Pending free agent Darnell Sankey turns down Riders’ offer to make him CFL’s second-highest-paid American linebacker

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Starting middle linebacker Darnell Sankey is unlikely to be back with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2023.

According to team sources, the pending free agent turned down a contract offer worth approximately $160,000 which would have made him the second highest-paid American linebacker in the CFL.

After leading the league in tackles each of the past two seasons, Sankey is seeking a deal higher than that of two-time Most Outstanding Defensive Player Adam Bighill. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ linebacker is expected to earn $165,000 in hard money next season.

In a press conference earlier this week, Roughriders’ general manager Jeremy O’Day said that there had been extensive conversations with Sankey and his representatives but acknowledged that the clock was ticking on any potential extension.

“Ultimately, it’s coming down to him making a decision but also the way things are shaping up,” O’Day said. “You also have to understand that you can only sign so many players in certain positions.”

Sankey joined the Riders in free agency last offseason and started all 18 games in the middle of the team’s defence. He set a new single-season franchise record with 120 defensive tackles, adding two special teams tackles, three sacks and an interception.

The 28-year-old earned $113,000, including performance bonuses, for his first season in Riderville but believes his high statistical output is worthy of a significant raise.

Saskatchewan has already begun to position itself for Sankey’s potential departure, signing Larry Dean to a contract extension on Tuesday. The 34-year-old veteran finished second on the team with 101 defensive tackles while playing weakside linebacker but could bump inside next season.

“Larry Dean is also a middle linebacker, that’s his natural position. And we also will have Micah Teitz back, who is our top Canadian from a couple of years ago that had to have hip surgery last year and is fully recovered, and we’re excited to get him back,” O’Day explained.

“It’s really a matter of where it fits in the salary cap, and, unfortunately, we can’t have them all back. Sometimes that happens in free agency.”

With Dean and Teitz forming a competent starting tandem, Sankey is an unnecessary luxury that the Riders don’t deem worthy of over-paying. The six-foot-one, 245-pound downhill thumper is an elite defender inside but lacks the athleticism in space that has caused players like Bighill to be so richly rewarded.

The Sacramento State product faced an almost identical situation a year ago with the Calgary Stampeders. After a rookie year which saw him record 98 total tackles, one sack and one forced fumble on his way to a West Division all-star selection, Sankey was unable to find the financial compensation he desired in Cowtown. The Stampeders opted instead to bump Jameer Thurman over from his weakside position and acquire Canadian Cam Judge to replace him.

Judge was named a CFL all-star in 2022, while Sankey was left off the league’s list of honourees despite eye-popping statistics. The Canadian will be the league’s highest-paid linebacker next season, having recently signed an extension worth $174,000 in hard money for 2023.

Prior to arriving in Canada, Sankey spent parts of four seasons in the NFL. The San Jose, Calif. native played six games with the Indianapolis Colts in 2017 and had stints with the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions, and New Orleans Saints, earning $384,717 USD.

While Sankey’s production speaks for itself, a tepid linebacker market means teams will be wary of paying a premium for his skillset. After making their best offer, the Riders don’t appear willing to go any higher in pursuit of their defensive stalwart.

“It has to be a mutual decision between us and the player, and we haven’t worked anything out,” O’Day admitted.

With the CFL’s legal tampering window set to close at noon ET on Sunday, February 12, the green and white will have 48 hours for exclusive negotiations with Sankey before free agency opens on Tuesday, February 14.

Editor’s note: This article originally claimed that Sankey was offered to be the league’s second-highest-paid linebacker regardless of citizenship. It has been updated to reflect Cameron Judge’s new contract, which makes him the CFL’s highest-paid linebacker over Adam Bighill.

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.