With a lockout looming, many young NFL players are in the dubious position of supporting their union while at the same time looking for gainful employment.
If, as expected, the lockout becomes a reality Thursday night, the Canadian Football League and the lower-tier United Football League in the United States could benefit from an influx of talent.
The communication has already started. A league source told Metro that Titans Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Babin has been contacted by both CFL and UFL teams. Babin, a free agent in search of a long-term contract, is just one of a number of NFL players who could utilize the lockout to get much-needed playing time ... as well as a paycheck.
Most players the leagues court, though, figure to be less high-profile.
A CFL executive told Metro it will “largely target younger players who would benefit from the games and exposure of the CFL.” Mostly, the source said, younger players out of contract would benefit more than a veteran player would from playing in either league.
“Agents have talked with teams in the CFL about possible players available due to the lockout. A lot of agents are encouraging their young players to consider the CFL if there is a lockout,” the source said. “But say the guy is a legit NFL player, an established guy, he’s not going to risk NFL money to sign a one-year contract. He just won’t.”
The NFL player who jumps Canada’s border like a draft-dodger won’t be a Raghib Ismail, the former Notre Dame wide receiver who in 1991 signed a four-year deal with the CFL worth $18.2 million rather than go to the NFL.
“It’s not worth the risk for these established players,” the executive said. “I’ve had enough conversations with people and agents who have told me just that.”
But despite the chance for players to get meaningful snaps and some money, the CFL is somewhat of a difficult sell.
Long gone are the days when a player like Ismail, who was a fourth-round pick in the NFL before signing with Toronto, would get a multi-million dollar deal. Instead, the average salary for the CFL is roughly $70,000 for an 18-game regular season schedule. That’s barely enough for Jets corner back Antonio Cromartie to make his monthly child-support payments.
Per UFL spokesman Michael Preston, the average player in his league earns $50,000, but the schedule is just eight games and leads right into the middle of the NFL season, ideal for teams looking to bolster their squads as injuries begin to hit rosters.
"In the event of a NFL lockout, free agents will be able to sign with United Football League teams,” UFL commissioner Michael Huyghue told Metro. “We anticipate that the standard of play established in two seasons by the UFL and the opportunity to earn a salary while playing in the traditional fall season will appeal to many players. At a time when those players expect to be playing football, the UFL offers them what will be the highest level of professional football being played.”
The UFL hasn’t decided if its salary cap will be adjusted this year in an effort to perhaps be more appealing to out of contract NFL talent, but the chance to play and get noticed for the next level might be enough to entice some players to leave behind lockout uncertainty and join the third-year league.
Beware, there is a catch to joining the UFL. The independent league won’t let players move to the NFL till the end of its eight-game regular season and playoff structure, which will be at the end of October this year. But the hope for the UFL in bringing in NFL players who are out of contract or on the fringe rests in the fact that their season runs roughly parallel to the NFL year.
So, if the NFL season starts late due to a lockout, players could complete the UFL season and step right into the NFL season in shape and game ready, a potential positive for a NFL team. This could make the UFL a destination not just a paycheck for these players on the fringe of NFL rosters, but it would also be a way to get noticed and make a NFL roster. These players would step in game ready come Sundays while players under contract would be working their way into game shape.
"Regardless of whether or not this N.F.L. lockout scenario unfolds, we will put an exciting product on the field featuring top-quality players. Last season our games were illuminated by the likes of Dominic Rhodes, Daunte Culpepper and Jeff Garcia and we will be stocked with similarly high-profile and talented players again when the 2011 season kicks off,” Huyghue said. "Our regular season games will be more competitive and meaningful than NFL preseason games played at the same time as the start of the 2011 UFL season in August."
And it could mean that more players like a Culpepper or Rhodes will go to the UFL with the hope to transition from playing in Hartford and Omaha to places that play on Sundays. Over the past two years, 29 UFL players have moved to the NFL, with 23 having made the job last year alone. The Jets have tapped the UFL by adding players such as Emmanuel Cook and Isaiah Trufant to their secondary; the Giants brought in wide receiver Michael Clayton last fall.
And that might just be enough incentive for some players to give a serious look at both leagues if the NFL season comes down to a lockout this week.