Grey Cup MVP Kory Sheets may have played his last game for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Sportsnet's Arash Madani reported Tuesday that Sheets, a pending free agent, is looking at NFL options and has a workout set up with the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts in particular might represent an intriguing opportunity for Sheets, as general manager Ryan Grigson is quite familiar with the talent in the CFL; one of his first moves as Colts' GM in 2012 was to nab Saskatchewan linebacker Jerrell Freeman, a CFL star who's since become one of the NFL's best linebackers, recording 145 tackles last year (fifth-highest in the league). However, given that Sheets' CFL contract runs until February 15, there will be plenty of time for other NFL teams to take a look at him too, and if those opportunities don't work out, there may be plenty of other CFL teams interested as well. What are the chances Sheets winds up in a Roughriders' uniform again?
If Sheets gets a NFL offer that seems to provide him with a real shot to make the team, it would seem well worth it for him from a financial standpoint. Madani writes that Sheets only made a $62,000 base salary with the Riders last season (bumped to $70,000 with bonuses), which is less than the $102,000 a NFL practice roster player would make for a full season and substantially less than the minimum of $405,000 for players on a NFL active roster. Sheets had NFL stints before with the 49ers, Dolphins and Panthers, though so he might make even more than that given his service time. While a first contract for a player from the CFL likely isn't going to be too much above the minimum, even that's a big jump up from CFL salaries, and performing well in the NFL can lead to great financial rewards down the road: just ask former CFLer Cameron Wake, who's turned into an NFL Pro Bowler and signed a four-year, $49-million extension in 2012. There are also plenty of other benefits from playing under the NFL's bright lights, including the higher-profile game and being closer to family and friends. Sheets is from Connecticut, but went to school at Purdue (in West Lafayette, Indiana), so playing in Indianapolis in particular might be attractive to him.
With all that said, though, what Sheets will have to debate is if the NFL is going to give him a real opportunity. He's been through the league before and never really got much of a shot thanks to depth charts and injuries, and there's always a possibility that will happen again. Moreover, running backs have their age considered closely, something that always seems to come up on both sides of the border, and Sheets will be 29 in March. That's not quite the dreaded 30, but it's not far from it, and that may lead NFL teams to give him less of a shot than some younger undrafted free agent. The NFL's 2012 decision to increase offseason rosters to 90 players also may factor in here; there are more players than ever in NFL camps, making it much harder to earn a spot. Teams carry only a 53-man active roster and an eight-man practice squad, so almost one of every three camp invitees won't be sticking around for the season. Going from the CFL to the NFL is a tough jump, and while some stars like Wake, Freeman and Seattle's Brandon Browner have done it well, others like Andy Fantuz, Solomon Elimimian and Emmanuel Arceneaux found it tougher and wound up back in Canadian football.
If Sheets elects to stay north of the border, that doesn't mean he'll be in Saskatchewan either. There should be plenty of league-wide interest in a back with Sheets' ability not only to consistently pick up tough yardage, but also to carry the ball an awful lot. He was crucial to the Roughriders' Grey Cup win this year, and he could boost a lot of teams' ground games. Still, there's a lot for him to like in Saskatchewan, including fans willing to give him a Saskatoon-Regina ride. Before the Grey Cup, he told me "I'm thinking about being here for a very long time." Sheets shouldn't be vilified if that doesn't come to pass, as the lure of the NFL is awfully hard to resist (especially given the salary discrepancies), but it also might not be completely unexpected to see him play further games in a Roughriders' uniform.