Lefko on Tiger-Cats: Free Chris Williams

Chris Williams.

Free Chris Williams.

That’s what Williams, one of the most dynamic young players in the Canadian Football League, is hoping will happen following an arbitration hearing on Thursday to determine whether or not he is obligated to finish the final year of his contract with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Williams, who is only 25, has played two years for the Cats and has become one of the CFL’s top all-purpose stars, winning the Rookie of the Year Award in 2011 and Special Teams Player of the Year Award last year. He is potentially a marketable commodity in the NFL. He had tryouts with two teams after graduating from New Mexico State in 2009, first with Miami and then Cleveland, but hadn’t done enough to merit a serious look.

His two years in the CFL have raised his value, which is why he wants out of his contract now rather than wait a year and risk potential injury or a decline in his value. He could decide to sit out the year, but his stock wouldn’t be as significant as it is now.

Overall, he has caught 153 passes for 2,362 yards. Almost one-tenth of his catches have resulted in touchdowns, which is a staggering statistic.

But he has shown his versatility in the return game, in particular in punts, fielding a total of 90 for 1,198 yards, averaging 13.3. Five of his returns have been touchdowns. In his rookie season, he returned one kickoff for a touchdown. In total, he has touched the ball 255 times and has recorded 23 touchdowns, impressive indeed.

He set a record last year by totaling six return touchdowns in a single season, and also established a mar with touchdown returns in three consecutive games.

He is 5-foot-9 and weighs 155 pounds, but the NFL has embraced players of this small stature because they can be used as specialists.

His case is interesting because potentially it could have major ramifications for other CFL players who have signed two-plus-one deals. CFL teams are required to offer players a minimum one-year deal that includes the option year, although agreements can be made to void the option year if both sides agree to it. At that point, the player is released and put on waivers and eligible to be claimed by another CFL team. But the word is usually out that the player has no desire to play anymore in the CFL or is headed to the NFL.

Williams will claim at the arbitration hearing that he signed his contract using an American agent without the Tiger-Cats informing him that the deal is actually for three years instead of two and violated the agreement between the CFL and its Players’ Association. A source tells Sportsnet the Cats offered Williams two deals, one for a year plus and option year, and another for a two plus one, and have a record of this. Williams opted for the second one, whether or not he truly understood the option-year clause. He would not be the first.

It is believed Williams will make the claim he did the deal with an agent who was not certified with the CFLPA, which potentially could be a loophole. Williams has severed ties with that agent and aligned himself with a Canadian representative, Dan Vertlieb, who has a growing stable of CFL clients. The Ticats have been working with Vertlieb to extend Williams’ deal in length and value. He is scheduled to make slightly more than $60,000 this year. Potentially, he could double that amount and possibly even triple it if using the contract of the Toronto Argonauts’ all-purpose player Chad Owens as an example. Owens, voted last year’s CFL Most Outstanding Player, is making between $150,000-$200,000 a year.

Williams had little value when he came to the CFL, but so much has changed in two years. He is a classic example of why players who have either been overlooked by the NFL can come to the CFL and established their value and worth, but could be caught in contractual issues if they don’t fully understand the rules or have not been counseled or advised properly by their representatives.

The CFL is one of the only leagues that have an option-year, even though it is archaic and could be eliminated in collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the CFLPA. The current CBA ends after this season and it will be interesting to see if the option year remains. Some will say it has outlived its usefulness and gives teams the upper hand, while others will say it eliminates players coming and going and making it difficult to establish stars and keep them in the league.

There was a time when players heading into their option year could exercise a window of opportunity to try out with an NFL team. It stemmed from an agreement between the CFL and NFL dating to 1997 when the NFL loaned the CFL $3 million U.S., which at the time worked out to $4 million Canadian. The CFL desperately needed an infusion of cash and it negotiated several things that allowed the NFL to both market itself in Canada and also sign CFL players under contract.

The overall agreement worked well for both leagues. While the CFL lost some of its stars, it also became a selling point for agents pushing their American clients to play in Canada and get some film of themselves to show to NFL teams.

It took awhile for the CFL to pay off the loan and a couple years ago it ended its agreement with the NFL, albeit grandfathering in the players who had signed deals prior to the closure. It ended too soon for Williams, although he had little on his resume at the time.

If Williams is allowed out of his contract, it may allow other players to gain their immediate freedom, which makes this case interesting. Williams has openly expressed his unhappiness with the situation and did not attend the team’s recent off-season training camp. The Cats overhauled their football operations in the off-season and new general manager/head coach Kent Austin has reached out to Williams, but the two are at a standstill. The Cats can ill afford to lose Williams, but if he is forced to return how will that affect him? If he sulks and plays poorly, his value will depreciate. If he continues to play at the level of the last two years, Williams will still have interest from the NFL.

He just wants to run with the ball in the NFL now, rather than a year from now.

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