Bringing back the option year may lead to more defections, but could boost the CFL’s talent level

The CFL's 2010 collective bargaining agreement officially eliminated the controversial option year that allowed players still under contract to test the NFL waters, but the results thus far have been mixed, to say the least. Thus, it's not particularly surprising to see Lowell Ullrich's report in The Province that the CFL's competition committee is discussing the possibility of bringing that rule back. There's a long way to go before this happens, of course, and it may never change back; the rule was eliminated because many around the league were tired of losing option-year players to the NFL, and there's still some sentiment against allowing players to easily test the NFL waters. However, the rule change has had some unintended consequences, and that's why the option situation is being looked at again.

There's no dispute that losing players to the NFL isn't easy for teams to deal with. That's going to happen regardless of if you have option years or not, though; the only difference is just that without option years, it's only CFL free agents who can test the NFL waters. Given that the minimum CFL deal is now two full years instead of one year and an option year, yes, that does mean that players are going to be around for at least a little longer. While that's a positive for teams in terms of keeping the players they do land, it's a negative in terms of player recruitment. Getting top American players, many who have never heard of the CFL before, up to Canada in the first place isn't easy, but it's a much easier sales job when you can say "Hey, come and play here, and if you do amazingly well, you can leave for the NFL after a year." A two-year hitch at minimum is a little tougher to convince people to sign up for.

Most of the CFL's players would absolutely take an NFL job if it came up (keep in mind that the NFL minimum base salary for active-roster players is currently $395,000, more than any CFL player other than a few top quarterbacks makes, and even the practice squad minimum salary of $96,000 ($5,700/week times 17 weeks) is more than many CFL players make, to say nothing of the NFL's prestige and it being in a country that's home for many players. However, most of the CFL's players aren't going to be able to make that jump; there are plenty (but a long way from all) who might have the talent for the NFL, but making an NFL roster is a complicated calculus depending on the team's positional depth, injuries and how well you perform in the limited opportunities you're given. The brilliance of the option-year mechanism was that it played off an element common amongst football players; overrating their own talents. It got many American players in particular to sign what they figured would be one-year deals that would lead straight to the NFL, but turned out to be contracts that kept them in Canada for at least part of a second season and often even more than that.

Want to see the numbers on CFL to NFL movement? Consider the list of CFL players who were linked with the NFL this February. That's a pretty incredible list of some of the top CFL talent, including defensive player of the year Jovon Johnson, top Canadian Jerome Messam and outstanding lineman runner-up Jovan Olafioye. In fact, the across-the-board calibre of CFL talent considering the NFL was likely better than it had been in some time. That didn't lead to a complete exodus, though. Of the 10 players listed there, four (Jerrell Freeman, Marcus Thigpen, Justin Medlock and Justin Hickman) are still in the NFL, while two (Messam and Solomon Elimimian) came back to the CFL partway through this year and the remaining four never left. Only losing 40 per cent of those players for good isn't bad, especially when you consider the talent on that list, but what's really impressive is that for the 10 CFL guys actually linked with the NFL, there were probably a lot more who figured the CFL would be their ticket to NFL glory, but never stood out enough in Canada to even draw interest from south of the border.

Although a return to the option-year system would mean a few more players would leave "early," the vast majority of CFL players who sign one-year plus option deals are not going to be "one and dones". Even Cameron Wake, likely the most dominant player to go from the CFL to the NFL in the last decade, spent two years with the B.C. Lions before heading south of the border. What the option does is offer the chance to leave for bigger money if you play exceptionally well and appeal to an NFL team. That's an incentive that will bring more top-tier talent to Canada, as without it, players are more likely to stay in the U.S. and consider alternatives like arena football or even the struggling United Football League. B.C. general manager Wally Buono has probably lost more top-drawer talent to the NFL than anyone in the last decade (Wake, Casey Printers, Stefan Logan, Ryan Grice-Mullen, Emmanuel Arceneaux, Martell Mallett, Rolly Lumbala briefly, Elimimian for half of this season), but he told Ullrich he's in favour of bringing back the option year, as it would allow the CFL to haul in more top-drawer talent:

"All players want a chance to go back," said Lions general manager Wally Buono, who would not discuss specifics of the proposal but has been an advocate of amending the old rule. "Players would choose the UFL (United Football League) over the CFL, not because of the quality of the league, but because if they go (to the UFL) there's no limitations."

That's it in a nutshell, really. The CFL has actually been fortunate that there hasn't been great competition from American-based leagues; the UFL's struggled for years and just suspended its season in the middle in advance of moving to the spring, while the Arena Football League briefly folded before reforming from the ashes of the old af2. Despite the less-than-imposing natures of those leagues, though, they've still been able to draw talent, and that's been getting more difficult for the CFL thanks to the elimination of the option year. Yes, bringing it back would see a few more players leave earlier than they might otherwise, but those players might never come north under the current system. Moreover, for every player who actually leaves and makes it in the NFL, there are many more who may dream of that, but aren't going to come particularly close. The option-year provision's largely playing to those dreams, and as such, bringing it back could be a tremendously effective way to draw more talent up north.