Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Draft Matters

As I do every year, I intend to follow the NFL Draft with interest. Usually, it's to follow the selections of the Packers, and while I'm at it, the rest of the NFC North. And the first round pick of the Raiders, but that last one's just for the comedic value.

This year, it'll be a little different. There's significant drama behind this year's draft, due to the lockout; the players selected won't be able to get to training camp or any team facilities or anything else official until the work stoppage ends. There is much being made of picking players who are going to be ready right away. The early picks will be presented with a player-sponsored event called 'The Debut' and asked to attend that instead of the draft (as it happens, the players are largely choosing to attend both).

I'm not interested much in that.

For me, the real drama comes two days later, in rounds 4-7. Specifically, the tail end, when players begin to wonder whether they'll be drafted at all. In a normal draft, you'd almost rather go undrafted than be taken in the last few selections. Immediately after the final selection is made, all undrafted players become free agents. Just because a player's undrafted doesn't mean they're unwanted, as immediately after the draft, teams rush the phones, trying to snap up as many undrafted players as they can. With many undrafted players getting calls from multiple teams, they get to choose their own situation, and sign with the team that gives them the best chance at a roster spot. Compare to the drafted player, who has their team chosen for them; if he gets cut, by the time it happens, the other teams have likely settled into their roster and it becomes significantly harder to displace someone.

With the lockout in effect, the situation is completely different at the draft's back end.

Players can have no contact with coaches, trainers or the front office in a lockout, save for labor negotiations. Nobody can be signed. For the drafted players, this is an obvious inconvenience, as they can't get contracts worked out or do any training at their team's facility. But they know they have a team, and as such, they can contact their new teammates and set up unofficial practices.

This is something the undrafted players don't have. Not having a home in a work stoppage is not an inconvenience. It is a disaster. They have no teammates. They have no team. They have no link to the NFL to hang onto over the course of the stoppage. Until they have a team, they don't even have much of an argument: if they have no team, they're not playing anyway, and they're not being locked out of anything until they belong to a team. They can't exactly count on other football leagues either, such as the arena league, UFL and CFL, as these jobs in the event of an extended stoppage could be taken by better, more proven players- NFL veterans and high-round draft picks seeking to keep their form up and make some small bit of money while waiting the owners out. (In a lockout, they are unemployed, and can rent themselves out like that.) The UFL will try to poach some of them, but there are only five teams in the UFL, and only so many jobs. And with an enforced disconnect from all 32 teams, and no NFL teammates to turn to, all that the undrafted players unable to find work in the UFL or some other league can do is wait and hope that the lockout is resolved, and fast. Because you may be wanted by the NFL, but they're not going to go out of their way to look at you. If they wanted you that badly, they'd have drafted you.

In the event of a lockout that loses the NFL the entire season, the non-UFL undrafted will have mostly wound up a year out of football. Football is not a sport where you can take a year off with no job and pop back in. Once you stop playing, you usually stop playing. Worse yet for the undrafted, in the case of a lost season, between them and the first NFL game stands not only a year of no link to football, but if a deal is reached after the season is called off, a deal reached between the cancellation of the season and this time next year would lead to a second draft. That's a whole new set of draftees, and a whole new set of undrafted players, players just like them but not a year out of football.

And even if a deal is reached in time for the season, the reason all those undrafted players get called up is that the teams have 80-man rosters to fill for training camp, which will eventually be cut to 53. Undrafted players help make up the numbers and fill out any bare positions not filled in the draft. The longer the lockout, the less the teams can mess around with extra roster spots, and the less opportunity the undrafted get.

Either way, this year, if you don't get drafted, and the UFL doesn't call, you're pretty much hosed.

Usually, the NFL draft is watched to see highly-touted players at the very beginning of their careers. This year, at the other end, you might see players for whom this is either the beginning, or the end.

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