Lefko on CFL: Argos love NFL first-round picks

From left: David Boston, Mike Williams and Ricky Williams were all NFL first-round picks that at one point in their careers signed with the Toronto Argonauts. (AP photos)

Somewhere in the heavens the late Greg Mohns is smiling with the Cheshire cat grin he often displayed after signing a former first-round National Football League player to a Canadian Football League contract.

It was announced on Thursday that the Toronto Argonauts have signed wide receiver Mike Williams, drafted 10th overall by the Detroit Lions in 2005, a move straight out of Mohns’ player personnel handbook. Moreover, it’s the type of thing the Argos have done historically more than any other CFL team to grab attention, feeling it will sell tickets.

Mohns, who worked for the Argos on two different occasions and won a Grey Cup each time, signed former NFL first-round players such as David Boston, Johnny Mitchell, R. Jay Soward and Ricky Williams to contracts with Toronto.

He had always been of the belief that it only costs a team the price of a plane ticket to bring a player to training camp, essentially nothing ventured nothing gained. Mohns always liked to see the three letters NFL beside a player’s name, knowing he had prior pro football experience, more than someone straight out of college.

So that’s why the Argos’ signing of Williams in intriguing, combined with the fact the team is the defending Grey Cup champion and training camps for the 2013 season begin next week.

Argos general manager Jim Barker, who has long been ingrained in CFL/Argos culture, is not necessarily one to be moved by the signing of a former NFL player or to primp like a peacock. In fact, the Argos’ media release on the signing of Williams did not even include a comment by Barker, who is usually quite affable and generous with his comments.

When asked by sportset.ca about the signing, in particular how it fit in with former high-profile NFL players inked by the Argos, Barker said: “If you look at our team, that’s not what we’re about.”

Barker said Williams attended an off-season tryout camp the team had in Florida. He is listed at 6-foot-5, 241 pounds, which isn’t exactly the prototypical build for a CFL receiver, inside or out. He’s built more like an NFL tight end. The height can clearly be an advantage for a receiver, but surely Williams will be slimmer because carrying that kind of weight — in the NFL or CFL — is simply too much bulk for a player whose primary responsibility is running routes and catching passes, not necessarily blocking.

If Williams can somehow find some of the form that once had the NFL drooling over his talent, it’s a good addition. Consider the fact that the Argos’ top receiver, Chad Owens, is all of 5-foot-8, 180 pounds and came to the CFL in 2009 with Montreal with absolutely no fanfare. Last year he was voted the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player because of his all-around ability. Owens is proof size doesn’t matter. It’s all about desire.

And that is the most important asset Williams will need when he joins the Argos. In other words, does he really, truly want to play in the CFL? Once he discovers just how dramatically different the CFL is from the NFL, reality will hit him like a bone-jarring tackle.

It could come playing in the rookie training camp that precedes the full-team training camp, which will definitely be humbling. He will either mentally and/or physically check out or will move past that and decide it is football, plain and simple.

This is assuming he reports, passes the physical and does not suddenly come up lame.

Some former NFL first-round players have embraced the CFL, particularly when they find they only have to spend half as much time practicing on a daily basis and the pace is considerably more leisurely. The great Doug Flutie has often said he had more fun playing in the CFL than in the NFL.

In some cases, this is the last stop for former NFL player. For some, it just might be their ticket back or becomes a stop that becomes satisfying and with no need to consider the NFL — Canadian Football Hall of Famer Damon Allen being a great example of that.

It is always intriguing when a high-profile NFL player, particularly a former first-rounder, comes to the CFL. They might be fortunate to get a contract that pays close to $100,000 a year. These are guys whose NFL rookie signing bonuses can range in the vicinity of $5 million to $8 million.

The CFL salary cap this year is $4.4 million and the top-paid players are earning between $400,000-$500,000 a season. This is not a league in which to get rich, certainly not for former NFL players.

Signing with the CFL following those great paydays in the NFL is like getting the equivalent of pogey — and that’s if the players last long enough to make it to the regular season and start collecting a cheque. It is not about the money and sometimes copping an attitude will ensure a quick return back to the U.S.

In his five-year NFL career playing for the Lions, the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks, Williams caught a grand total of 127 passes for 1,526 yards and five touchdowns, which are horribly unproductive stats for a first-round pick. An elite NFL receiver may put up those kinds of numbers in a single season. Williams played in only 56 games in his NFL career and did the bulk of his best work in 2010, playing 14 games for the Seahawks and catching 65 passes for 751 yards and had two TDs. He was injury prone and dropped too many passes.

The Argos don’t need Mike Williams as much he needs them. What he once was and what he is now is like a penny stock that traded for a double- or triple-digit amount. He made a return to the NFL in 2010 after two years out of the game and did well enough to receive a three-year contract extension, but he was cut after only one year.

The Argos have bought low. It is potentially good value because it didn’t cost much.

Right now it only costs a plane ticket.


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