INDIANAPOLIS – It's tough to be a downer as the NFL scouting combine gets started, but here's something to consider as you get ready to read updates and find out 40-yard dash times on all the great prospects of the 2011 draft.
If NFL owners follow through on their threat to lock out players for this offseason and if the lockout lasts more than a couple of months, this combine and the upcoming draft are going to be largely meaningless to the upcoming season.
Or as one NFL executive put it late Wednesday night after a hearty meal at one of the many steakhouses that dot downtown Indy: "This could be a gigantic waste of time."
Here's what is going to happen in a lockout scenario: No offseason workouts, no classroom time with coaches explaining plays and (supposedly) no dissemination of the playbook. All that time that was supposed to be used for getting rookies and other new players up to speed (and explaining new plays to veterans) is gone.
Furthermore, if a deal on the collective bargaining agreement isn't done by the end of June, the learning period almost completely disappears because there won't be any chance to teach until training camp starts. Training camp isn't a time for teaching the playbook. It's the time for learning the physical timing of plays and building cohesion between players.
Or as one prominent coach put it: "We had one rookie on our team who came on for us by the end of the season. He flashed a lot of talent and could really help us next year. But that took months of work and that kid is really bright and really motivated. If he's not around for the offseason, working his tail off the way he did, I'm not sure he would have played more than a handful of downs for us and we'd still be wondering about him."
That will become the theme for rookies in the 2011 season, at least for the majority of teams that are actually trying to win. For instance, if you're a fan of the Carolina Panthers, a lockout spells the death of another season for you. If you thought 2-14 was bad, this season is going to be worse, and there's really nothing that new coach Ron Rivera can do about it. It's not his fault that he won't get to work with his team. It's not his fault that he's not going to be able to work with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
For bad teams that need help in the draft, the lockout essentially takes the best and brightest prospects and puts them on hold. Any team that is considering a quarterback early in the draft is basically throwing away any hope of that player being effective this season if there is a lockout. Good luck getting Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker or Ryan Mallett up to speed if you don't have an offseason.
"You're not going to be able to spend any real one-on-one time with that guy," another head coach said about the idea of drafting a quarterback. "Look, I'm sure there are going to be some conversations here and there between a coach and a quarterback you might draft. You might find a way to get him a playbook, whatever. But it's not the same as that guy coming in, spending an hour on the board in the classroom, then going out to practice for a seven-on-seven, then going back to review the tape of what happened and doing that three times a week or whatever you do.
"It's not even close and even all that work is not enough to get somebody ready to play. You're talking about a lost year with a quarterback. … Teams are still going to draft quarterbacks, they're too valuable. But if I was sitting somewhere in the top six or seven picks and we had no practice time all offseason, I'd be really scared to take a quarterback. The first guy I'd take would be a cornerback or a running back. With those guys, you have a chance to get them on the field this year. Quarterback? You better have some serious job security to make that move."
And, generally, coaches whose teams are drafting in the top six or seven picks don't have a lot of job security, for obvious reasons.
The specter of a lockout means that the draft just became more and more of a long-shot process for teams that need immediate help. The draft is a largely overrated exercise. Sure, it's important to any team's success. You have to be good in the draft to be good long-term. However, too many fans think that one draft can change the direction of a team, even if that draft doesn't include a quarterback.
A great example: the 2009 Buffalo Bills' draft. Buffalo's selections included the excitement of two first- and two second-round picks. It was supposed to be the draft that put the Bills back on the road to contention in the AFC East. At the time, I gave the draft a C-minus, to the chagrin of Bills fans. The combination of Aaron Maybin(notes) at No. 11 overall, center Eric Wood(notes) later in the first round and Andy Levitre(notes) and Jairus Byrd(notes) in the second round was a can't-miss draft in the minds of those excited fans.
Two years later, the impact of that draft is sobering. The colossal failure of Maybin is combined with the fact that the other three are little more than solid players. Levitre is consistent, Wood has shown glimpses of talent and Byrd was stellar as a rookie, then solid in his second year.
Of the other four players the Bills drafted that year, only backup tight end Shawn Nelson(notes) is still on the team. Really, that's not a bad draft, despite its C-minus grade. But that's the nature of the draft. Most turn out to be much like what the Bills did in 2009 and that's a long way from what fans expect each year when the NFL opens the combine and then closes it with a three-day extravaganza in late April.
When the commissioner steps to the lectern in Radio City Music Hall and starts the draft, most fans react as if they're a 5-year-old waking up on Christmas Day. Every draft pick could be a superstar, just listen to the talking heads from ESPN and NFL Network. Just read the analysis from the scores of draftniks.
This year, however, the process could be like giving that 5-year-old a new present and then telling him, "By the way, you can't use it for a year."