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Global pandemic creating no shortage of challenges for CFL teams entering free agency

The harsh reality of CFL economics helped John Hufnagel pull the trigger.

The harsh reality of CFL economics helped John Hufnagel pull the trigger.

On Saturday, the Calgary Stampeders president/GM dealt receiver Eric Rogers, defensive end Cordarro Law and defensive back Robertson Daniel — all pending free agents — as part of a deal with the Toronto Argonauts. 

The two teams also swapped '21 fifth-round draft picks and third-round Global selections but Hufnagel said money was definitely a reason why he made the trade.

"I made a deal like that because I knew they wouldn't fit in our salary structure," Hufnagel said during a video conference Monday. "You can't be afraid of change.

"I've already reiterated we have two rookie classes coming up to compete for jobs and I'm excited about seeing these guys. I hope one, two, three or four of them will step up and help ease the pain of losing some good veterans."

CFL teams didn't play in 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic. The league is hopeful for a 2021 campaign, having already released a complete schedule.

Before the '20 season was cancelled, CFL teams staged a Canadian draft. The league plans to hold a 2021 Canadian draft which would create a situation where two draft classes could compete for roster positions at training camp.

The CFL's '21 salary cap is set at $5.35 million. The collective-bargaining agreement between the league and CFL Players' Association also establishes a floor — or minimum a franchise must spend on player salaries — of $4.75 million.

With CFL free agency slated to open Feb. 9, teams have been predictably busy either signing players to extensions or having them restructure existing deals.

There was a flurry of activity Sunday, including quarterbacks Matt Nichols and Nick Arbuckle being released by Toronto and Ottawa, respectively. Both players reportedly had six-figure roster bonuses that were coming due.

Nichols and Arbuckle ended up switching teams, with Nichols reportedly receiving a $200,000 report-and-pass bonus from Ottawa while Arbuckle's one-year deal with Toronto was said to include a $150,000 bonus. The Double Blue also signed Rogers on Monday.

The addition of Rogers, 29, is big for Toronto. He had 85 receptions for 1,080 yards and 10 TDs with Calgary in 2019. 

If the Argos can come to terms with Law, they'd boost their defensive line with a player who had 32 sacks in 48 career games with Calgary.

But Ricky Collins, a receiver who had 78 catches for 1,103 yards and three TDs in 2019 with Edmonton, is currently a free agent after being released. He reportedly had a $33,000 roster bonus upcoming.

Winnipeg cut veteran linebacker Micah Awe, who reportedly was in line for a $5,000 roster bonus.

At first glance, upgrading Canadian and Global draft picks for established players like Rogers and Law would appear one-sided. But Hufnagel disagreed.

"It's more than I should've got because they're going to be free agents," Hufnagel said. "I was able to get something for something I wasn't going to be in possession of (come Feb. 9).

"Secondly, I got them out of the West Division so we only have to play them three times. I got them to a place where people are familiar with them. They were great soldiers for us so there's a lot of good things that occurred with that trade. Eric has also already agreed to a contract so that's good for him."

Traditionally as he's prepared for free agency, Hufnagel has had the benefit of having seen some players suit up against Calgary the previous season. But the global pandemic has turned what's been normal totally upside down.

"You've got to say it's different because the whole year has been different, let's not kid ourselves," Hufnagel said. "What you're doing now is just trusting your ability to come to conclusions based on filmwork and not as much as in-person, seeing with your own eyes live. 

"I'm not going to be a big player in free agency anyways. I'm comfortable with where we're at."

Two veterans Hufnagel did re-sign were linebackers Jameer Thurman and Canadian Cory Greenwood. Both played on Calgary's 2018 Grey Cup-winning team.

"We've got lot of leadership and experience to help our young guys grow faster and learn the system faster and better," Hufnagel said. "I'm very please with those two acquisitions."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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