NFL labor stalemate likely to have adverse affect on undrafted players
If this were a normal NFL draft in a normal offseason, the close of Saturday's seventh round would spark a flurry of phone calls, offers and contract agreements, as all 32 NFL teams scrambled to identify and secure the services of the next James Harrison, Kurt Warner or Wes Welker among the hundreds of undrafted and available collegiate free agents.
It's the type of negotiating chaos that has immediately followed the orderly proceedings of the draft for decades now, and every year the NFL acquires a considerable amount of its work force -- and some unsung stars-in-the-making -- in just that fashion.
But of course, the league's labor standoff has rendered this anything but a typical year. It means that after the pomp and circumstance of hearing Mr. Irrelevant's name called by Houston with the final selection, there will be no jockeying for collegiate free agents unless the league is ordered by the courts to resume pre-lockout rules as soon as this weekend. Of all the people affected by the NFL's offseason of turmoil, nobody's future is more in limbo than the hundreds of players who normally enter the league via the collegiate free-agent route, because without a collective bargained agreement, undrafted players are untouchable and can't be signed.
Teams shopping for this year's version of LeGarrette Blount, Chris Ivory or Sam Shields, all of whom were undrafted impact rookies in 2010, will simply have to wait for who knows how long? As will the prospects themselves, their nascent NFL careers held hostage by the labor stalemate.
"It's going to be tough on those 300 to 400 kids that aren't going to have a contract when the draft ends,'' said Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, whose club arguably made more use of rookie talent than any team in the league last season. "They usually have a contract and go to bed that night and say, 'Hey, I'm a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now they don't say that. It's going to be a different process at the end of the draft. A different feeling.
"And it's different for us. It used to be a frenzy. You get on the phone as soon as the draft's over and you try and recruit guys, make offers, try to do a contract. It was a four- or five-hour madhouse for every organization, and to not have that is going to be bizarre for [us and] 31 other teams, their general managers, front office employees and coaches.''
Last year, more than 480 undrafted players reportedly were either signed by NFL teams or brought in for a post-draft tryout, compared to the 255 prospects who heard their name called in the seven rounds of the 2010 draft. That means roughly two-thirds of the league's incoming talent pool will not know its fate or where its NFL opportunity might lie until the labor situation is settled. And the longer that limbo extends, the greater the decreased chances of those rookies overcoming the effects of lost time and making a first-year impact. Undrafted prospects in 2011 might wind up being one of the more obvious casualties of this year's labor battle.
"I think it's fair to say that the longer this goes without getting done, the more of an uphill battle it will be for the undrafted and late-round guys, due to the missed meetings and the missed reps,'' said agent Bruce Tollner, whose clients include Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "We had two examples [of undrafted players] last year in [safety] Barry Church with Dallas and [receiver] Blair White with the Colts, and both ended up having a very productive season for their teams.
"May and June are a serious evaluation time for coaches, and it's just very valuable for rookies, in particular, to get in those meetings and those reps and build a base of knowledge for training camp. I know it helped Blair and Barry last year be prepared to make the most of it when they did get the opportunity to play and contribute.''
More than one league executive speculates that without the traditional collegiate free-agent signing spree to conclude draft weekend, trade activity in the sixth and seventh rounds on Saturday could spike, as teams opt to acquire more picks this year to lock up the prospects who normally would have been their priority free-agent objectives. That this year's draft might come before veteran free agency only heightens the urgency that many teams feel to fill roster holes and let need drive their decision-making.
"It puts extra emphasis [on the draft], and it'll be more interesting to see how the trading works out this year, specifically when you're talking about sixth and seventh-rounders,'' Dominik said. "Because you know at the end of this year's draft there isn't going to be a college free agency, so your last pick is your last pick. You're done and you close shop. That's going to add a little bit more of an interesting dynamic of this year's draft class.''
One team's salary cap official I talked to said he's curious to see if the collegiate free-agent signing period is executed at its usual frenetic pace once it occurs at some future non-draft weekend. Will the new time frame change the dynamic of the free-agent market or will the same bidding war -- with some prized undrafted prospects getting offers from upwards of 15 to 20 teams -- merely unfold at a still-to-be-determined date?
"When the league opens back up for business, will you see a frenzy of those signings, or will it be much more measured?'' the team salary cap official said. "Maybe the prospective free agents will view it much differently because they will know exactly who was drafted and be able to take a step back and look much more closely at the rosters, being much more selective based on opportunity than on just dollars.
"Maybe you're going to have to do more recruiting than you did previously, based on who you drafted in April and what you can offer them in the way of making your roster or practice squad. I think the market will be more measured. There'll probably be a certain calmness that comes to it.''
Though they are significant in number, the undrafted collegiate free agent class is traditionally not represented by the most powerful of top tier agents, so those players don't have much of a voice to have their concerns heard amid the current back and forth labor litigation. Their lot is to sit and wait, hopeful of a phone call that may not come for a very long time. The plight of the undrafted prospect is a mere detail in this year's high-profile NFL drama.
"The undrafted players will have to deal with the uncertainty of knowing whether they're going to get an opportunity to make a team,'' Tollner said. "And that uncertainty will have to be dealt with for perhaps some time. All they can do is wait and see what the time line is and what the rules are for the situation they're in. It's definitely going to be different this year.''