NFL lockout might turn longshots into no-shots

Undrafted BC star Mark Herzlich.
Undrafted BC star Mark Herzlich. (Associated Press)
Posted: May 12, 2011

Millionaire NFL players such as Reggie Bush and DeAngelo Hall have been quoted recently as saying they are enjoying the lockout, which so far has cost them only a few days of minicamp drudgery. Pundits have wondered if such attitudes undercut the contention of the decertified players association that the lockout is doing "irreparable harm" to its clients.

Not everybody in the NFL is a millionaire, though. Especially the guys who are just entering the league. If you got drafted last month, at least you have a sort of promise, an indication that at some point there will be a check with your name on it. If you had hoped to sign as an undrafted free agent, you don't even have that, since under the lockout restrictions no such players were signed. You might be wondering right now if you would be better off finding a job, or investigating relatively unattractive options like the United Football League and the Canadian Football League.

Several agents surveyed by the Daily News this week said they aren't yet counseling undrafted clients to pursue other leagues, but all said they felt undrafted rookies were the biggest early victims of the stoppage. Agent J.R. Rickert said he feels an added responsibility to those clients this year; they are depending on him to make the call as to how they should proceed. Careers could hang in the balance.

"We have to really do a good job, make an honest assessment - how much of a priority free agent is he?" Rickert said.

Rickert said the final rounds of the draft, on April 30 - which occurred during the brief lifting of the lockout restrictions - were especially hectic, as agents tried to assess teams' interest in clients who might not get drafted. "You have to know where your guys stand," he said.

Typically, spring minicamps are the time for undrafted players to shine, to put themselves in play for roster spots that could be won in training camp and preseason games. A draft choice might find he is less able to contribute as a rookie without minicamp, but he still represents an investment. No so an undrafted rookie.

"Those are the guys who are really going to get hurt. You never get a second chance to start your career," Rickert said.

Another agent, who didn't want to be identified (many agents fear ever saying anything that a team official or a rival agent might somehow be able to use against them), agreed that "everyone's antsy. These are people's livelihoods. The NFL's everybody's first option, but you've got to keep everything open."

South Jersey-based agent Jerrold Colton said undrafted rookies are "facing an uphill battle from the start. They really need that spring and summer. Those guys just aren't going to get the looks" they normally would get, in a truncated offseason. Colton said that if the lockout lingers a few more months, teams will be trying to get veterans and top draftees up to speed in abbreviated training camps. There won't be any time for projects. Colton wondered whether fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-round draftees, who usually make 53-man rosters, won't be pushed more toward the $85,000-a-year practice squads, since they might be unlikely to contribute right away.

Rickert said that in the case of one of his undrafted clients, California of Pennsylvania quarterback Josh Portis, the objective of competing for an NFL third quarterbacking spot probably won't be changed much by the lockout. "For him, the strategy is to wait this thing out. We've talked to a number of people who are interested," Rickert said. But "we have a couple of guys who have looked at" Canada or the UFL.

Two offensive linemen, J'Michael Deane, of Michigan State, and John Bender, of Nevada, recently signed with the CFL's Calgary Stampeders. Texas A & M QB Jerrod Johnson indicated he would sign with the UFL's Hartford Colonials after becoming that league's first overall pick. Johnson told Fox Houston he normally would have looked for an offense and roster situation in the NFL that would fit his talents, but "that opportunity didn't present itself."

Another agent who preferred to remain unannamed said: "If you're a priority free agent, you wait for the NFL. The money [from the UFL or CFL] is nothing; you can make as much working at a gas station or a restaurant. The only reason you would go is if you're a player who needs added exposure to get on the NFL's radar, or if you've been injured and you need to show you're healthy."

Former Consestoga High and Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich was drafted by the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks. But Herzlich, famous for returning last season from Ewing's Sarcoma, told Sports Illustrated he plans to wait for an NFL chance.

Quintin Mikell, the Eagles' starting strong safety since 2007, made the team in 2003 as an undrafted free agent out of Boise State. "If I'd come out now, I might not have had a chance to make a team," Mikell said last night.

Mikell said the spring camps were where he attracted coaches' attention. "I made plays in minicamp, made sure I was always seen, made coaches see I was serious about it," he said.

Eight years later, Mikell has money in the bank, but like an undrafted rookie, he faces more uncertainty than he'd like. The Eagles have given no indication they plan to bring him back, after letting Mikell enter unrestricted free agency. The drafting of Temple box safety Jaiquawn Jarrett in the second round argues against it.

"Sometimes it seems like you don't know what you're working out for, or, more specifically, when you're working out for," Mikell said. Though mediation is scheduled to resume next Monday, there seems to be little optimism anything will change in the lockout until June 3, when the appeals court in St. Louis considers the league's appeal of Judge Susan Nelson's injunction. "Sometimes it feels like you're getting ready for nothing . . . I'm starting to get really upset about the situation. A lot of guys are getting hurt right now."

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