B.C. Lions hope to persuade Nathan Rourke to stay with ‘meaningful reps,’ but can’t compete with NFL financials

Photo courtesy: Tiffany Luke/B.C. Lions

The B.C. Lions are attempting to sell star Canadian signal caller Nathan Rourke on staying in the CFL, but they face a daunting task to do so.

Co-general manager Neil McEvoy sat down with 3DownNation‘s Justin Dunk to discuss his franchise quarterback’s myriad of NFL workouts, acknowledging his organization’s significant disadvantage in one aspect of negotiations.

“There’s obviously the money part of it. We can put a competitive offer in Canada; we’re not going to be able to compete with the National Football League,” McEvoy admitted. “Nobody can; not any league, not any sport. The National Football League is the top dog of all professional sports, so let’s take that out of it.”

Rourke has worked out for 12 NFL teams this offseason and has reportedly received several contract offers, many of which include significant guarantees. The NFL’s minimum salary is set to hit $750,000 USD in 2023, while the 24-year-old earned less than a tenth of that under the terms of his CFL rookie contract in 2022, raking in a hair over $75,000 CAD for his sensational regular season performance.

The Lions could offer Rourke a new contract to keep him in Vancouver, however, the league’s financial constraints mean that offer would still fall short of any potential NFL active roster earnings. Two-time Most Outstanding Player Zach Collaros will be the CFL’s highest-paid player next season, recently signing a three-year extension worth $600,000 CAD annually.

Nevertheless, McEvoy believes that the Lions still have a shot at retaining Rourke by virtue of other factors.

“What I can offer is meaningful repetitions, meaningful reps. Just look at our friend that plays at the New York Jets right now,” he said, referencing former Blue Bombers’ quarterback Chris Streveler. “I was at the game in Seattle a couple weeks ago, he ran down on kickoff. I don’t believe Nathan wants to be a kickoff guy. I think he wants to play quarterback.”

“I really believe that he’s going to take an opportunity, if there is one, that’s going to put him on the field and not just be a fourth, fifth quarterback guy that runs down on kickoff. I don’t believe that’s what he wants to do. So what we can offer is reps right now, meaningful reps. Time has yet to determine whether the NFL will offer him that or give him that.”

The most successful CFL-to-NFL quarterback in a decade, Streveler has struggled to see the field throughout his stint south of the border. He was called up from the Jets’ practice roster three times this season but saw just one quarter’s worth of snaps under centre despite significant struggles from those in front of him.

However, the former Grey Cup champion was never a full-time CFL starter and earned his NFL opportunity in a gadget role. Rourke has earned his well-deserved attention for a sensational season as a passer, having completed 78.7 percent of his pass attempts for 3,349 yards with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also ran the football 39 times for 304 yards and seven scores, becoming the first quarterback to win the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian award since 1980.

The Victoria-born pivot went 8-1 as a starter before undergoing surgery in August to repair a Lisfranc sprain in his foot. Though the injury was originally thought to be season-ending, he was able to return for the final week of the regular season and play the first quarter of a meaningless contest against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Rourke started the West Semi-Final the following week and threw for 321 yards with two touchdowns in a 30-16 victory over the Calgary Stampeders. He and his team were eliminated from postseason contention against Winnipeg the following week after he threw for 300 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in a 28-20 loss in the West Final.

Those impressive accomplishments carry significant weight north of the border, but McEvoy is quick to point out that CFL success is not always given the merit it deserves in the NFL. Rourke would not be the first prolific passer to come face to face with that bias, though he has overcome similar hurdles in the past.

“The word isn’t barriers but he’s broken the contingency of being a Canadian quarterback in Canada. He’s done that. We think he can play at the Canadian Football level, at the professional level, at a high level,” he said. “Can he break that wall that the NFL seems to put on these guys? Guys like Dave Dickenson, he’s done it. Bo Levi, they’ve done it and weren’t able to break it down.”

From his perch in the Lions’ front office, McEvoy can’t help but hope that those narratives persist and they can keep their generational talent at home. That does not mean he is rooting against Rourke’s success though.

“As a fan of football in Canada, I’m excited for him, excited for the opportunity, regardless of what his decision is,” he insisted. “If his decision is to stay with the B.C. Lions then guess what, I think he’ll do good things. If he feels that there’s an opportunity for him to move forward to the National Football League, as a fan of Canadian football how can you not be excited for him?”

Ultimately, that choice lies in Rourke’s hands alone. In his general manager’s opinion, few are better suited to make that life-altering decision than his mature and grounded passer.

“I know the way he is, he’s going to make the right decision for him and his family,” McEvoy said. “And there is no wrong decision. I’m glad that he’s going to be able to make it for himself.”

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.