By Don Banks
May 06, 2011

It's a subjective call, but to me, John Clay serves perfectly as the current face of the NFL's lockout and labor stand off. The former Wisconsin Badgers running back and 2009 Big Ten offensive player of the year is one of the hundreds of undrafted collegiate free agents who are trapped in limbo by the stalemate. Their college careers are over, but their pro careers aren't likely to begin until the league and its players come to terms on a new CBA.

They are players without a team, and like a lot of folks who have been forced to sit and watch the NFL's messy spring unfold, they're caught in the middle of a fight that was not of their choosing.

"It's true, we're all in a tough boat right now,'' said Clay this week, from his family's home in Racine, Wis. "Me and all the rest of the undrafted guys, we have no contact with anybody. Our agents can't talk to anybody about us, and everything's up in the air. You don't know when you're going to get that phone call and be able to sign with a team. You've got to just play it by ear, and whenever they figure what they want to do with the lockout, then teams will be making moves. All you can do until then is take care of your side of the business by keeping in shape, and being ready to go when the time comes.''

If nothing else, at least the painful memory of last weekend is starting to fade ever so slightly for Clay. In three seasons at Wisconsin, Clay's powerful, downhill running style accounted for more than 3,400 yards rushing, a 5.5-yard average carry, and 41 touchdowns. He scored for the final time as a collegian in the Badgers' two-point loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl, but when the NFL drafted 250-plus players last weekend in New York City, Clay, a junior, never heard his name called.

So now he works out, and waits, not knowing any more than any one else about when the NFL will get its house in order. Some team will take a chance on Clay and snap him up as a collegiate free agent, but no one put an end to the mystery and selected him in the draft. And Clay's story was repeated all around the country last weekend, in football families far and wide. The NFL, with its ongoing labor issue, simply didn't make anywhere near as many dreams come true this year.

"It was tough,'' Clay said, of the wait for the phone call that never came. "Me and my family, we had a rough weekend. Toward the end, on the last day [of the draft], I only watched a little bit. At some point, I couldn't watch it any more. I just went in a backroom and laid down, and watched my phone. My family watched the whole thing, but I couldn't stand it any more. I was just getting nervous and upset at the same time.''

Nobody forced Clay to declare for the NFL draft in 2011, choosing to forego a fifth year and his senior season at Wisconsin. But the 23-year-old thought the timing was right. He had exploded onto the college football scene with his monster 1,517-yard, 18-touchdown season of 2009, won the Big Ten's offensive player of the year award that year, and even wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated's pictures of the year issue. When he put up another 1,000-yard rushing season in 2010, scoring 14 more touchdowns and helping the No. 7-ranked Badgers earn their first Rose Bowl berth in 11 years, Clay assumed his track record was proven and the NFL was well aware of it.

But depending on how long the league's labor fight drags on, Clay and the rest of the NFL's eventual 2011 rookie class may look back some day and realize that their timing was spectacularly bad. Instead of preparing to attend his first NFL minicamp as a collegiate free agent signee either this week or next, Clay is back home in Racine, working out with his high school's track team and trying to occupy the days as best he can.

"It's really difficult, because these guys don't have any money in their pocket, and they've got to find ways to earn income, be able to eat properly and still train at a very, very high level,'' said Mike McCartney, Clay's Chicago-based agent and a veteran of many NFL offseasons. "They don't have any teammates who can look out for them at this point, and if they don't live in or near their school's town, it's extremely difficult for these guys. They're not in college any more, but they're not on a pro team. So they're totally in limbo.''

Clay's case intrigues me because he's an example of just how puzzling the NFL draft process can be at times. No one had ever labeled him a surefire first- or second-round pick, not coming off a junior season in which a knee injury cost him almost three games, and 2010 offseason surgeries on both ankles affected his conditioning. But Clay said he was evaluated as a potential third-round selection when he petitioned the league before declaring early for the draft, and was hearing himself mentioned in the fifth- or sixth-round range earlier this spring.

But on draft weekend, Clay watched as five of his Badgers teammates were taken, including two first-rounders, defensive end J.J. Watt 11th overall to Houston and offensive tackle Gabe Carimi 29th to Chicago, while he went unselected. He had been a major cog in Wisconsin's success of the past two seasons, but his value didn't necessarily translate well in the NFL.

