February 11, 2011
The numbers of CFL players heading to the NFL are down from last offseason (eight thus far, by Ian Busby's count), but the quality of players leaving is certainly notable. The league had already lost its top receiver last year in Andy Fantuz and one of its most exciting young players in Emmanuel Arceneaux, as well as lesser-known but promising players like Andrew Hawkins and Mark Restelli. Friday, the reigning CFL sack leader officially decided to join the exodus, with the Philadelphia Eagles announcing they had signed Winnipeg defensive end Phillip Hunt (pictured above bringing down Saskatchewan's Darian Durant Sept. 12) to a three-year deal.
From one standpoint, it's not particularly surprising that Hunt is off to the NFL. He clearly has the talent to shine on the big stage if given the opportunity; he finished the year with 16 sacks, four ahead of his nearest competitor, and was consistently the most dangerous pass-rushing threat in the league. I pegged him as one of the CFL's top five players back in September, and my opinion of him's only risen since then. There was obviously a fair bit of NFL interest in Hunt as well, as he worked out for the Vikings as well as New England, Houston, Cleveland and Philadelphia.
The surprising element, though, is that Hunt seemed to be one of the potential NFL transfers most concerned about the possibility of an NFL lockout. The news on the labour front has been particularly bad lately, with the NFL and NFLPA walking away from talks this week, and CFL players who sign with an NFL team can't come back north of the 49th parallel if there is a lockout.
Those lockout fears probably contributed to the smaller numbers of CFL players heading to the NFL; some, like Chad Owens and S.J. Green, definitely attracted their share of interest from south of the border, but elected to stay in Canada. It's possible that Hunt was able to get a substantial enough signing bonus that the potentially impending lockout doesn't worry him as much as it once did. In any case, something clearly changed his mind from earlier this year, and I doubt it was any perceived uptick in the labour situation.
Here's what Hunt had to say about the move to Ed Tait of the Winnipeg Free Press:
"I just signed today... just about 10 minutes ago. It was a great experience," said Hunt when reached by The Free Press Friday afternoon. "Now I look forward to playing in the NFL. This is something I've thought about my whole life. I've always had dreams and aspirations to play in the NFL and it's finally come true.
"The CFL was a great platform for me to showcase my skills. That league produces a lot of great athletes and I was fortunate to be one of them. I appreciate the opportunity the Bombers gave me and the opportunity that's in front of me right now with the Eagles. I'm just so excited."
It is a terrific opportunity for Hunt, and CFL fans shouldn't begrudge him for taking it. It's quite possible he could follow in Cameron Wake's footsteps and become the next CFL star to shine on the NFL stage, and if he does, that will help increase both the profile of the CFL in general and the Blue Bombers in particular. He could also be a key addition for the Eagles; they're planning to use him as a pass-rushing defensive end in their 4-3 scheme, and that's something that definitely fits his talents.
At the same time, though, Hunt's departure will likely hurt Winnipeg this coming year. The 4-14 Bombers weren't as bad as their record made them look, but Hunt was one of their critical pieces. Without him, their pass rush will likely be a lot less formidable, and that could pose more problems for a defence that frequently struggled in coverage. We'll see what their plan is to replace him, but 16-sack production isn't particularly easy to find. Hunt's departure could pave the way for other players to step up, but he leaves big shoes to fill.