NFL lockout puts undrafted rookies at a disadvantage

Posted: June 14, 2011

Sweating through intense early summer heat, Quintin Mikell pushed a sled carrying two 45-pound plates 10 yards, released it, and broke into a sprint, striding over fake grass and rubber pellets.

On this recent day, Mikell, a free agent who has spent his entire career with the Eagles, was one of the most senior players at an informal workout in Marlton.

Eight years ago at this time, though, Mikell was a rookie, sweating in front of his new Eagles coaches, using some of his first practices in the NFL to secure a foothold in a league that had skipped over him in the 2003 draft.

Mikell said that as an unheralded signee out of Boise State, the Eagles minicamp and organized team activities - a fancy NFL term for spring practices - gave him his most meaningful chance to impress coaches and latch onto a precious roster spot. That summer was the beginning of a lengthy career, by NFL standards, that includes one Pro Bowl appearance and four seasons as an Eagles starter.

With the NFL lockout nixing spring practices, eating into preparation time for training camp, and threatening to cancel camp altogether, undrafted rookies in the same situation will face an even steeper road to a roster spot.

"OTAs are really the only time where young guys really get good reps and get the chance to show what they can do," Mikell said, noting that in training camp veterans get most of the quality time with coaches. "For me, I think the sole reason I made the team was because of what I did in OTAs and minicamps."

With no hitting involved, minicamps provide a chance for newcomers to show their pure athletic ability and to demonstrate for coaches how they learn on the fly, Mikell said. Once training camp rolls around, they get pushed to the back of the line.

Last year, the biggest surprise of the summer was lineman Austin Howard, a 6-foot-7 tackle out of Northern Iowa who also had no takers in the draft. He said his game improved by "leaps and bounds" from the start of OTAs.

"Coming in, I was third, fourth string. By the end, I was running with the twos," Howard said.

This year's undrafted class, including locals such as Delaware quarterback Pat Devlin, from Exton, and Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich, from Wayne, won't have that benefit.

"Losing the spring was really crippling for their opportunity to make a team for the fall," said agent Jerrold Colton, speaking of undrafted free agents in general.

"Those kids get hurt a little bit because they don't know exactly where they're going to be," said Eagles coach Andy Reid. "Obviously [signings are] going to take place at a later time here, and everything's going to happen fast for them."

Colton, who is working with Paul Fenaroli, an undrafted offensive lineman out of Stony Brook, said he is considering advising his client to take his game to the Arena Football League. Under normal circumstances, Colton said, he would almost never tell anyone to go that route before first giving it a shot in the NFL. The odds of climbing from a lower-tier league to the top are too long. But rookies may have no other options this year, he said.

"It's going to be really hard for these guys to make clubs," Colton said.

Even if the lockout ends in time for training camp, undrafted players will be walking in without the typical weeks of advanced playbook study, and at even more of a disadvantage compared to veterans who know their teams' systems.

"You're going against people that have already been there," said linebacker Jamar Chaney, a seventh-round pick in 2010 who said he benefitted from having all summer to study his playbook.

This year's undrafted and late-round rookies, he said, "they're in a real tough spot."

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, or @JonathanTamari on Twitter.

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