Its been 36 days since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ 2016 season ended, and Matt Nichols, the team’s Most Outstanding Player nominee who resurrected the blue & gold from a 1-4 start to an 11-7 record, is set to be a free agent in about two months.
Contract negotiations between Nichols’ agent and Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters were expected to be very tough, with the Bombers hesitant to repeat the past of Drew Willy’s egregious contract, and Nichols’ party looking to take advantage of a time where their client’s stock may never be higher.
Nichols’ agent set the tone to begin negotiations, demanding a steep salary of $450,000 annually, a figure that neither the agent nor the general manager likely believe will be agreed upon. While $450,000 is simply too much to invest in Nichols whether or not the team believes he’s an elite QB in the making, if it comes down to paying the veteran of 32 career starts around $400,000 (similarly to Willy), the Bombers must disregard any external quarterback options and do what it takes to retain the services of Nichols.
If Walters deems Nichols’ asking price simply too egregious, he has likely fall-back options in Darian Durant and James Franklin. Durant is a proven commodity with low value on the open market who’d settle for exponentially less and more incentives, while Franklin is a young passer at 25-years-old that’s done nothing but make the most of his few opportunities in two seasons as a backup in Edmonton. Despite the intriguing possibilities both of these two options present, the Bombers must turn their cheek from these options and offer all their attention (and cash) to re-signing Nichols.
The Bombers haven’t had an established, legitimate franchise quarterback since Kevin Glenn in 2008. Allowing Nichols, the club’s first QB in five years to lead them to the playoffs, to walk because they’re unwilling to reward him with starting quarterback money – whether we’re talking elite QB money or average QB money – is absolutely foolish.
Soon-to-be seven years removed from a Grey Cup berth, the Bombers are in no position to gamble at the quarterback position. There’s no guarantee that Durant or Franklin will be an upgrade, or that their lesser dollar value will be worth the potential play drop-off that may occur at the position. Although he was surrounded with little talent on a terrible Riders team, the 34-year-old Durant wasn’t very good last season and has had a terrible slew of injuries recently. Franklin, meanwhile, has just three career starts under his belt, and we’ve seen many times before in this league where young quarterbacks flop in a full-time role after a promising debut.
Nichols’ 2016 campaign proved that, at the very least, his floor is as a bottom-tier starting quarterback. Not a solid backup quarterback, but a starting quarterback that’ll win you games if you surround him with plenty of talent – this is likely his floor. Despite six years in the league, we’ve yet to witness where his ceiling might be. Considering the vast improvement in his play from 2015 to 2016, its clear that Nichols is still developing and improving at 29-years-old.
Nichols appeared to reach his max potential as a mediocre backup option in 2015, which marked his first season as an appointed starting quarterback after Mike Reilly suffered a torn ACL in week one. Nichols struggled mightily last season while sporting the green & gold, but he improved steadily after a mid-season trade to Winnipeg in exchange for a conditional late-round pick. He entered the 2016 season as Drew Willy’s backup, but resembled an entirely new quarterback when he was given the keys to the offense in week six.
The truth is that Nichols hasn’t even started two seasons worth of games in the CFL. Heading into this past season, he had just 19 career starts under his belt. Nichols’ recent upward trend suggests he still has room to grow as a passer at nearly 30-years-old. Although it’s unlikely he’ll always be surrounded with the amount of talent that was at his disposal in 2016, his break-out season, his growth behind solid pass-protection and a hard-nosed run-game should have him prepared to carry the reigns in the future.
Nichols has the majority of the leverage in this contract negotiation. Kyle Walters and the Blue Bombers organisation must realize that he’s their best option going forward and he must be payed close to his asking figure, whether or not they figure he’s currently worth the upper-echelon quarterback money.
After all, Nichols is realistically their best bet and their safest bet, with the potential to pleasantly surprise the club in the future.