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Betts uncertainty a focus as B.C. Lions approach free agency

Defensive player of the year remains unsigned as free agency opens Sunday

The B.C. Lions have signed several returning players, but as CFL free agency looms, there’s one name that remains conspicuously absent from that list: Mathieu Betts.

Betts, 28, had a career-year in 2023 recording a CFL-high 18 sacks, which was also the most ever by a Canadian.

The six-foot-three 250-pound defensive lineman was named the league’s defensive player of the year and also recorded a career-best 44 tackles (three for a loss), three fumbles and a blocked punt.

But the breakout season came with a downside as negotiations for a new contract between the player and the team have proven to be challenging

“We’re still in the process. It all has to fit, it has to fit for him, it has to fit for us,” said B.C. Lions co-general manager and director of football operations Neil McEvoy. “Financially, there are dominoes. You can get the deal done today but then the dominoes would be almost too catastrophic for us to deal with it. We’re working with it.”

McEvoy said he believes Betts is interested in remaining a B.C. Lion for the foreseeable future.

Betts had a base salary of a reported $160,000 when he signed in B.C. two years ago — after a sack-less season with the Edmonton Elks — with the Lions betting on the Montreal native finding his form.

“There is no point of no return. It’s fluid, it’s ongoing,” McEvoy said about a potential deadline for negotiations with Betts.

“We will spend those resources with Betts and everyone else. In the salary cap world, you’re not spending to the minimum, you’re spending to the max.”

McEvoy acknowledged the risk that the Lions could miss out on potential replacements if negotiations with the lineman go down to the wire.

But he added that he doesn’t believe his team will be very active in the free-agent market, preferring to lock up their core talent first.

Head coach and co-general manager Rick Campbell agreed with that approach, adding that his view is to focus on the players on the team first — many of whom signed two-year contracts.

“We want to sign all our guys back. That’s our attitude all the way to the end,” said Campbell.

He said both Betts and the team are looking to make a deal that works.

“We’re working away at it, it’s not for a lack of effort. There’s big names in this league and Mathieu would be one of those,” Campbell said.

B.C. has faced some high-profile departures this off-season, with the most prominent being receiver Dominique Rhymes heading to Ottawa to join the Redblacks,

In turn, Alexander Hollins signed a new contract after a nine-touchdown, 1,173 receiving yard season as did Jevon Cottoy who signed a three-year deal.

“He was a young guy not making as much money, now he’s making more money,” said Campbell about the decision to re-sign Hollins and let Rhymes go.

The Lions have also re-signed linebacker Josh Woods to a two-year deal while Tibo Debaillie has signed a one-year extension.

Woods had 54 total tackles (45 defence, nine special teams), a pair of interceptions and one defensive touchdown while suiting up in all 18 regular season games for the first time in his career.

Backup quarterback Dane Evans also announced his retirement, with both Campbell and McEvoy saying they’re still searching for someone to backup starter Vernon Adams Jr. .

McEvoy acknowledged he had spoken with former Lions quarterback, and current New England Patriots player, Nathan Rourke, but emphasized that the conversations were purely personal and not about gauging any potential interest in a return.

Former Lions like Rourke and Cameron Wake, who enjoyed a stellar 11-year career in the NFL before retiring in 2019, help the league and team sell itself to American players, McEvoy said.

“If you go back to a bunch of our players down there, Cameron Wake was our biggest proponent in talking about the Canadian Football League. Nathan is too. When he talks about his time up here, he has nothing but great things to say about this league and everything else,” McEvoy said.

CFL free-agency window opens Sunday at noon ET.

READ ALSO: B.C. Lion Betts named CFL’s top defensive player after record-breaking year