January 26, 2024

Jefferson to pending free agents: ‘The ball is in your court’

Jason Halstead/CFL.ca

Davis Sanchez understands the sense of anticipation bubbling inside some of the CFL’s brightest stars in advance of free agency.

The market officially opens Feb. 13 at 12 p.m. ET.

“It’s like going on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette,” says Sanchez, a lock-down cornerback with four teams during his 11-year CFL career.

“All these people are wooing you. And you’re the one who gets to choose. It’s really exciting to have people courting you.”

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Excitement aside, the TSN football analyst cautions today’s crop of free agents against allowing that excitement to cloud their judgement.

After all, there are long-term ramifications of such a major decision. And the grass — or, in this case, artificial turf — is not always greener on the other side.

“Stay,” says Sanchez, offering free advice to anyone who will listen. “If there’s any chance that you can stay in the same place — and build something there — I would strongly suggest you stay.

“And when you look back 20 years from now, or whatever it is, you’re never going to regret staying and building something. But you might regret leaving for short-term flash and something new, like I did.”

The lure of “something new” awaits the 2024 crop of pending free agents. Big names include Winnipeg running back Brady Oliveira, BC defensive lineman Mathieu Betts, Hamilton slotback Tim White, Winnipeg receiver Dalton Schoen, and Toronto tailback AJ Ouellette.

Other headliners include Toronto linebacker Adarius Pickett, Edmonton defensive lineman A.C. Leonard and Calgary linebacker Micah Awe.

Major life decisions await with the calendar about to flip into the month of February.

But Sanchez, who also played for the San Diego Chargers in 2001-2002, says he believes that clarity often comes decades after the fact, when the big picture looms in the rear-view mirror.

“Probably the biggest regret in my career is not staying in the same place,” says Sanchez, 49. “The amount of money you’re leaving for might be substantial to your year. But it’s probably not life changing.

“Usually, the only way a legacy is built is by tying yourself, or attaching yourself, to a franchise.”

Defensive end Willie Jefferson is trying to do just that in Winnipeg, where he lives year-round.

In 17 games in 2023, his fourth season in Winnipeg, Willie Jefferson tallied 21 tackles to go along with 11 sacks and three forced fumbles (Chris Tanouye/CFL.ca)

Sure, the winters are brutal compared to back home in Texas. And sure, he might have earned more if he waited for free agency to roll around instead of signing an extension with the Bombers back on Dec. 4.

But at age 32, Jefferson says he realizes Winnipeg is a prime football destination, both at the stadium and in the community. And the six-foot-seven, 242-pound sackmaster says head coach Mike O’Shea has a lot to do with the allure.

“Coach O’Shea is a really influential coach,” says Jefferson, a five-time CFL All-Star. “He’s a real mentor to his players. And the guys we have around the facility, the city, the environment we have at the stadium, the culture we’ve been building — it’s kind of hard to leave that and start over and try to rebuild that somewhere else.”

Back in 2019, Jefferson experienced the highs that come with free agency when he signed with Winnipeg after three years with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“It was fun,” he says. “I was my own agent. I didn’t have any agents making calls or taking calls for me. They were actually calling me, and I was given a chance to actually see what I was worth.”

At this point of his storied career, stability is more desirable than shopping around for a better offer. But he knows many younger players feel differently, especially if this is their first foray into free agency.

“What do I say to a young guy testing free agency out? If you had a great year, a good year, know your worth. You don’t need to sign early. You don’t have to sign early to a team in free agency.

“Weigh your options. The ball is in your court.”


At the same time, Jefferson urges young players to do their research, land on a dollar figure that will make them happy and then look to see what pieces will surround them in their potential destination.

“Ask for what you think is reasonable,” he says. “But at the same time, think of the team and not just yourself. You can still get what you deserve, but you don’t need to break the bank and break the team to the point they have nothing else to fall back on.

“Then everything is on you.”

Looking back Sanchez wonders what might have been had he returned to Montreal after his two years in the NFL instead of going to the highest bidder.

“It’s not like I’m sitting here crying in my pillow every night,” says the three-time Grey Cup champion. “But looking at my career, staying in Montreal, I would have a way different feeling if I stayed there the whole time.”

The bottom line, according to Sanchez, is this:

“You’re going to be remembered if you stay in one place for your whole career. If you jump around, you know, people aren’t going to remember you.”

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