"I pretty much did everything I thought I needed to do to be a guy to get drafted,'' Clay said. "From the awards I got, the numbers I put up, the kind of player I was. I never had any off-field issues so that wasn't a problem. I started thinking maybe it was just me. Maybe they didn't like me, my personality or my game play. I thought I had proved myself when I stepped out on the field. I thought I'd get drafted by somebody, but all 32 teams felt the same way.''

Clay's timing was actually horrible in many respects. When the NFL was looking at him at its closest, he was far from his best. Last year's ankle surgeries led the 6-1, 250-pound Clay to let things slip in terms of conditioning, and he wound playing at 270 pounds in the Rose Bowl. He began to furiously drop weight in preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine in February, but instead of getting back to the 245-250 pound range, he went all the way down to 231 pounds in Indianapolis, which seemed to rob him of some speed and power in his legs.

Clay ran a ridiculously slow 40-yard dash in the range of 4.9 at the combine, but improved that time considerably to the mid-4.7's just 10 days or so later at the Badgers pro day, also adding 4½ inches to his vertical jump. But the damage to his draft prospects was likely already done, and McCartney began to slowly prepare his client for the possibility of not being drafted in the one year you positively didn't want to go the collegiate free agent route.

"Leading up to it, I had a strong suspicion that the draft wasn't going to go real well for John,'' McCartney said. "In too many ways, it's a numbers game, and it's hard for teams to measure what's in a man's heart. Look at the Pro Bowl last year, where 23 participants were undrafted, and upwards of 20 percent of the league's starters are undrafted. It's an inexact science and we had talked about that. I told him, 'John, the way you're viewed right now is a little bit of a one-dimensional guy, in that you don't play on special teams and you don't play a lot [on passing downs].

"So your value is as a first- and second-down runner, and that makes you a one-dimensional guy. Now your one dimension is really good, but sometimes one-dimensional guys can fall through the cracks, or fall in the draft.' But I told him regardless of how things work out, it's what you do during the week and on Sundays that is going to define your career. Not one weekend in April. I told him he'd have to grin and bear it [on draft] weekend and just hang in there. We knew it was going to be a lousy weekend.''

McCartney's a good agent and he knows the league. When I talked to NFL personnel men about Clay, I heard the same basic story: People know he's a good football player, but every team interested in him has to figure out how he fits on its roster. If his skill-set is limited to being just a first- or second-down guy, teams need to know if he can contribute on special teams in order to add value to his spot on the roster.

"It can be difficult to devote an entire roster spot to a guy with one role like he has,'' a veteran NFL personnel executive said. "He has to be able to do different things for you. And if he can't contribute on special teams, where does he fit? Playing on special teams is almost a necessity for your second or third running back. And maybe he can do it, but as prolific as he was in college, they weren't going to use him in that situation. So you have nothing to go on. He's just not a known quantity in that way. If he's not going to be what he was at Wisconsin, a No. 1 back, where does he fit for a new team?''

Who knows how long Clay will have to wait to get his NFL opportunity, but everyone seems to agree that his greatest value will be as a power runner who can enter the game in the second half and help close things out against a defense that's starting to wear down. At 245-250 pounds, Clay should be able to hammer away at a tired defense, and help wrap up a game by moving the chains and protecting a lead. Somewhat the same role Brandon Jacobs started out in at the beginning of his Giants career.

Multiple teams did show pre-draft interest in Clay, mostly via the collegiate free-agent route, and while McCartney declined to speculate who might come after his client whenever the lockout lifts and the new league year starts, he expects his phone will ring often with "strong interest.'' The teams that make the most sense for Clay's skill set? I would think the clubs that are known for being able to close out games with their running games, like a Pittsburgh, Chicago, Kansas City, or Baltimore. In addition, Green Bay and Indianapolis are two teams that don't have the dimension Clay would provide, a late-game downhill runner who could help seal the deal.

"Whichever team takes me is going to be on the receiving end of a good player,'' Clay said confidently. "What happened in this draft, without a doubt that will drive me. That's just another chip on my shoulder. That's actually what I'm praying and shooting for, getting the chance to show the teams that passed me up how I can produce on the field. Then they'll second-guess themselves. Then they'll ask why they didn't like me?''

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