The biggest domino in CFL free agency finally fell Friday, with Canadian receiver Andy Fantuz electing to leave the Saskatchewan Roughriders and join the Hamilton Tiger-Cats by signing a four-year deal. That move could have significant repercussions for both franchises, and it could also affect the rest of the league. Fantuz is just one player, of course, but he's a rather unique one; he led the league in receiving in 2010, and he also happens to carry a Canadian passport, making him the first to hit that double since Dave Sapunjis did it in 1995. As one of the CFL's top Canadian stars, one of the league's most marketable personalities and a top player the league's been able to retain despite NFL interest, Fantuz should make a substantial impact on and off the field in southern Ontario, and his presence will be missed in Saskatchewan.
For the Tiger-Cats, this looks like a great move. Not only did they reel in Fantuz, a terrific player who has connections to the area thanks to growing up in Chatham and playing CIS football at the former University of Western Ontario (now Western University) in London, but they apparently grabbed him for only $180,000 a year (plus incentives) and managed to lock him up for four years. That's less than the reported deal in the range of $200,000 Saskatchewan was offering, and while it's still a lot of money for a receiver, it's a low enough contract that it won't be crippling against the cap for Hamilton.
Moreover, long-term deals largely favour teams in this league, as contracts aren't guaranteed; if a player doesn't produce, he can be cut partway through to free up cap room, but if he plays well, he's still locked in to a deal. Fantuz is only 28, so he should be able to have plenty of further productive seasons, and in Hamilton, he'll team with Dave Stala to form one of the best non-import pairings out there. The Tiger-Cats also have promising import receivers Chris Williams, Aaron Kelly and Bakari Grant, so if new quarterback Henry Burris can return to top form, they might have one of the league's best aerial attacks. No wonder Ticats' owner (or caretaker, as he prefers) Bob Young was inspired enough to tweet a Diddy — Dirty Money song. Now, they just need to hook Fantuz up with some promotional opportunities...
For Saskatchewan, this is a notable loss, but it's not necessarily a crippling one. Fantuz has been a fantastic player for them and a great supporter of the community, so he'll certainly be missed, but the Riders are still in reasonably good shape when it comes to both Canadian talent and receivers overall. In the receiving corps, they still have Rob Bagg (who will hopefully be recovered from injury) this year and Chris Getzlaf, two very good non-imports who could potentially earn larger roles in the wake of Fantuz's departure, and they have import Weston Dressler, who's shown that he can be a legitimate top receiver. There aren't a lot of proven options beyond that (unless the team brings Jason Clermont back), but there are some interesting contenders on the roster, including Canadians Scott McHenry and Jordan Sisco and imports Freddie Barnes and Dallas Baker. The Saskatchewan receiving corps doesn't look quite as strong without Fantuz at the moment, but his departure could provide an opportunity for others to step up.
For the league, this move also has benefits. From attendance and financial standpoints, it's the franchises in Toronto and Hamilton that need the most work, which is why the CFL is contributing money to help those squads with marketing and grassroots campaigns. Fantuz's addition adds even more intensity to the Battle of Ontario between the Argonauts and Tiger-Cats, and having a big name like him playing locally might help to build interest in the GTA in advance of the 100th Grey Cup this fall. In Fantuz, the Tiger-Cats have landed an extremely marketable star, and one who's shown in the past that he's quite willing to go out and pitch in in the community; that will certainly help off the field. His bigger contribution to Hamilton's fortunes could come on the field, though, as winning is often the most important part of a team's financial success or lack thereof. We'll see how it goes, but the Tiger-Cats landed a big piece Friday. Now they just have to figure out how to make it fit.