Menu

Lockout could leave NFL rookies with big challenge

Florida defensive back Ahmad Black would prefer to focus on football.

Instead, he's getting a crash course in labor negotiations, lockout rules, even the possible implementation of a rookie wage scale.

These new obstacles are threatening to make the transition from college football to the NFL more complicated than usual, even if the players don't want to admit it.

"Hey, it's better than doing it for free," Black said Sunday at the NFL's annual scouting combine. "I'm going to get a little bit of something (in a contract)."

Black, like most of the 329 draft prospects in Indianapolis this weekend, is trying to stay away from the discussion that has overshadowed one of the league's biggest and busiest offseason events.

Normally, the discussion in Indy centers on 40-yard dash times and bench press repetitions.

This year, the showcase has expanded to multiple venues. There's been a steady stream of meetings in hotel hallways, at the convention center, even at the Colts' complex. Everyone from owners to coaches to agents have been briefed about negotiations that could avert the looming lockout, which could begin Friday.

And the potential draft picks find themselves caught in the middle.

If the expected lockout begins, teams will be prohibited from communicating with veterans or negotiating player contracts. Free agency will be put on hold and teams cannot cut players from their current rosters.

Rookies, however, will still have their regularly scheduled pro days, still be able to interview with team officials and still get picked in April's draft.

That's when the landscape changes for the rookies.

They will not be able to negotiate deals until a new CBA is in place, and, perhaps more importantly, will not be allowed to get playbooks, go through the usual minicamps or the team's offseason workouts.

Some analysts suggest it's enough to make this a lost draft class. NFL officials disagree.

"It's difficult being a rookie as it is," Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said. "I think it's really up to the individual. They're all at different points, but they're going to have to develop. If it's going to be an issue, though, it's going to be an issue for everybody."

That's not necessarily what the players want to hear.

"I don't think it would set us back," Miami cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke said. "It would make us hungrier when we get into camp. It will probably cut down all the long contracts and just get guys right into camp."

But it could affect how much of an impact the rookies make next season.

Without a playbook and minicamps, the learning curve likely will get steeper. And history has shown how tough it can be.

Rob Morris, the Colts' first-round pick in 2000, often said his rookie holdout stunted his development. Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett didn't even make the Denver roster after missing two college seasons, and former Southern California receiver Mike Williams, another former first-round pick, had only 44 catches in his first three NFL seasons after sitting out the 2004 season.

The players in Indy want to avoid those mistakes.

"It's always a setback because you want to be able to learn as much as you can and get that jump on everybody," UCLA safety Rahim Moore said. "I hope there's a minicamp so I can get the playbook and learn as fast as I can. If you try to rely on a training camp, it can be a bad thing."

There's even a possibility that the league's first work stoppage since 1987 could lead to condensed training camps, the cancellation of games or, as unlikely as it seems, the loss of an entire season.

"At the end of the day, those guys are going to have to come up with an agreement because you can't cancel the game of football forever," said LSU's Patrick Peterson, currently projected as the draft's top-rated cornerback.

The other big issue will be contracts.

If the owners get the rookie wage scale they want, the days of record-breaking rookie contracts will be history. Last year's top overall pick, Sam Bradford, signed a six-year deal worth $78 million with $50 million guaranteed.

Team officials are hoping a wage scale will lead to fewer holdouts. But there are no guarantees.

And if there is a lockout, these players could lose a lot more than just cash. They could lose that precious time to learn the systems and become effective players.

"I don't know too much about all that. I just go by what I'm told," Black said. "It could be a setback. I'm still going about my business as usual."