TORONTO — The salary cap era in the CFL has been good for Canadian offensive linemen.
In the pass-happy league, starting quarterbacks have always been the most important players and therefore the highest paid. But the Canadians tasked with protecting them are also well compensated, with many earning over $200,000 annually.
The reason is simple: supply and demand.
"It's hard to find quality Canadian players. Period," said Jim Barker, the former Calgary Stampeders and Toronto Argonauts general manager. "Just look at the 2017 draft.
"Defensive linemen Faith Ekakitie (first overall to Winnipeg) and Randy Colling (No. 6 to Calgary) were both cut last weekend. It's just very hard to find those guys."
CFL teams must carry at least 21 Canadians on their 46-man roster and start a minimum of seven. Playing as many Canadians as possible on the offensive line makes it easier to use Americans at other positions.
But that also means having Canadian backups so a club won't have to drastically change its ratio if a starter is injured.
"We see teams that try to start three (Canadian offensive linemen) struggle," said Montreal-based agent Darren Gill, who represents Canadian offensive linemen Ryan Bomben and Philip Blake (both Montreal), Alex Mateas (Ottawa), Sean McEwen (Toronto) and David Foucault (B.C.). "If you try to start less than three you're going to struggle even more.
"As a result that position has built-in value to it because that's your building block for crafting your Canadian ratio. The trend has always been there, it's just we're noticing a lot more now because the dollar figures are that much bigger. The good news for offensive linemen is they've always been, I'd say, the second-highest paid position on a team behind the quarterback."
Added Barker: "That's why the Canadians make more money right there. When Chris Walby and Miles Gorrell played tackle for Winnipeg, the Bombers could never replace them when they left. So you're going to pay them and try to keep him playing for as long as you can."
CFL teams employ Canadians at other positions, but for the most part Canadian offensive linemen have proven to be more durable.
"Those positions, receiver, running back, defensive back, there's just a much higher incident of injury than with offensive and defensive linemen," Barker said. "That's why the more Canadian offensive and defensive linemen you can play, the better chance you have of those guys staying healthy because if you lose a good Canadian, that really causes a problem.
"Look at Montreal, (defensive end) Jamaal Westerman is a key guy for them. As long as he stays healthy that's big but if they lose him now they must find another Canadian to step and make the same impact as Westerman, and you can't do it. So now you have to go to your next-best Canadian, which might be an offensive lineman who maybe isn't as far behind an American starter and you make that change so you can play another American as a pass rusher. It can get complicated."
Gill said another factor is there's not much separating Canadian and American offensive linemen.
"Take any position on the football field and compare the Canadians you could start versus the Americans and the gap, in my opinion, is probably the least on the offensive line," he said. "I'm not saying all the Canadians are NFL worthy because the gap between the NFL and CFL is big.
"But the gap there is the least, which is why it makes sense to put all your Canadians there. Once you do, naturally you've got to find some pretty good ones and try and keep them around."
How important are Canadian offensive linemen? A record seven were taken in the first round of the '18 CFL draft.
But drafting Canadian offensive linemen is one thing. Signing and keeping them is another.
There are certainly financial advantages to signing first-year players to short-term, low-money rookie contracts. But the risk is the player won't feel an allegiance to the team when his deal is complete and will leave.
Teams signing youngsters to three-year contracts with decent money not only have happier players but ones with more time to become further ingrained in the community. So when it comes time to re-sign, the player has more reason to remain.
"That's exactly why you're seeing these players get more money in their first year," Barker said. "You could give them the minimum and they're out of there in two years.
"You just have a little bit better chance with a longer term than two years."
However, clubs still must ante up once a promising Canadian offensive lineman's rookie deal expires. That could happen with an extension as the player heads into his final year, or new deal before becomes a free agent.
Allowing the player to hit free agency could result in having to overpay to keep him or lose him outright. In that scenario, another franchise benefits from the money and time the original club invested in the player.
"You try and find out if he can play and if he's not playing much you're just going to play it out," Barker said. "But if he's playing a lot then you're going to try to redo the contract and get him extended because you don't want it to go to free agency."
Many CFL officials feel there's not enough quality Canadian talent currently. That could become a real issue if and when the CFL expands into Halifax but it would also allow some Canadian offensive linemen to either kick-start or extend their careers.
"When Ottawa came into the league (in 2014), there was talk there wouldn't be enough players to go around and that didn't turn out to be the case," Barker said. "I look at what's going on in U Sports and I think their funding is better, the players are coming out more prepared, they're more tuned into the CFL types of schemes.
"It just comes down to supply and demand and will the quality of play be high enough to continue to keep things escalating up so players want to play for 10-to-15 years? That's always been an issue . . . but it's hard for a guy to turn his back on making $200,000 a year for six months. We can say the money in the CFL isn't great but I know those top offensive linemen are making a lot of money."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press
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