Ejiro Kuale jawed with Saskatchewan fans last year; might he jaw with Toronto ones this year?It wouldn't be CFL free agency without some unexpected moves, and Monday's news that former Argonauts' linebacker/defensive end Ejiro Kuale is heading to Montreal would appear to qualify there. Kuale was a key contributor for Toronto during the Argonauts' 2012 run to the Grey Cup, and his offseason release seemed a likely prelude to his landing an NFL job. Now Kuale's decided to stay north of the border, but with a different team. He may be a key contributor for the Alouettes, but how this situation played out may add to the growing calls for the CFL to bring back contracts that include NFL option windows; releasing players so they can test NFL waters is far from ideal, and the Kuale deal may boost league-wide awareness of the problems with the current contract setup.
Of course, it's too simplistic to say that Kuale is in Montreal solely because of the CFL's current lack of NFL option windows. He was going to become a free agent in February anyway, and he wasn't necessarily a top priority for the Argos to bring back. Kuale had mostly played linebacker before this season and started the year as Toronto's backup middle linebacker, but then was shifted to a starting defensive end role the next week and eventually was a backup defensive end by the season's conclusion. That doesn't mean he can't play; Toronto's starting defensive line in the Grey Cup (Ricky Foley, Armond Armstead, Adriano Belli and Ronald Flemons) was quite impressive, so that's not an easy lineup to crack, and Kuale did well when rotated in. In fact, the defensive line was arguably the key to the Argonauts' victory. However, it's unclear just how highly Toronto valued Kuale (while none of the four Grey Cup starters seem likely to be back in Double Blue, that doesn't necessarily mean Kuale would have vaulted into a starting role) and just how eager he was to stay with a team where he wasn't starting by the end of the year. He may well have gone to Montreal in free agency even if the Argonauts hadn't released him.
Kuale's release and subsequent signing with another CFL team adds to contract concerns, though, as it illustrates the dilemma teams face with players who wish to try the NFL. The CFL's contracts expire in February, which makes it tough for players with expiring deals who want to head south of the border; they're done their season in November, but are still tied to their CFL team until February. With the old NFL option setup, this wasn't a problem; players in an option year could explore NFL opportunities, but if those didn't pay off, their current CFL team still held their rights. The latest CBA's elimination of that option setup means CFL teams have to officially release players who wish to try the NFL, and that means there's nothing tying them to their current club if the NFL doesn't pan out.
Again, it's far from clear that Toronto would have been able to retain Kuale even if they hadn't released him, but under the old setup, they at least would have had an exclusive CFL negotiating window with him until free agency started. Most cases where clubs have voluntary released players who wanted to try the NFL have ended either with the player signing an NFL deal (as Armstead did) or with him returning to his previous team. The Kuale situation turned out quite differently, and that outcome may have some CFL executives willing to reconsider the idea of option-year contract language.
Here's a video of some of Kuale's 2011 highlights: