Even before he strolled across the stage to pick up his shiny new trophy, Mathieu Betts was going to get the bag.
His trophy for Most Outstanding Defensive Player seemed almost inevitable after the Montreal native’s breakout season: 18 sacks, a Canadian record, and a career-high 44 sacks as part of an often dominant defence that saw the B.C. Lions make the Western final.
An every-down-impact defensive lineman with a Canadian passport is worth every bit of his 250 pounds in … well, maybe not gold, since this is the CFL, but silver at the very least. He had a base salary for a reported $160,000 when he signed in B.C. two years ago — coming off a sack-less season in Edmonton — and hit every performance bonus in his contract to reach the $189,000 ceiling this season.
Now with a defensive player trophy in it, that bag is going to get a lot heavier for the pending free agent next year.
Every single team in the nine-team league will be opening up their chequebooks to try to woo the ratio-busting, quarterback sacking defensive end. His hometown Alouettes alone would happily take out a second mortgage to sign a personable, French-speaking star — even if they made it to this weekend’s Grey Cup without him this year.
The Lions are well aware they’re going to have to pony up for his services, but like yanking too quick on an idiot mitten, pulling too hard in one direction can smack yourself in the face. There’s some other notable defensive players who are pending free agents, including linebackers Josh Woods and Ben Hladik, and defensive end Sione Teuhema. Even the Belgian Express, D-lineman Tibo Debaillie, provides worth as a global designee.
There’s not a ton of cash to spread around, but Lions co-general manager and director of operations Neil McEvoy isn’t in a rush to do the math just yet. The Leos are still waiting to exhale after their anguishing loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last weekend, and are using Cup week to take a breath, relax and refocus.
“We’ve got to sit back and take a breath,” he said. “I’m telling our guys that now; let’s not make any rash decisions. Let’s sit back, take a breath, enjoy the Grey Cup and then start working.
“I would like to keep as many guys as I can. I still think this is a solid team with a good core of players. But in today’s free agent world … there’s going to be change. That’s just the reality of it. But I’m going to try to keep as many guys as I can.”
Betts knows the market will dictate his home next year. But there are some things money can’t buy.
Reason No. 1: Relationships
“I love this team. I’m grateful to be part of the Lions and having played with amazing teammates, great organization,” Betts said this week. “I would like to (return) for sure … I like being here. I enjoyed my past two seasons here.
“Obviously my contract is up, and haven’t talked to anybody about anything, but of course they know I like it here and we have a connection. I had a good time this year with all the guys; Woody (Baron), (David) Menard, Sione, (Josh) Banks. We had a good group. I was happy to share it with these guys.”
Reason No. 2: Relating his experiences
Betts didn’t know much about the team nor the organization when he signed in B.C. as a free agent in 2021, but the money and the Lions’ project were too good to turn down. Now he’s a convert, and wants to convert his peers across the league too.
The 6-3, 250-pounder had two sacks in his six-game rookie season in Edmonton, coming off two Vanier Cup-winning years at Laval. His next two seasons: 12 tackles, zero sacks.
It took coming to B.C. to spark the high-motor Betts’ resurgence; seven sacks in 2022 before his 18 in 2023.
“I have been talking to a lot of guys, trying to bring in guys or whatever,” he said. “They know we have a good place, we have a good organization, they know Rick (Campbell) is good to his players. Obviously they respect us as a football team, doing what we do on the field. And Vancouver is one of the really nice cities in Canada. There’s a lot of good things to be part of here.
“I can’t speak for anybody from free agency. I myself two years ago decided to join this project and without really knowing anything about it. I was overhearing good things about the players, the coaches … I did not know it for myself. Now I know that it’s a good place; it’s a place that I love for sure.”
Bonus reason: the non-football relationship
Betts and his fiancee, Camille Dalcourt, are due to tie the knot in January. He says she loves the city and the province.
“She loves flying in for the games and discovering some of the great spots around this province. We went to the Okanagan during one bye week and both loved it there,” Betts told bclions.com’s Matt Baker.
Reason No. 3: Unfinished business
In both of Betts’s seasons in B.C., they’ve lost to Winnipeg in the West final. This year stung more than last, as they felt they were ready as a unit to take the next step.
Well, in 2024, the Lions will host the Cup, and they want to play in it too.
And Betts certainly sounds like he wants to be there in orange and black.
“We keep building. I think you learn and you get better. So I think that’s what we’ve got to do. It’s the only solution for us now,” he said. “We know where we want to be. We know the result we want. That’s to be in that Grey Cup game next year.”
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