riders are one of just two teams with a Global player on their neg list. Smith, a 28-year-old Aussie punter, was a Ray Guy Award finalist in 2020, but went unselected in the CFL Global Draft due to NFL interest.

The Riders added him shortly after, banking that his undrafted free agent shot with the Tennessee Titans wouldn’t pan out. Smith was released after training camp, but is still booking NFL workouts — most recently with the Green Bay Packers.

Photo courtesy: Cleveland Browns

Linebacker: Willie Harvey, Iowa State
CFL rights owned by: Toronto Argonauts
Time on neg list: One year, five months and 14 days
Current status: Under contract with Cleveland Browns

So often a spot for positional conversions in the CFL, very few true linebackers stay on neg lists for long. Three-time honourable mention All-Big 12 selection Willie Harvey is the exception, catching the Argos’ eyes after being cut by the Browns in 2020 training camp.

Unfortunately for the team, the five-foot-11, 229-pound backer returned to Cleveland a full year later and is once again under contract with the team as a camp body, preventing him from becoming the type of high effort Mike backer that thrives in Canada.

Photo courtesy: SC State Athletics

Offensive lineman: Justin Evans, South Carolina State
CFL rights owned by: Edmonton Elks
Time on neg list: Two years, five months and 24 days
Current status: Free agent

A bit of an enigma, Justin Evans captured very little national attention coming out of the historically Black university SC State as a redshirt junior in 2018. The six-foot-five, 310-pound tackle signed with the Baltimore Ravens as a UDFA, later spending time with the Washington Commanders and Arizona Cardinals.

His last NFL stint came in 2019 with the Cincinnati Bengals and there has been hardly a word spoken about the big man since he was cut in training camp. That’s when the Elks’ previous regime snagged his rights, but new boss Chris Jones has not yet relinquished him in the scouting re-shuffle.

Photo courtesy: Eric J. Alper / New England Patriots

Defensive back: D’Angelo Ross, New Mexico
CFL rights owned by: Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Time on neg list: Two years, six months and 21 days
Current status: Under contract with Miami Dolphins

Speed is the name of the game in the CFL and teams would climb over each other to get their hands on a corner that clocks 4.32 in the forty. That’s what the Bombers hoped to get when they claimed the five-foot-eight, 180-pound Ross during his first training camp with the New England Patriots.

The under-the-radar cover man spent that year on injured reserve and has since had two seasons on the Pats’ practice squad, before signing a futures deal with the Dolphins this offseason. After having great success with rookie DBs last year, Winnipeg will have to wait a little longer to find out if Ross could be the next one.

Photo courtesy: Ben Liebenberg / NFL

Running back: Khalfani Muhammad, California
CFL rights owned by: Edmonton Elks
Time on neg list: Three years, nine months and 22 days
Current status: Free agent

The third person in the history of the state of California to win back-to-back state titles in both the 100m and 200m dash, Muhammad backed up his high school track career by finishing third all-time in career all-purpose yards at Cal, edging out Marshawn Lynch.

The five-foot-seven, 170-pound speedster was drafted in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL Draft by Tennessee after putting down a 4.38 second forty yard dash at his Pro Day and was added to Edmonton’s neg list a year later, the same day he was released by the Titans. He’s been with the Patriots, Broncos, Vikings, and Cardinals twice since then, but may have finally exhausted his NFL options at 27 after having never played a game in five seasons.

Photo courtesy: New Orleans Saints

Receiver: Tommylee Lewis, Northern Illinois
CFL rights owned by: Calgary Stampeders
Time on neg list: Six years and 20 days
Current status: Free agent

The Calgary Stampeders got in on the ground floor with Tommylee Lewis, neg listing the five-foot-six, 170-pound sparkplug in the lead up to the 2016 NFL Draft, before Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells ever recommended him to the New Orleans Saints. Given his size, it seemed a great bet on a player who scored 19 touchdowns in four different ways in college, but six years later the Stamps keep waiting.

Lewis beat the odds to make the Saints’ 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie, eventually making 21 receptions for 257 yards and two touchdown over 39 games with the club, adding 1,021 combined return yards over that stretch. The 29-year-old has also spent time with the Lions, Panthers and Dolphins, and is currently a free agent after being on the NFL bubble his last few seasons.

Photo courtesy: NFL

Defensive line: Nathan Shepherd, Fort Hays State
CFL rights owned by: Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Time on neg list: Six years, two months and three days
Current status: Under contract with New York Jets (pending free agent)

The only Canadian currently on a CFL negotiation list, Shepherd was a scouting coup d’état from the Ticats. In an only-in-the-CFL situation, Shepherd was undrafted in the 2015 CFL Draft because he had dropped out of Simon Fraser in 2012 and hadn’t played in two seasons. What teams didn’t realize is that he would have a chance to resume his career at Fort Hays State the very next year. The Ticats found out first, taking a flyer on the Ajax kid who would become MIAA Defensive Player of the Year and a third-round pick of the New York Jets two years after they claimed his rights.

The six-foot-four, 315-pound defensive tackle is uber-athletic, but has been somewhat disappointing in four NFL seasons. He’s played in 56 games, making 71 tackles and 4.5 sacks over the course of his rookie contract, while also recording a PED suspension in 2020. A pending free agent, the level of open market interest Shepherd receives could determine if the Tabbies ever see their Canadian ace in the hole.

Photo courtesy: XFL

Quarterback: P.J. Walker, Temple
CFL rights owned by: Ottawa Redblacks
Time on neg list: Six years, three months and 16 days
Current status: Under contract with Carolina Panthers (pending free agent)

Way back in 2015, the Ottawa Redblacks were having some pretty good success with a no-name quarterback from Temple named Henry Burris. Why not try to replicate that Grey Cup formula with another Owls pivot in the future?

P.J. Walker had just finished his junior season when the Redblacks claimed his rights, hoping that the five-foot-11, 210-pound passer would quickly seek refuge north of the border after his senior year. It hasn’t worked out that way, as Walker did indeed need alternative football to springboard back to the NFL after a few seasons on the practice squad of the Indianapolis Colts, but did it south of the line with the defunct, non-Rock version of the XFL.

Walker was the dead league’s biggest star with the Houston Roughnecks, going 5-0 and passing for 1,338 yards, 15 touchdowns, and just four interceptions before it all fell apart. He has since become a competent NFL backup with the Carolina Panthers and while Walker may hit free agency this offseason, there is no indication that the Redblacks will be able to stop their record wait any time soon.

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.