Rookies trying to ignore labor tensions

NFL draft prospects are in the heart of their preparations to try to increase their draft value and, in turn, the money they will make. But they won't make any money until the NFL and its players union can hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement. How are the incoming rookies handling the uncertainty?

MOBILE, Ala. – NFL draft prospects are preparing for one of the most exciting and formative times in their lives – their rookie season. For many, it's their first full-time job. For most, it's their first big paycheck … if they are allowed to start earning one this year.

The NFL and the NFL Players Association can't seem to find much common ground these days as they attempt to put a new collective bargaining agreement in place before a work stoppage – whether it's termed a lockout or strike, either way it's damaging to the sport – cuts into the season.

Just the threat of that happening has already affected hundreds of veterans in the league. Last year, more than 200 players that would have been unrestricted free agent were forced in restricted free agency, meaning they weren't free to negotiate with other teams as long as their club made them a qualifying offer. The unknowns – from the potential salary cap to the percentage of revenues that will be required to be directed to player salaries – have already affected hundreds more the past few months. Upcoming free agents that would normally be re-signed before their contracts expire are now scheduled to flood the market when free agency begins (it's scheduled to start on March 4, but it won't happen until a new CBA is in place).

Players at the Senior Bowl this week – representing more than 90 draft prospects – were trying to keep their focus on impressing the scouts instead of worrying about the threat of a work stoppage.

"All the speculation of the lockout and stuff, that's not my focus because it's not something that I can control," said former TCU quarterback Andy Dalton. "Hopefully it will get done before the season. I don't know all that much about it. Obviously I follow it because you want to play."

Former Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews might have a bit of an advantage, at least from an information and support standpoint, because his brother, Clay, is already in the league and participating in next weekend's Super Bowl as a member of the Green Bay Packers.

"I don't know too much about it, but obviously until it's signed you can't be part of a team really. The veterans it won't hurt as much as the rookies," he said. "The OTAs (organized team activities), the minicamps, are obviously an important part of the young guys getting in the system, but really it's out of my control. Obviously I hope they get it figured out pretty soon and keep it going."

The NFL Players Association talked to participants of the Senior Bowl this week to educate them on the ways of the union and the potential work stoppage. While the public posturing between the league and its players union remains strong, the players association lightened its message to the incoming rookies.

"We are encouraging the incoming rookies to enjoy the process," NFLPA communications director Carl Francis said. "This is a very important time in their lives and they should focus on preparing for the opportunity to live out their childhood dreams of playing professional football."

Former Boston College offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo confirmed that was the message directed at Senior Bowl players.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league hasn't addressed the situation with incoming rookies yet, but confirmed that "if there is a work stoppage, draft choices and undrafted rookies cannot be signed until there is an agreement."

That means that while veterans of the league have been warned to make sure they are financially prepared for a potential lockout, rookies don't have big past earnings to rely upon. Nor will they have the opportunity to get their bonus money early this summer if no CBA is in place. They will be drafted, but they won't be under contract and won't be receiving a paycheck from an NFL team.

While the incoming rookies have their preparation for February's NFL Scouting Combine and college pro-day workouts to distract them from the labor situation, eventually the labor uncertainty will hit them if they are drafted at the end of April without a CBA that will allow them to sign a contract.

"We know the situation and it's becoming a reality. There might be a stoppage next year, but we're not thinking about that right now. We can only control what we can control and that's our play on the field," former Purdue defensive lineman Ryan Kerrigan said, acknowledging that the immediate task at hand can be a welcome distraction.

"It is nice because this is what is important – the Combine and the Senior Bowl and the pro days. Those are the three biggest days for us and those are what we're focusing on right now."

Casey Matthews said that the veterans of the league can just view a work stoppage as an extended offseason, but Castonzo feels passionately that football is needed this fall.

"Football is so important to this country. It's just a really important thing right now," he said. "… I just think it's so important to the country. It's got such a huge fan base, so to not have a season would be devastating."

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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