Tuesday, February 13 is just over two weeks away, which means 2024 Free Agency is truly right around the corner. Perhaps I’m suffering from recency bias, but it sure does feel like there are more high-end players without contracts for the coming season than usual. And business has yet to really pick up.
It’s going to later this week, though. The league’s free agent negotiation window opens Sunday, February 4 and marks the beginning of the “bidding war” phase of this process. Without getting into the nitty gritty of the rules, it’s an opportunity many high-profile players can’t pass up even if remaining with their current team is the goal.
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With the free agency conversation about to launch into hyperspace, here are three burning questions I keep asking myself.
Do we see big Bombers raises?
Few players have more leverage than Winnipeg’s Brady Oliveira and Dalton Schoen entering the negotiation window. If either or both hit the open market, they’ll easily become the highest paid players at their position and understandably so. I’m genuinely curious to see if Winnipeg’s cap situation will allow them to keep both players, even if hometown discounts are applied.
Let’s start with Oliveira who just completed the best season by a CFL tailback in a decade. Oliveira’s last contract already made him one of the league’s higher paid running backs. But with a Canadian passport, Oliveira is primed to reset the bar at his position. Even as a hometown product, Winnipeg will have to carve out a good chunk of their cap to retain Oliveira.
And speaking of significant additions to the cap, Schoen’s next contract is going to be just that. It’s not often you see rookie and sophomore seasons at receiver like what we’ve just witnessed from Schoen. Knowing the value he’s provided since entering the league as a little known commodity, Schoen’s raise is likely to be one of the most substantial in recent memory.
The Blue Bombers have made four straight Grey Cups and their expert salary cap management has been a large part of that success. That’s why I’m so fascinated to see how they approach this situation between now and the second Tuesday in February.
Where does Betts get the bag?
If Schoen and Oliveira hold the most negotiating leverage amongst offensive free agents, there’s no question BC’s Mathieu Betts gets that crown on the defensive side. Betts just wrapped up the final season of a two-year deal that reportedly made him the league’s highest paid Canadian defensive lineman. But with his record setting 2023, he’s set to repeat the same feat…minus the word “Canadian.”
Betts established himself as the CFL’s most dominant edge rusher last year and set a new single-season record by a Canadian with 18 quarterback sacks. Those 18 sacks were also the highest of any player since Montreal’s John Bowman recorded 19 in 2015. Betts built on his breakout season the year prior and positioned himself for a huge pay day this winter.
With the negotiation window soon to open, I’m just as fascinated with how the Lions handle Betts relative to their cap. Remember, BC has already handed out big contracts to receivers Keon Hatcher and Alexander Hollins coming off breakout seasons of their own. In contrast, the team also parted ways with Dominique Rhymes for cap motivated reasons.
Betts is going to get paid. At the same time, the Lions will enter the 2024 season as bona fide Grey Cup contenders. It still feels like a great match. That said, Betts will have substantial offers from virtually every other team to fall back on if a return to the west coast isn’t in the cards.
Jake Dolegala is in a unique spot entering free agency. With Ottawa acquiring and subsequently signing Dru Brown earlier this month, most believe Dolegala is now the number one quarterback on the board entering signing season, me included. But it feels like a return to Saskatchewan isn’t in the cards.
Dolegala took over as starter for the Roughriders in Week 11 last season and put together a few impressive performances, including a standout win over Winnipeg on OK Tire Labour Day Weekend. In the end, the 27-year-old towering pivot completed just under 65% of his passes and threw for 2,641 yards, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions in 11 appearances, including nine starts.
Saskatchewan will enter the 2024 season with Trevor Harris on top of their quarterback depth chart, which was a potential scenario I liked for both the team and Dolegala. It would have given the Riders a familiar option if Harris goes down with injury and Dolegala the option to work behind a successful CFL veteran. But with the Riders extended Mason Fine, it’s harder to see Dolegala in green for a third straight season.
In a recent interview with 620 CKRM in Regina, John Hodge of 3 Down Nation suggested Calgary as a potential landing spot while noting Dolegala has changed agents since the end of last season. That fit as a number two behind Jake Maier would make a lot of sense, as would BC behind Vernon Adams Jr. now that Dane Evans has announced his retirement.