Lockout creates uncertain future for draft class

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

Editor's note: The NFL's request to have a stay of Monday's ruling to lift the lockout was denied by Judge Susan R. Nelson on Wednesday night.

NEW YORK – For projected first-round NFL draft picks Blaine Gabbert and A.J. Green, or possible undrafted free agents like Zach Fraser, the next three days figure to be a whirlwind of emotions that will likely be meaningless come Monday.

In fact, as Gabbert and Green went through a testing and training session set up by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute on Wednesday, the ironic part is that it might be some of the best work they get for the next month or so. For all the excitement these players figure to generate among themselves, their families, the teams that pick them and the fans, it will all be for naught if the NFL labor dispute isn't resolved soon.

Yes, the dirty three-letter word of this offseason – "NFL" – continues to hang over everything that is going on with the league. In this case, the labor dispute figures to have the greatest impact on the draft. If, as expected, the NFL gets a stay of the court-ordered injunction and is able to continue the lockout, it means that the players who get drafted between Thursday and Saturday will not be allowed to work with their teams.

They'll get to hold an introductory news conference over the weekend. Then, on Monday, they will be sent packing. No playbook, no film sessions, no walk-through practice, no contracts (or even negotiations) and no idea when those things might be coming. Put that together and you have what will probably be the most worthless crop of rookie players ever. Undrafted players will have it even worse since they won't be able to sign immediately after the draft, keeping their prospects for an NFL career on hold even longer.

"I'm probably just going to keep in shape, keep training. And then when the lockout is lifted, I'll be ready to go," Green said. "I can't learn any plays. I can't see the playbook, obviously. All I can do is stay in shape. I think it is going to affect some of the rookies by not being able to get on the field. They're not going to know some of the plays. It's not their ability, it's just they aren't going to have enough time to learn the playbook the way other rookies who came in the year before.

"It's crazy. Just coming from South Carolina, a country guy. Now I'm in New York City for the first time. It's fun. But at the same time you're nervous. It's like, where am I going to spend my next six years living? It could be anywhere."

The reaction of a veteran free agent was both telling and amusing.

"If you're a rookie, good luck," said the veteran, a fringe player who has played for multiple teams. "You have no chance to be ready. None. Not even the running backs. Maybe if you're a cornerback, but even then it's going to be so hard to be ready. … But that's OK with me. The longer this goes on, the more they're going to need guys like me. The coaches will be begging for guys like me."

The player then laughed and said, "Hey, a guy like me might actually have some leverage this year."

That may be an overstatement, but the fact remains that if the courtroom maneuvering takes the labor dispute through May and deep into June, young players will lose vital learning time. For someone such as Gabbert or Green, that could mean a lost rookie season. For someone like Fraser, who played quarterback at Connecticut, it could mean a lost opportunity. While the NFL is filled with stories of quarterbacks like Kurt Warner(notes) and Tony Romo(notes) being overlooked in the draft, ultimately, getting a chance requires landing somewhere as soon as possible.

"I really feel like I can play in the NFL if I just get that chance," said Fraser, who has a degree in kinesiology and hopes to coach one day. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm committed to my dream of playing in the NFL … I have some other things I suppose I could do. There's the Arena League and the UFL, but that's not really where my thinking is at. I had a lawn service business I got started when I was in high school. I guess I could do that for awhile if I had to wait."

It's not like Fraser, who originally went to Notre Dame before transferring after Jimmy Clausen(notes) signed with the Fighting Irish, is going to have any other alternative. While drafted players such as Gabbert and Green could try to learn as much as possible from veterans (and even that's going to be a problem on teams that changed coaches this offseason), Fraser can't even do that. Hiring someone to teach him about the West Coast offense is a crapshoot if he ends up signing with a team that runs a lot of spread-formation stuff.

In short, the NFL is going to have a few hundred young players sitting around and waiting for something to happen, but not exactly sure what to do as they wait. Sure, they can train, but even that's problematic because they could get hurt. They could get a playbook from a veteran, but without a coach to go over the subtle nuances, that's like reading a textbook without a teacher to give the information perspective. This is to say nothing of the idea of just learning the speed of the NFL. Not just the on-field speed, either.

"The speed of the game is different, everybody knows that, they've heard about it," Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. "But you have to learn fast in the classroom, too. You go over things a couple of times in this league and you're expected to know it. If you don't pick it up right away, you get behind. All that stuff people say about dumb jocks is just that – stuff. Guys may not be geniuses, but they're smart enough to pick it up fast. You see guys get cut in a hurry if they don't pick it up. That's fact."

What figures to happen is that coaches will understand all of that and beg owners to keep extra veterans this year, knowing that rookies will be too far behind to catch up substantially. Rosters could be expanded from the normal 53 to make up the difference. Either that or veteran backups will likely get more playing time this season than ever.

However it works out, there's little question that rookies are going to have their issues this year.

And those issues will start right away.

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