Bidding war

Bombers Keith Stokes (l) is stopped by TiCats Renard Cox. (SUN/Brian Donogh)

Bombers Keith Stokes (l) is stopped by TiCats Renard Cox. (SUN/Brian Donogh)

PERRY LEFKO -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:43 AM ET

The Argos and Winnipeg Blue Bombers are involved in a bidding war for star returner Keith Stokes.

And a league source says Stokes may not return to Winnipeg, where he played the past two years.

The Argos have arguably the top returner in the league in Bashir Levingston. However, Stokes has proven his versatility as a receiver, catching a personal-best 58 passes for 832 yards last season. Three of his catches were for touchdowns. He had 79 punt returns for 862 yards and one touchdown, 47 kick returns for 1,022 yards and five returns off missed field goals for 185 yards. He also can play running back.

Levingston had 59 punt returns for 804 yards and one touchdown last season, 42 kickoff returns for 855 yards and seven returns off missed field goals for 240 yards and one touchdown.

Levingston has been lobbying publicly for added playing time after debuting for the Argos in the latter half of the 2002 as a return specialist and cornerback. But he has been frustrated in his attempts so far.

He is the league's top-paid pure return specialist, receiving about $130,000 in salary. He is scheduled to receive a bonus on March 1 and has been told by the team he has to take a pay cut.

BIG MONEY

The Bombers have tabled an offer to Stokes that includes a base of $100,000 with a chance to boost it to $120,000 in bonuses. He had a base of $80,000 last year.

Stokes said yesterday he planned to decide by today which offer he would accept.

"Me and my family are going to pray and I'm going to weigh the pros and cons and see what's the best fit for me," he said last night. "Money is a factor, of course, but if I'm not happy in that situation there's no sense in going. It really depends on my playing time. Obviously, if I just wanted to return kicks, I would have stayed in Winnipeg. I also want to be part of the offence, whether starting in the slot as the third or fourth receiver or coming in as the fifth receiver."

Bombers general manager Brendan Taman said last night he had a "gut feeling" Stokes would be returning to Winnipeg, "but I'm not convinced. I think it's 50-50. If he comes back, great, if he doesn't, he doesn't."

The Argos would not comment. Even if there is an agreement, teams aren't allowed to comment until the deal is registered with the league.

The Bombers already have prepared for the possibility of losing Stokes by signing Albert Johnson III, who was named the CFL's Outstanding Rookie in 2000. He led the league in combined yards that season with punt and kickoff returning and receiving. He has played off and on in the National Football League since, but has been hampered by knee injuries.


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