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Redblacks GM Desjardins figures he’ll have holes to fill with CFL free agency

Desjardins keeps open mind on CFL free agency

Marcel Desjardins expects he’ll have some work to do when the CFL free agency period begins.

The general manager of the Grey Cup-champion Ottawa Redblacks hopes to sign two of his pending free agents before the noon ET deadline Tuesday. However, with 18 others scheduled to hit the open market — after losing three players to NFL teams earlier this off-season — Desjardins figures he’ll have some holes to fill.

“My preference would be if we had the majority of our guys back then we’d be minimally involved,” Desjardins said Wednesday. “But if we end up losing a number of guys, then, yeah, we’ll certainly be trying to fill some voids, for sure.”

The secondary will definitely be an area of need with the off-season departures of cornerback Mitchell White (Philadelphia Eagles), backup safety Jeff Richards (Carolina Panthers) and defensive back Forrest Hightower (New Orleans). Defensive back Abdul Kanneh is also slated to become a free agent, leaving recently re-signed safety Antoine Pruneau and cornerback Jonathan Rose as the lone holdovers from the unit that started Ottawa’s 39-33 overtime Grey Cup win over Calgary in November.

The receiver position could also become a priority with Ernest Jackson, Chris Williams and Greg Ellingson — all 1,000-yard performers the last two seasons â€” pending free agents.

A whopping 223 CFL players were scheduled to become free agents at season’s end. A big reason for that was the elimination of the option-year clause in contracts in the last collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players in 2014.

In the previous CBA, CFL deals contained mandatory option-year clauses. So players who signed a one-year contract were bound to the team â€” at its discretion — for another season.

Players in their option year were allowed out of their CFL contracts if they signed with an NFL club during a specified time each off-season.

The current CBA eliminated the option year for veterans â€” rookies still have the clause on their first contracts. That’s prompted many players to sign one-year deals and have the ability to parlay a productive season into a more lucrative deal in the off-season.

“The challenge is you want to build a team and roster that teams can identify with year in and year out,” Desjardins said. “The way a) one-year contracts work and b) some people are distributing the money potentially to some of our free agents, for instance, makes it impossible to do that.

“As much as you want continuity, it’s virtually impossible to have a reasonable degree of that from one year to the next.”

However, testing the open market can be a calculated gamble for both players and teams. The 2017 salary cap increased just $50,000 to $5.15 million, leaving GMs with limited resources to appease pending free agents looking for raises.

Teams allowing their stars to hit the open market face either having to over-pay to keep them or losing them outright to a higher bid. And once the top free agents sign, it leaves a significantly smaller piece of the pie for those who remain.

That could force some players back to their former teams eager to sign deals that were tabled prior to free agency. However, they could find themselves left out in the cold if the franchise dipped into the free-agent waters to find their replacement.

“From our standpoint, the decisions we’re making are because we can’t do it anyway at their (players) requested number,” Desjardins said. “We assume we’re going to lose out on a number of those guys because of it.”

When Desjardins hits the open market, he’ll have some bargaining chips.

The Redblacks have reached the Grey Cup the last two years, winning in 2016, and not only boast very solid ownership but play in a terrific stadium (TD Place) before enthusiastic fans. And Ottawa will host the ’17 Grey Cup game.

But that doesn’t mean Desjardins won’t also have to ante up.

“I think most players in this league understand we have a very good thing going here in Ottawa,” Desjardins said. “But at the end of the day it’s always going to come down to dollars for a player.”

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press