Morris: Demand could grow for vets in a shortened season

If the CFL proceeds with a condensed season, general managers may take another look at the players still available on the free-agent list in hopes of adding experience to their roster.

“In a shortened season, you’re always wanting as much experience as you can get,” said BC Lions GM Ed Hervey.

“You would think in a shortened season, especially if a starter goes down, there’s not enough time for a young player to grasp the nuances of the CFL. That’s not to say that young players can’t come in and get it done. But…you’d rather have guys that are able to play and understand the league.”

John Murphy, the Toronto Argonauts vice-president of player personnel, said factors like the length of a training camp or how many exhibition games will be played could influence a team’s decision, especially when it comes signing a rookie versus a veteran.

“I think whatever your plan B would be, it potentially could get changed,” he said.

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Derel Walker is a perennial all-star and the best skill player that’s still a free agent. Demand for his services will always be at a premium, but he’d be a huge addition for a team in a shortened season (Geoff Robins/CFL.ca)

Receiver Derel Walker continues to highlight the list of available free agents. Other big names include offensive lineman Derek Dennis; defensive linemen Shawn Lemon, Odell Willis and Davon Coleman; defensive back Jonathan Rose; linebacker Cory Greenwood; and veteran receivers Emmanuel Arceneaux and Luke Tasker.

CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie announced last month that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the earliest the league could begin an abbreviated 2020 season would be September. Regina was originally scheduled to host the Grey Cup, but instead a “win and host model” will be used. That means of the two teams that qualify for the Grey Cup, the one with the superior record will host the championship game.

The original CFL schedule had the Lions playing seven games after Sept. 1 with two bye weeks. The Argonauts were scheduled for eight games with one bye.

Hervey said rookies or even older players in their first CFL season may find it harder to earn a roster spot, especially if the number of exhibition games is reduced or eliminated totally.

“Exhibition games have been important to gain experience for the young players, the draft picks, those players who are not familiar or haven’t played in the CFL,” he said. “So right off the bat, you would imagine it would be somewhat difficult for those young players or inexperienced players to be able to make an impact in a short amount of time.

“The likelihood is that the experienced players will give the coaches more comfort in knowing basically, just give them the scheme and they can go out there and execute because they do have games under their belt in previous years.”

In the NHL, it’s not uncommon for Stanley Cup contenders to make deals for veterans at the trade deadline in hopes these “rental players” can help deliver a title.

Murphy said that when playing a schedule with 10 or less games, some CFL teams might opt to stock their roster with proven talent for a championship run.

“It will depend on the direction that clubs take,” he said. “Will that cause some of those teams to sign a veteran instead of a young player?”

Murphy cautioned that team chemistry can be as important as talent.

“I don’t think you can know that a group of veterans is the answer to winning in 2020 just like it’s not a guarantee that a group of younger guys can’t just come together,” he said. “You can possibly catch lightning in a bottle as a club and have a very interesting team be a contender.”

Teams also must be careful not to concentrate so much on the present that they sacrifice players who might impact the future.

“I think there’s a careful balance,” said Murphy. “You have to weigh the factor of gain to potentially missing out on a guy that could be a critical piece and building block on our team in the next several years.”

Edmonton Eskimos general manger Brock Sunderland doesn’t foresee a free-agent signing frenzy once a new schedule is announced. Many teams already locked up the free agents they wanted prior to the league shutting down.

“The heavy lifting was done before COVID even hit,” said Sunderland. “Will it change some things? Potentially.

“I think this is uncharted waters for everyone in the world, for every league. So I think there will probably be a little bit of different maneuvering and strategies on a truncated season.”

The Lions were busy in free agency, signing receivers Dominique Rhymes and Caleb Holley; defensive linemen Cameron Walker, Chris Casher and Micah Johnson; and defensive backs Kenny Ladler.

Hervey said the process of evaluating the remaining talent hasn’t stopped.

“We continue to look at those players,” he said. “The only difference being, if it’s a shortened season, I think we would treat it like it’s a playoff run, like the last third of season, when a team grabs a veteran player for that final stretch run.”

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