For the Canadian Football League, there have always been concerns about losing talent to American leagues. That’s particularly true with the NFL, a league where plenty of both Canadian (“national” in current CFL roster language) and American CFL players receive tryouts each year, but it’s also true for alternative spring leagues like the AAF, the 2020 XFL, and now the current USFL and current XFL. And one of the biggest shifts from the CFL to a non-NFL U.S. league to date happened Wednesday, with Toronto Argonauts’ quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson (who helped lead them to the Grey Cup last year) announcing on his Instagram Stories page that he was joining the USFL’s New Orleans Breakers. Here are screenshots of that (click to expand):
San Francisco native Bethel-Thompson, 34, went to Balboa High School there, then started his college career with UCLA. He redshirted for the Bruins in 2006, then was part of their quarterback rotation in 2007, appearing in five games (including the Las Vegas Bowl, where he started). But he transferred to Sacramento State before the 2008 season, and spent three years playing there for the Hornets.
Bethel-Thompson then started his professional career with the United Football League’s Sacramento Mountain Lions in 2011. He then had a variety of NFL cups of coffee with the Miami Dolphins (twice), Minnesota Vikings (twice), San Francisco 49ers (three times), New England Patriots, and Philadelphia Eagles from 2011-2016, mostly serving as an offseason or practice squad member only, but getting brief active roster spots with the Vikings and 49ers.
In 2016, Bethel-Thompson then headed to the CFL on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ practice roster. He then had a stint in the Spring League (now the USFL) in early 2017. After a tryout for the New York Jets, he then signed with the Argonauts, where he largely backed up veteran star (and fellow Sacramento State alum) Ricky Ray in the Argos’ championship season that year. He then battled with James Franklin for the Argos’ starting job for the next two seasons, then returned to the Spring League in the fall of 2020 after the CFL season that year was canceled due to COVID-19.
Bethel-Thompson came back to the CFL in 2021 with the Argos. There, he battled with and eventually beat out Nick Arbuckle for the starting job. He then then really shone in 2022, leading the league with 4,731 passing yards (on 387 completions on 579 attempts, a 66.8 percent completion rate, while posting 23 touchdowns against 15 interceptions). In the Grey Cup itself, though, he did throw for 208 yards in the Argos’ 24-23 win over the Blue Bombers, but only completed 53 percent of his passes, and left thanks to a dislocated thumb in the fourth quarter. That meant that Chad Kelly closed out the game for Toronto.
Still, if Bethel-Thompson had opted to stay in the CFL, he seemed like a pretty clear choice as the Argos’ starter going forward, and looked likely to be one of the league’s top quarterbacks in 2023. And that’s part of what has some CFL figures even more concerned than usual about talent drain to alternative American leagues following this move.
While the league has often seen a notable exodus of players at other positions for alternative U.S. leagues, it’s been rare to see quarterbacks leave for anything but NFL opportunities, as the CFL pay for quarterbacks is quite good. Bethel-Thompson made a reported $400,000 Canadian “hard money” (essentially guaranteed money, not including bonuses, and around $295,000 U.S.) last year, sixth in the league, with Winnipeg’s Zach Collaros at the top with a $550,000 Canadian (around $406,000 U.S.) hard money number. The USFL pays all players equally at a rate of $5,300 a week (up from $4,500 last year), plus $400 a week for housing, with additional performance bonuses and 401k contributions, but that’s still likely well under $100,000 U.S. all in all (last year’s $4,500 per week salaries produced an estimated total of $45,000 to $75,000 for full-season players). So if a perceived greater NFL opportunity (and there certainly is one in general, with the USFL providing both more U.S. exposure and also an earlier season that ends in time to sign with a NFL team) was the only factor here, it would certainly be quite problematic for the CFL that even offering around triple the money (and likely more, after Bethel-Thompson’s great 2022 season) wasn’t enough to keep someone in the league.
There are other factors with Bethel-Thompson, though. As he notes, he wants to spend more time with his family. And his family has strong U.S. ties, with his wife Chinaka Hodge based in California and serving as head writer for upcoming Disney+ series Ironheart. The shorter USFL season (April 15-July 2 this year) and closer proximity to family even in-season should help Bethel-Thompson on that front.
And while there are questions about just how much of a NFL opportunity Bethel-Thompson may get get (he’ll be 35 in July, and many want younger quarterbacks than that), his long list of past NFL cups of coffee mean he has a lot of connections to current coaches around the league. A strong USFL season could see him getting at least training camp or post-injury looks as a depth QB this summer and fall, perhaps especially with a coach he has some history with. But his situation is a little different than the average CFL quarterback, and his move doesn’t mean everyone is about to abandon that league. It is certainly worth some concern from the CFL side, though, and it will be interesting to see how Bethel-Thompson does in the USFL and perhaps beyond.
[3 Down Nation; photo of Bethel-Thompson with the Argos in 2021 from David Kirouac/USA Today Sports]