Why one CFL team owns rights to Manziel, Kaepernick and RG III

Hamilton general manager Eric Tillman said Johnny Manziel could be "one of the most exciting players in the Canadian Football League since Doug Flutie." Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images

In these carefree spring days, the dominant NFL story revolves around a trio of well-known quarterbacks who appear unwanted and unloved. And so we're left to consider this previously reported development: One team in the Canadian Football League has hoarded the rights to all of them.

By CFL rules, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats would have the first shot at signing Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and/or Johnny Manziel if any of them decide to play in Canada. The Tiger-Cats have placed all three on their "negotiation list," the CFL's method for allocating international players, and Manziel has even been used as part of a fledging marketing campaign.

There are no indications that any of the trio is ready to make the jump to a league in which the minimum salary is about $40,000. Remember, Vince Young signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders -- reportedly for about $89,000 annually -- only after spending five years away from the NFL. And the Tiger-Cats already have one of the CFL's most established starting quarterbacks in Zach Collaros, a former University of Cincinnati star who turns 29 this summer.

But the organization recently began publicizing some of the names on what is ordinarily a confidential list, highlighting Manziel specifically in a video released to VIP fans. And Young's migration reminded the football world that careers don't have to end when NFL teams stop calling. "We think Zach is the most dynamic quarterback in our league," Tiger-Cats CEO Scott Mitchell said. "He's aware of how important he is to us, but at quarterback, you can never have enough. If Johnny Manziel ever felt that the CFL was an option, I think we all understand he would have great value and what kind of player he could be in our league."

Let's take a moment to understand the "neg list," in league parlance.

  • Each of the CFL's nine teams can reserve the exclusive rights for up to 45 international players.

  • Claims are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

  • There is no time limit on how long a team can hold a player's rights.

  • Quarterbacks are usually the top targets. The Tiger-Cats have seven on their neg list.

  • The list traditionally is kept secret, presumably to limit agents' ability to manipulate the process.

  • Once a player on a team's neg list expresses interest, that team has 10 days to sign him.

  • It is possible for a team to trade the rights to a neg list player.

The Tiger-Cats shook up tradition this spring by releasing a series of videos that highlighted some of the prominent players they have reserved the rights to. There is no rule against it, and Mitchell envisioned an easy opportunity to engage fans. To date, neither Kaepernick nor Griffin has been among the announcements, but a source said in April that both are on Hamilton's neg list.

"We see it as a way to spur fan dialogue both in Canada and in the United States," Mitchell said. "To us, it is just a matter of being transparent."

CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge, who is stepping down from his post in June, was criticized last summer for commenting on the possibility of Manziel playing in the CFL. But there is no doubting Manziel's marketing allure, and general manager Eric Tillman's effusive praise in the video was notable.

"Traditionally, that's been one of those closely guarded secrets by the clubs," said Glen Johnson, the CFL's vice president of football. "But fans are very interested and Hamilton has taken a very unique approach."

Kaepernick and Griffin surfaced this week as possible backups for the Seattle Seahawks, but Manziel's future is murkier. He said in January that he was sober after spending the 2016 season away from football and seemed focused on a second chance in the NFL.

Nevertheless, he wound up on Hamilton's neg list in part because Tillman was once a CFL roommate with longtime college and NFL assistant Tom Rossley, who helped recruit Manziel to Texas A&M. During a visit last summer, I found CFL observers with mixed views on Manziel's aptitude for the CFL game, which has become dominated by pocket passers. In the video, however, Tillman said he thought Manziel would be "one of the most exciting players in the Canadian Football League since Doug Flutie."

Tillman added: "It's one we're monitoring. We have no idea what the time frame is. But at the end of the day, you want to accumulate the rights to as many good football players on the neg list, and we think Johnny is exceptional."

The odds tell us that Manziel, Kaepernick and Griffin won't play a down in the CFL. If they do, it will have to be through Hamilton, a city situated about an hour west of Toronto. And that's no longer a secret.