NFL lockout creates uncertain future for former college players at UMass pro day
AMHERST - In any year, the football players at pro day are nervous, even after they've completed the series of drills, tests and measurements for NFL scouts.
They've played their last college football game and most of them don't know whether there will be any more football in their future.
But there's always been some measure of comfort in knowing when the waiting will end. The NFL draft comes in late April. In a normal year, if they aren't drafted the phone might ring in the following day or two with an offer for an undrafted free agent contract and the chance to make a team out of camp.
If the offer comes, they'll go to rookie camp and then minicamp, trying to beat the odds of making a roster.
If the phone never rings, most players will hang up their cleats and move on with the rest of their lives.
This year is different for the players at Friday's pro day at the University of Massachusetts, and others like it around the country. None of the Minuteman seniors who completed their careers in November are expected to be selected during the seven-round draft April 28-30. Unless the NFL players and owners settle their labor differences quickly, the phone won't ring. Rules of the lockout prohibit any free-agent signings or even contact between teams and players.
This year's pro day wasn't nearly the spectacle of last year's, when scouts from almost every NFL team were there to see offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse, which in turn drew several players from other schools.
Instead, a handful of Minutemen and hopefuls from few area colleges worked out in the cold and windy conditions at McGuirk Stadium, hoping to open some eyes. There's no way to know whether they did. Scouts are notoriously tight-lipped in their analysis (two declined interviews for this story), leaving the players unsure where they stood.
There's no blueprint for the players to follow. Other than their agents, who are in unfamiliar territory themselves, there aren't many people to look to for guidance. Do they keep working out in hopes that a call might come when the lockout ends?
"For a lot of us coming from the smaller level, we're projected to be undrafted free agents. The lockout thing really hurts us because we can't have any contact with teams," said Anthony Nelson, UMass' leading receiver in 2010. "I just worry about what I can control, which is putting myself in the best position to make a team. I have to stay in shape from here on out."
But how long can that approach last? What if the lockout stretches past September?
It's easy for players to pursue an NFL dream while completing college and still living off their athletic scholarship. But eventually everybody needs a paycheck. If the NFL is still locked out in October, will hopeful players start getting jobs at the expense of working out and staying in shape? They hope it's a decision they won't have to make.
"It obviously puts you in a tough situation," offensive lineman Greg Niland said. "Right now I'm just acting like it's going to be a normal year and play it by ear."
Even if the dispute is settled in late summer, undrafted free agents face a much tougher road to making a roster than they would in a normal year. In recent years, several former UMass players have gone undrafted but still made teams as free agents. Last year alone James Ihedigbo, Jeremy Cain, Jeromy Miles, Jeremy Horne, Matt Lawrence and Victor Cruz all spent time on active NFL rosters despite never hearing their names called on draft day.
But making a roster as a free agent is about more than performing well in training camp in August and September. Players begin impressing coaching staffs in rookie camp and minicamps. That's when they have a chance to demonstrate a work ethic and that they can hold their own against the drafted players.
It's an opportunity to show how quickly they can pick up a scheme and learn a playbook, a chance to make themselves hard to cut.
If there are no minicamps, undrafted free agents will be much further behind when full training camp starts. Players with any NFL experience will be much safer options for teams.
"It's a bad position for all free agents, but especially for guys like us who aren't veterans who don't have NFL tape and have to prove ourselves," Nelson said. "You come in a little behind the eight ball, not having the minicamps or the preseason camps and coming from a Division I-AA school, you're already behind the curve. There's a lot going against you."
The predicament makes minor league football a more attractive option. While the NFL might be in hibernation for a while, the United Football League, the minor league which begins its third season in the fall, is still open for business.
So are the Canadian Football League and the Arena League. While none of the players grew up dreaming of being a Las Vegas Locomotive or Calgary Stampeder, playing football somewhere would help their chances for eventually landing in the NFL.
"It's definitely an option," Niland said. "I'm just trying to play at the highest level I can and get my name out there."
"They want film that's up-to-date. If you can go out there and still compete and be one of the top competitors at whatever level you're playing at, that's current film," Nelson said. "So that's definitely a good place to go."
Nelson, an academic all-American who eventually plans to attend law school, will balance LSAT prep this summer with keeping his body in shape in hopes of a chance to continue his football career.
"It's like Michael Strahan said, 'This is America. There's definitely going to be football,'" Nelson said. "But when? I don't know."
For now they'll keep waiting.