In any other year, players just on the fringe of the NFL draft bubble are actually better off not being selected. Because then, the player is able to pick the best situation from the teams which offer him contracts just after the draft ends. The player makes about the same money as a seventh-rounder if he sticks around; his chances of making that team or another one are about the same; and he gets the chance to pick his franchise.
That's in a normal year.
But as we're all well aware, this is anything but a normal NFL offseason. With the lockout as the sad, suspenseful music underneath everything that's going on, the 2011 class of undrafted free agents are stuck in a weird purgatory in which they can envision NFL futures but are on the outside looking in – at least until the lockout is resolved.
Cornerback Kendric Burney of North Carolina, quarterback Adam Froman of Louisville and offensive tackle David Mims of Virginia Union epitomize the upside-down circumstances facing undrafted players this particular offseason. While seventh-round picks (Mr. Irrelevant included) know where they'll eventually be playing, undrafted players must balance the possibilities of participation in other leagues to bide their time and get some pro-football tape of themselves for prospective NFL employers.
Froman, who spent two years at Louisville after two at a junior college in California and put up some impressive stats before missing the second half of the 2010 season with a leg injury, got the predraft interest that his college tape warranted … and then everything shut down for him after that seventh round was over.
"Normally, when you don't get drafted, free-agent deals come right in and I would have known by the end of the night where I was going, and everybody would have gone home happy," Froman said. "We were able to talk to some people before the end of the draft and at least have some options, but it's just sitting and waiting until they figure out the lockout. Everything since the end of the football season has been 'Hurry up and wait.' You get your agent, then you wait. Do your pro day, then you wait. Work out for NFL teams, then you wait. Hurry up for the draft to come, nothing happens, you don't get drafted and it's time to wait again."
Froman says he was contacted by three different teams during the third day of the draft, with each franchise telling him that the idea was for him to be selected soon, and the end result was the same each time – nothing. Fully healthy in time for his pro day on March 10, he showed off an intriguing combination of arm strength, accuracy and 4.5 40-yard-dash speed which explodes off his college tape at times. But now, it's all about waiting and willpower. Froman is working out with fellow Cardinals alum (and former NFL quarterback) Brian Brohm(notes) and a handful of "camp bodies" in a very informal setting at the Louisville campus, just to keep things going.
"For now, it's just day in, day out," said Froman, who threw 11 touchdown passes and four interceptions last season. "I have to throw and lift and work out – you have to keep your body in optimal shape as if you're going into camp tomorrow. But it's a mental grind because you have no idea when the lockout's going to end. You're pushing yourself right now for a theoretical end."
Whenever this ends, it may not be soon enough for Burney, one of the players who was suspended in the North Carolina scandal that blew up in September 2010. The cornerback lost the first seven games of that season to various administrative punishments, came back to play well and began the predraft process with an incendiary week at the Senior Bowl which saw him pick off everything in sight during practices. As a result of his Senior Bowl performance, he picked up the outstanding defender award. By his estimation, Burney was contacted by half the teams in the NFL between the Senior Bowl and the end of the draft, but the prior incident hung over him and may have been a primary reason for his undrafted status.
Throughout the NFL scouting combine and in conversations with NFL teams in March and April, Burney said that the issue kept coming back to character, and he believes that what happened in 2010 – he was disciplined for violating the NCAA's policy of accepting extra benefits – became a black mark.
"When I look back on it, I think that teams were wondering what I was involved in," said Burney, who tallied two interceptions last season. "But I know what kind of character I have, so I just had to move on from that. But during the week of the scouting combine, I got a lot of questions from NFL teams. I understood why they were doing it, but it wasn't putting me out there as who I really am – and the only way I can prove that is to be in an organization."
As he waits for his opportunity, Burney works out with a personal trainer in Jacksonville, N.C.
"We work for an hour and a half per day on the weight room, and an hour and a half on the field, running routes with some buddies," Burney said.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker(notes) – a UNC alumnus and a figure in the Burney extra-benefits probe – is one of those buddies, as is current New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks(notes).
"I'm going to start doing some footwork drills with Willie down in Chapel Hill because he's trying to get back in the NFL," Burney said. "So, basically, I just get a workout whenever and wherever I can."
For Mims, the problem is neither injury nor controversy – he needed a full scholarship to go to college, and Virginia Union was the only school that offered it. Thus, the 6-foot-8, 330-pounder, who is built very much like an NFL left tackle but doesn't possess the experience via near-professional coaching one would receive from a larger school, is hopeful of a team taking a gamble on him. Mims simply dominated his opponents in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, worked with Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz in his predraft training, and apparently garnered interest from several NFL teams including the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions – but it wasn't enough to put him on a draft board.
One of the points made by the NFLPA in the legal back-and-forth between owners and players is the concept of "irreparable harm." The players claim that, by being locked out, the NFL is putting an unreasonable burden on careers which are already too short on average; the league counters with the idea that the financial fallout of the continued fight could put some owners in holes they'll never get out of. But if there's one group suffering actual irreparable harm, it may be those undrafted free agents whose usefulness to NFL teams could be restricted or eliminated outright by a truncated preseason – and the corresponding lack of need for bodies to fill minicamps, training camps and preseason games. Without a comprehensive look at those players, some will slip through the cracks.
"It's really uncharted territory right now, and nobody knows how it will play out," Mims said. "We don't know when they're going to get it done [settle the lockout], and we're obviously at a disadvantage by not being with a team and not being able to learn a playbook. That's really holding us back – I mean, I don't even know where I'm going to be and I can't talk to anybody. For guys in my position, it's very hard. Guys who were drafted are in the same boat to a degree, but at least they know where they'll be for training camp. I just try to keep a positive attitude, keep working out and hope that something will get solved soon."
In the interim, there's the alternative of taking off for another league, but those options have their own trap doors. The Canadian Football League is obviously looking at certain undrafted players, but recent restrictions placed on those players who would use the CFL as a stepping-stone or a minor league may send undrafted prospects running to the UFL as a possible bridge option. UFL camps begin in mid-July, and a season that ends halfway through what is supposed to be the NFL season would give NFL teams a chance to use the UFL as a talent pool if special post-lockout acquisition rules are put in place – and if those players playing in other leagues aren't blacklisted for any reason.
But for Froman, Burney, Mims and the hundreds of players like them just looking for a chance, it's a matter of special discipline that even the locked-out players with actual NFL teams might not be able to imagine. Froman said that the dedication necessary to push through training with no actual payoff in sight might be the thing that separates him and others from the rank and file.
Burney, who has fought through the "too small/too slow" bias for years, has chosen to use this setback as an opportunity to propel himself forward.
"It's just more motivation," he said. "All my life … in high school, they told me I'd never play varsity football. I was told I'd never play after college. So why not start at the bottom again and write another story?"