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December 9, 2020

O’Leary: Sunderland gives a glimpse into the great FA unknown

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Brock Sunderland has been to the unpromised land, danced with an ambiguous devil and come out of it surprisingly unscathed. In his three seasons as the GM in Edmonton and through this cancelled one, he’s seen some things and more often than not, he’s emerged through them with his team better for it.

As the league’s moratorium on signing pending free agents lifted Monday at noon ET, Sunderland stared into the abyss of the unsigned and did something he hasn’t done before. He flinched.

“Even when you have a season, guys change from year-to-year and sometimes they change in the season; they fall off the cliff steeply and very quickly,” he told TSN 1260’s Jason Gregor, shortly after his three-year contract extension had been announced.

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Edmonton GM Brock Sunderland overhauled his roster in free agency in 2019, bringing in QB Trevor Harris in the wake of Mike Reilly’s departure for BC (Photo: Dominick Gravel/CFL.ca)

“You don’t know what they’ve been up to all off-season. The way the world is right now with the pandemic, we understand that if they’re not training for football right now. That’s very understandable.”

He thought back to free agency in 2019, how he overhauled his roster in a matter of hours, triggered by Mike Reilly’s decision to leave Edmonton for BC. He thought about how he did all of that off of an expiring CBA that left some salary cap uncertainty.

“I thought a couple years ago that would be the most challenging free agency ever. I think I spoke too soon, thinking it can’t get more difficult than that,” Sunderland said.

“Well, welcome to 2020.”

We touched on this idea on Friday, that free agency 2021 will be laced with its share of unique challenges. What Sunderland touches on later in that interview is interesting as well. He told Gregor that with his players scattered over the continent, it’s been hard to keep tabs on how everyone is doing in terms of staying in football shape.

Each province and each state have different rules about gym access and as we dig into winter in Canada and the northern parts of the U.S., access to fields and even outdoor workouts will become more difficult. Sunderland spoke about trusting what you know and in this situation it’s your vets and the players that live in the market and how they work out and how they’ve prepared for seasons past.

As we get closer to February and the opening of free agency, GMs will have to weigh these sorts of things. Do they go with what they know and what they can trust, or do they roll the dice a little on players that they have less history with, that signed one-year deals or were on their way into the CFL for the first time from the States?

This is an exceptional year that’s created a glut of exceptional circumstances. Players that signed one-year deals that never got to suit up for their new team certainly won’t be left in the cold; there are simply too many of them, for one thing. And as Sunderland said to Gregor in their conversation, he didn’t doubt that the vast majority of players are working out and would be ready for a May training camp. For many GMs, it’ll be weighing that uncertainty and how much it may affect you when players start arriving for camps.

A similar idea was kicked around here when a bubbled 2020 season was being considered. These are circumstances that tend to favour veteran players. If they don’t favour them, they at least open the door more than it would in a year where open tryouts and in-person workouts were a part of the equation that we all took for granted.

Free agency is always about opportunity and that won’t change in 2021. Who the opportunity goes to could be interesting, though.

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