01/07/2016 17:57 EST | Updated 01/07/2017 00:12 EST

Pending Argonauts free agents garnering NFL interest, GM Barker says

TORONTO — Jim Barker remains unsure if the Toronto Argonauts will have their quarterback tandem back in 2016.

Trevor Harris, who started Toronto's first 16 regular-season games while Ricky Ray recovered from off-season shoulder surgery, is scheduled to become a free agent Feb. 9. While Barker would like Harris to return, he said the former Edinboro University star has garnered attention south of the border.

"He's 29 and if he has any inclination about going to the NFL, this is his chance," Barker said via telephone from Arizona on Thursday. "So he's doing that (gauging NFL interest) like all the other (potential) free agents.

"At this point, that's where it's at."

Harris isn't alone. Barker said defensive linemen Cleyon Laing, Euclid Cummings and Tristan Okpalaugo as well as kicker Swayze Waters — also pending free agents —have caught the eye of NFL clubs as well.

But that doesn't mean Barker is waiting for the players to decide their future. He re-signed Ray on Dec. 4, more than two months before the veteran quarterback was eligible for free agency. 

"I care about making our team as good as it can be when we hit the field at BMO next year," he said. "If a (player) comes along who I feel can help us win the Grey Cup I'm going to sign him, that's just the way it goes. These free agents understand I don't wait.

"We're in this thing right now where we're trying to win a Grey Cup and they're trying to do what's best for their careers. God bless them . . . but I can't wait."

Especially with 24 players slated to become free agents after re-signing Ray, defensive end Ricky Foley and linebacker Thomas Miles. Barker expects to come to terms with some of his pending free agents before Feb. 9 but figures others want to hit the open market to see what it can bear.

"We have a lot of them (free agents), every team does," Barker said. "And this is a year I think in talking to other GMs that a lot of them are going to go to free agency . . . The cap is higher but that doesn't necessarily mean salaries are going up incrementally."

The CFL salary cap rose from $4.4 million to $5 million in 2015 after the league and its players agreed to a new five-year collective bargaining agreement. The cap increases to $5.05 million this year but over 200 players are scheduled to hit the free-agent market.

Making matters worse is the differing stances players and management take in contract talks. Players are usually looking for a raise based upon past production while GMs must figure out how much the player has left and what that's worth.

That can become even more difficult to project with older players.

Many veterans are proven performers with solid bodies of work and are traditionally the ones most popular with fans. But the older a player is, the most susceptible he is to injury and sometimes it takes the player longer to recover and return to his team after being hurt.

"Everyone wants a raise, nobody is interested in pay cuts as they should or they shouldn't be here," Barker said. "You have values you place, with your own players especially.

"When you offer them a contract, you don't want them to take it personally but you have to look at their value right now. Placing dollar values on players is the most difficult job that we have. Unfortunately things change all the time."

Owens, centre Jeff Keeping, linebacker Cory Greenwood and running backs Curtis Steele and Brandon Whitaker are among Toronto's pending free agents. Barker said negotiations continue with all five players and presently he's open to having both Steele and Whitaker back in 2016.

Whitaker joined Toronto after being released by Montreal, running for a team-high 636 yards while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Steele was limited to just six games, running for 92 yards while again contributing on special teams.

"We thought both (Whitaker and Steele) did a good job," Barker said. "They bring different things to the table.

"I'm not sure at this point (if Whitaker and Steel will return) but we're talking to both right now."

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press