Smart rookies could see value increase

With no labor agreement in sight, it's looking like minicamps and other team activities could be eliminated, which could put a premium on drafting rookies that can learn in a hurry.

No one is suggesting, and certainly not predicting, that some franchise in the first round of next month's NFL Draft is going to tab former Alabama quarterback and Rhodes Scholarship finalist Greg McElroy over, say, Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert or Ryan Mallett.

But the possibility of a work stoppage, one that eliminates all football activities until the labor turmoil is eventually resolved, certainly raises this question: Particularly among the middle- and late-round choices, when parsing comparative physical abilities becomes a little bit more difficult a chore, might some teams in the league skew their boards slightly toward the brighter prospects remaining?

"I hadn't thought of that angle at all," Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told The Sports Xchange earlier this week. "But I can see the point. And I can see where it might happen. Definitely, and I'm not going to mention teams here, 'smart,' or at least 'football smart,' has always been a factor. So, yeah, I could see it happening."

The premise: Absent a CBA agreement, there will be no rookie orientation camps, no minicamps at all, no organized team activities. Summer training camps could be truncated. For the sake of argument, let's say the NFL and the union don't strike a deal until August - and if the discussions stretch past the latest extension and there indeed is a lockout, urgency to reach an accord is negligible, and things could linger a while - and camps are delayed. With maybe three weeks (a total guesswork number) to ready a team for the start of the season, coaches might place their emphasis among the young players on those who can assimilate a playbook and a system quickly.

And that figures to be the smarter players.

Granted, there is no scenario under which McElroy, a terrific leader but a prospect of modest physical tools, will leap-frog the first-round contenders at his position and catapult to the head of the quarterback class. But the former Crimson Tide star, with his reported 43 Wonderlic score, could find his value enhanced.

And he's hardly the only player of his ilk.

An egghead is rarely going to replace a prospect willing to stick his head into the middle of the action. But if ever there was a season to place more weight on a guy's acumen than has been assessed in the past, this could be the year.

OK, so Einstein probably wouldn't have made a very good football player. But he likely would have known where he, and everyone else, too, was supposed to line up on a given play.

There are teams - New England comes to mind - where a component of the draft evaluation process is, for lack of a better term, 'smarts.' This is arbitrary, for sure, but we've always felt that understanding and character usually account for maybe two victories per season for the franchises that focus on those attributes. In a year in which those qualities might be magnified, McElroy and players like him certainly could benefit.

"The thing about (a work stoppage) is that, because of the constraints, everyone is going to start off from the same place," Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli said. "Everyone will have the same (learning) curve."

No argument here. But for some players, particularly rookies, that curve figures to be a little bit steeper.

"You don't want to think about what might happen until it does," California defensive end Cameron Jordan acknowledged at the combine. "But if there is a lockout, all the rookies are going to have to play catch-up to some extent."

In the early rounds, where clubs typically choose the best players and football sense is considered more important than I.Q., the smarter-is-better theory probably will not be the case. But further on in the lottery, when the financial realities dictate that teams select sixth- and seventh-rounders who can make the team and play roles at minimum salaries, brains might be as significant a factor as brawn.

"You never want to 'dumb-down' your approach," said one AFC coordinator at the combine. "I mean, this isn't like the classroom, where you tend to teach to the rate of the slowest kid in the class. But there's the possibility of having to get a lot done a lot quicker this year. And without the benefit of offseason stuff. So in that regard, sure, you're going to want guys who can keep up."

One other potential draft reality which has little to do with intelligence: Without a CBA, there can be no trades involving players. And that means quarterbacks perhaps on the market, like a Kevin Kolb, Carson Palmer or Kyle Orton, can't be dealt. And so a franchise that had hoped to add a veteran via a trade might enter into the draft uncertain of the viability of a deal, and be forced to choose a youngster instead.

Here's hoping it's a smart youngster.

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