February 10, 2018

Looking Back: How 1-year contracts changed free agency

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — It’s almost that time again.

Fans, players and of course executives have gotten used to these frantic days in February, when several of the CFL’s most popular players are granted the opportunity to negotiate with other teams and move freely about the country.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this.

Two years ago witnessed drastic change in modern day free agency in the CFL, with the new collective bargaining agreement allowing one-year contracts for veterans.

» Rewind: Flurry of activity kicks off 2016 free agency
» Under the Radar: Don’t overlook these 10 free agents
» View 2018 free agent tracker


The result was a day of unparalleled activity across the league, coinciding with the first day of free agency on Feb. 9, 2016.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers took the league by storm with star signings like Andrew Harris, Ryan Smith, Justin Medlock and Euclid Cummings. It was also the start of free agency as we’ve come to know it today.

“There is a large number of free agents every year, simply due to the collective agreement moving to one-year contracts for veteran players,” said Kent Austin, vice-president of football operations for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

“Theoretically you can fill holes quick, but everybody else has the same opinion and philosophy so what it does is it drives up the cost of the upper echelon of the pool as it relates to your cap.”

Sometimes big moves in free agency can pay off. Sometimes they burn you. Either way, the stakes are high.

Two years ago, the Bombers used a massive first day of free agency to springboard themselves into contention. In the end, the Bombers backed up all that February chatter, making the playoffs for the first time since 2011 — a successful season, despite a first-round exit to the BC Lions.

The REDBLACKS made a splash by signing Trevor Harris, who’s become a perennial MOP candidate, leading one of the CFL’s top passing attacks in 2017.

Other teams had less success. The Argos signed Josh Bourke, the Als landed Kenny Stafford while the Riders picked up Shamawd Chambers. All three players had moved on by the 2017 season.

“There is a different strategy . . . You have to be mindful that you don’t sign a name, but you sign a player that will contribute to your environment and your culture.”

Als GM Kavis Reed on the landscape of free agency

Alouettes general manager Kavis Reed might look to make a splash on Feb. 13 this year (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Lions general manager Ed Hervey suggests that sometimes free agency can be helpful when in need of a quick fix. But at the same time, there are better ways to build a team.

“I think the one-year contract for the players is an advantage for them,” said Hervey. “It’s a benefit, it also allows teams to quick-fix in some cases. But it can be expensive also.

“I’m a believer that you kind of stick with what you know and try to build an environment that allows players to stay and want to stay. If you can create that continuity, more often than not it beats out flipping the roster from year to year.”

Alouettes general manager Kavis Reed says his strategy is also a cautious one.

“There is a different strategy,” said Reed. “You have to be mindful that you don’t sign a name, but you sign a player that will contribute to your environment and your culture.

“We’re very mindful that protecting our own is more important than seeking the guys outside and continuing that development process.”

While the last two years have seen a drastic uptick in action on the opening days of free agency, this year is hinting towards more of the same. Roughly 100 players are still on track to become free agents on Feb. 13, including two-thirds of CFL.ca’s top 30, a list that was released two weeks ago.

“As interesting or daunting as it’s been up to this point, I think it pales in comparison to what we’re going to see a year from now.”

Bombers GM Kyle Walters looks ahead to 2019

Bombers general manager Kyle Walters sees more changes to free agency in 2019 (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

If that’s not enough, things could be about to get crazier. Some general managers will point to an expiring collective bargaining agreement, which could mean a changing salary cap in 2019. That’s causing some players to sign one-year deals with hopes of seeing more money on the table a year from now.

“A year from now is going to be a very, very interesting time in the CFL in regards to the number of free agents that we’re going to see, I anticipate, just from my talks with agents and their wish for one-year contracts this year heading into 2019,” said Bombers general manager Kyle Walters.

“As interesting or daunting as it’s been up to this point, I think it pales in comparison to what we’re going to see a year from now. I anticipate.”

For now, the fun begins on Tuesday, Feb. 13 at noon ET, when any player without a contract in 2018 becomes eligible to sign elsewhere. The full list of pending free agents can be seen here via CFL.ca’s Free Agent Tracker.