Opinion: inability of CFL players to sign mid-season NFL contracts gives USFL, XFL recruitment advantage

Photo: David Mahussier/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

For fans of the CFL, the offseason is often a time for bittersweet goodbyes and hopeful see-you-laters.

Every year, a handful of the league’s best and brightest pack their bags and head south of the border for a shot at a major payday. Since the final whistle blew in the Grey Cup last week, we’ve already seen the likes of Saskatchewan’s Kian Schaffer-Baker, Calgary’s Julian Good-Jones, and B.C.’s Jevon Cottoy work out for NFL franchises, with more soon to follow suit. Canadian quarterbacking phenom Nathan Rourke will be among them, with two dozen teams interested in his services.

When those CFL alumni are successful in signing in the NFL, those who cheer for them in Canada are understandably conflicted. Seeing a star player walk away from the league, perhaps never to return, isn’t easy and yet we often live vicariously through those who have found success after leaving. They become our American ambassadors, proselytizing the merits of Canadian football to the otherwise uninitiated.

In an era where there are more alternative pro football options than ever, those success stories are vital to the health of the league. Yet the CFL finds itself at a startling disadvantage in the number of players making the NFL jump compared to its competitors.

Following the 2021 season, 11 CFL players signed with NFL teams. That number is roughly consistent with previous seasons but it pales in comparison to the jaw-dropping numbers produced by upstart American spring leagues. The defunct Alliance of American Football could boast 49 NFL signees after their operation went up in flames in 2019 and the second failed iteration of the XFL produced 58 a year later. This past spring, the fledgling USFL had 51 players get their shot after the league’s first season.

From an outside perspective, this phenomenon makes little sense. With all due respect to these other leagues — and they haven’t earned a great deal of it — you’d be hard-pressed to find knowledgeable football people who feel their product is better and their talent objectively superior to the CFL. And yet, they’ve become the go-to source for NFL training camp fodder.

Some of this is entirely out of the control of Canadian decision-makers. Players do tend to be older when they arrive in the CFL, the three-down game covets different body types, and fringe NFL players are always going to look at the closest geographical option when attempting a quick catapult back into primetime. However, the largest factor driving the disparity lies not in talent or circumstance, but rather in timing.

Since the implementation of the NFL window, players in the CFL and other leagues have virtually identical opportunities to exit their contracts and take a shot at the show. But while players in Canada can sign from now until the start of free agency, they cannot play this season. Instead, they must be inked to futures contracts for the 2023 NFL season and wait the eight months before training camp to prove their worth. Those in the USFL and XFL have the luxury of diving right into the action once their season has wrapped up, as their signing cycle meshes nicely with the NFL calendar.

In the eyes of some CFL personnel people, that restriction is artificially deflating the number of players who might receive NFL opportunities. There is tremendous value in adding players who are in game shape, which is why teams have previously loaded up on spring-league talent for training camp. Of the 51 USFL players signed last year, just one made the active roster. The rest still got opportunities because a recycled prospect fresh off a season is unlikely to embarrass themself as a camp body.

The same could be true in season. For example, a receiver-hungry NFL team hoping to add a player already firing on all cylinders might covet the likes of Dalton Schoen, Malik Henry, or Dillon Mitchell to beef up their practice squad down the stretch. The way the rules are currently structured between the two leagues, that isn’t a possibility and thus signings are limited to players that teams are especially high on for next year.

In some ways, this dynamic has advantages. For one thing, it limits the amount of needless roster turnover that fans often bemoan and ensures the CFL stays a step removed from developmental league status. It’s likely better for players’ health as well. Jumping from an 18-game season right into the NFL would certainly put a great deal of strain on the body, though most would happily accept the risk for the chance at a hefty paycheque.

However, when one of your primary selling features to young prospects is the ability to get them NFL opportunities as soon as possible, the current situation poses a problem. Just look at the dynamics around NFL cutdown day; once viewed as a critical date on the CFL calendar because of the almost instantaneous influx of talent it brought into the league. That has changed dramatically in recent years to become a near non-event, as expanded NFL practice rosters thin the prospect pool and the rest of the players on the bubble opt to wait for spring opportunities where they know the number of big league signees is far higher and the game is more familiar.

Now imagine if NFL cuts could join a CFL team mid-season with the promise of being able to head back south before the year was up. The league would immediately leapfrog all competitors in terms of its attractiveness to players not yet ready to put down football roots. You could cut off the USFL and XFL’s talent supply in an instant.

Better yet, some of those players will inevitably fail to stick down south after an end-of-season practice roster stint and will be forced to return to Canada in time for training camp, rather than linking back up with clubs in September. Those that do find a role for playoff teams will keep the CFL in the news cycle for a few more months and help attract even more players to the league.

This strategy isn’t without its problems, of course. Increased player departures will inevitably unsettle fanbases that have made roster turnover their core issue over the last few years and you’ll need to find a way to combat the risk of players with NFL opportunities trying to sit out meaningless games, as has become common in college football. Nevertheless, the risks are worth it.

With three major alternative football leagues about to vie for the same players in the coming years, the talent drain is already here. It’s not insurmountable, but football operations people around the CFL have seen their jobs become harder than ever before and there will be an effect felt on the field.

If the league wants to mitigate that reality, they must work to find a way to allow players to join NFL teams as soon as the CFL season is done. A few more bittersweet goodbyes in the short term could mean dozens more big plays down the road.

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.