Now that Michael Sam has signed to play with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League there are three names he needs to keep in mind — Cameron Wake, Jerrell Freeman and Henoc Muamba. All three of these defensive players got their start in the CFL and are now playing for the NFL.
The CFL offers Sam, a pass rushing defensive end, the chance to shine since it has some key differences with the NFL:

  • The field is 65 yards wide vs. 53.5 in the NFL. Sam does not have great overall speed, but he does have good pass rusher speed and the wider field takes advantage of that. "He is what everybody would like to have coming off that edge," Montreal Alouettes General Manager Jim Popp told the Toronto Sun.
  • The CFL uses three downs to gain 10 yards, not four downs. This means a more wide-open game with more passing and rushing the passer is what Sam does best. His relative lack of bulk is less of a hindrance than in the NFL, where power running is more of a factor.
  • Each side in the CFL (offense and defense) plays with 12 players, not 11. This obviously gives the defense one more spot in which to insert Sam.

The best model for Sam is Cameron Wake, a star with the Miami Dolphins and similar in size to Sam (6-3, 258 for Wake and 6-1, 260 for Sam) . Drafted out of Penn State in 2005, Wake was cut by the Giants and out of football until 2007 when he joined the British Columbia Lions of the CFL. He blossomed there and led the league in sacks in both 2007 and 2008. His production caught the attention of NFL teams and Wake signed with the Dolphins in 2009, where he has become an All-Pro and defensive mainstay.

Wake has never forgotten his CFL roots and misses the camaraderie he experienced there. What he doesn't miss are the much smaller salaries and inferior training conditions. The average CFL player makes $80,000 a year vs. $1.4 million in the NFL. The minimum CFL salary is $51,000 vs. $400,000 in the NFL. It was not revealed what Sam will be earning in Montreal but it will be nowhere near what he would make on an NFL roster.

The CFL may lack in money but it does give Sam the chance to show what he can do on a football field. More and more NFL players have gone the CFL route and if Sam sparkles he will be noticed. If he puts up numbers anywhere near what Wake did with the B.C. Lions, he will get another shot at an NFL job.

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