On the surface, the Canadian Football League could provoke envy between both sides of the NFL's current labor war. It has a new collective bargaining agreement, signed into effect in late June, that ensures four years of play. The CFL also has the 18-game schedule that NFL owners want for their league, and the increased revenue that the NFLPA wants for its players.
Here are five current CFL players who might be able to make that NFL jump.
1. Cory Boyd,
Toronto Argonauts RB
Boyd had warm cups of coffee with Denver and Tampa Bay in the past, but he’s now leading the CFL in rushing with 792 yards and four touchdowns on 133 carries though nine games, despite being the key target of every defense he faces. At 6-foot-1 and 213 pounds, he’s got the size and speed to make a move as a rotation back in the NFL.
2. DE Phillip Hunt,
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
The Bombers have impressed with their spread offense, but Hunt may be their best player. Currently tied for the league lead in sacks with seven, the 24-year-old Hunt has excelled in two years with Winnipeg after being cut by the Cleveland Browns in 2009. The former Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year may be the next CFL pass rusher in that NFL pipeline.
3. RB Jon Cornish,
The Canadian-born Cornish, who went to Kansas, continues to be a yards-per-carry maven. He set a school record with 1,457 rushing yards (5.8 YPC) in 2006 and led the Jayhawks in rushing in 2005, despite never starting a game. In his fourth CFL season, he’s averaging 8.2 yards per carry. He'd be an interesting option for a team looking to take a chance on a breakaway threat.
4. Slotback Weston Dressler,
Think of a slotback as a cross between a flex tight end in space and a prototype slot receiver. The former North Dakota star had to head even farther north after drawing little NFL interest, but he’s put up impressively consistent numbers through his three CFL seasons. Dressler’s problem may be that NFL teams already seem to have a surplus of Wes Welker/Julian Edelman/Danny Amendola types, but Dressler has always impressed when given the chance. Currently ranks fifth in the CFL with 41 receptions.
5. RB Arkee Whitlock:
The Eskimos don’t have much to brag about this season – their 2-6 record tells the tale – but Whitlock, a Southern Illinois product, currently ranks third in the CFL in rushing yards and rushed for almost 1,400 yards in 2009 despite serious issues along the team’s offensive line. Whitlock, 26, may be overlooked by some teams due to those age concerns (these days, 26 is middle age for your average NFL back), but teams looking for a back with size (5-foot-10, 210) and versatility (he’s a good receiver as well) might take a shot.
But the CBA that promises success might doom the Canadian league to a future without the kind of top-tier talent it has enjoyed in the past. At a time when the league is expanding, building new stadiums for its teams, and looking to a bright financial future, a provision in the new agreement makes it more difficult for CFL players to make the NFL jump.
Each CFL player contract has a club option year at its end. The "NFL window" option – a timeline when players could give the NFL a chance and return to their CFL team if that didn't work out – has been eliminated. Now, those players are limited to the CFL through the duration of their deals.
The CFL's famous alums include quarterbacks Warren Moon, Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia(notes). In the last few years, there's been a small pipeline from the CFL's British Columbia Lions to the NFL. First it was defensive lineman Chris Wilson(notes), who played in BC from 2005 through 2006 and parlayed that into a linebacker roster spot with the Washington Redskins. Cameron Wake(notes) replaced Wilson in Canada, put up 39 sacks in two seasons, and worked that into what is now a starting spot with the Miami Dolphins as a linebacker. Canadian-born Ricky Foley(notes) replaced Wake and spent the majority of the 2010 preseason on the Seattle Seahawks' roster before he was cut on Monday. The New York Jets claimed him on waivers Tuesday.
For agent Paul Sheehy, who represents Wake, Foley, about 40 other NFL players and about a dozen CFL stars, the loss of the "NFL window" is a problem.
"That window was an incentive for players who believed they were NFL caliber to go up to Canada for a year, prove whatever they needed to prove, and come back down for the NFL," Sheehy said. "And that's how we brought Cameron [Wake] and a couple other guys down. It's going to prevent a lot of players signing up there in the first instance. Now, if I have to go alternative league with a player, I'll go with the UFL, where I know I can get the player out and signed in the current NFL season."
This is happening at the worst time for those players. With an 18-game NFL season coming closer to fait accompli, roster limits will almost certainly increase, leading to more players taking a chance on NFL success. In prior years, Wake said those players who might be on the NFL bubble would rather take the bird in the hand they have in Canada.
"If you're probably good enough to make a team down here, but you don't really know … that NFL team might give you $20,000 to come and try out. You come and try out from March to last cuts in September, and you do get released, you've missed out on half the CFL season. They're in their ninth game right now. You're starting out on game No. 10, and you picked up $20,000, but you missed out on $100,000 in game checks.
"Those players have wives and families, and other things to worry about. I know guys who are in that very situation. They're making a nice living up there – they're established on the team. Why would they up and go for an opportunity when they're not being compensated?"
Wake doesn't have to worry, though. The former New York Giants preseason cut had the CFL stats to bring the NFL knocking at his door. After Wake and Sheehy performed a roster composition analysis, they determined that Miami would be the place to go. With Joey Porter(notes) and Jason Taylor(notes) out of the picture, new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan expects Wake to start as a pass rusher and build on his six-sack 2009 season. His NFL future is as sure as anyone's.
Foley, who received a $100,000 guarantee from the Seahawks, displayed some ability as a hybrid linebacker/end in Pete Carroll's "Leo" concept, in which three-man fronts are augmented by a stand-up pass-rusher. The Jets needed to add depth after Calvin Pace(notes) suffered a broken foot. New York was one of the teams that Foley tried out for in April.
"He'll play that hybrid position in New York," Sheehy said.
At least Foley still has a chance, which is more than can be said for those players whose options have dwindled as a result of the new CBA. Wake, Foley and Sheehy all agreed that though CFL talent and NFL talent doesn't match up at every roster spot, there are players with enough talent to make it in the bigger league – and the NFL may never hear from them without the option window.
"I just think that there are a lot of good players in the CFL who are typically characterized as undersized out of college, and they might not get the look for that reason," Foley said. "Sometimes, it just takes guys getting reps – getting comfortable and having confidence. Chris came from a small school [Northwood, Mich.], and I think that's what happened to Cam when he got cut from the NFL. It's just a time to get comfortable with your skill set and what works for you – have a couple good years up there, and take a shot down south."
Andrew Bucholtz of the Sporting Madness blog contributed to this article.