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Monday, May 02, 2011

NFL: With lockout, undrafted players are out of luck


May 1, 2011

BY KEN GORDON

School is over and the scholarship checks have quit coming. Thirty-two NFL teams have bypassed you in the draft, and thanks to a lockout, nobody can sign you to a free-agent contract.

Cue the country music song, because it's a tough time to be an undrafted former college player.

"It's an uncertain situation right now," Dexter Larimore, a former Ohio State defensive tackle, said last night. "It's a grayer situation than normal free agency, which was a gray area anyway."

Larimore is in the same boat as former teammates who went undrafted, such as Dane Sanzenbacher, Brandon Saine, Justin Boren, Devon Torrence and Bryant Browning.

The NFL's lockout was briefly lifted on Friday, in time for a few first-round draft picks to visit their new teams and perhaps get a playbook. They were the lucky ones, because once an appeals court sided with the league's owners that night, all contact with players was once again forbidden.

The case is expected to be heard in courts again early this week.

The situation affects all rookie players, drafted or not. Ohio State's Brian Rolle was taken by Philadelphia yesterday in the sixth round and keenly felt the lockout's bite soon afterward.

"It's heartbreaking to be drafted and not be able to go to camp," he said. "You think about (getting drafted) all your life, and you've seen guys get picked, and then the next day they are taking pictures at the team's headquarters. (Thursday and Friday) you saw guys doing it.

"But they put the lockout back in, which means the guys picked after, it was unfortunate that they can't take part in something like that. It is real confusing."

But as Rolle added, "We all know I'm an Eagle now."

That makes a big difference. If they know a player on their NFL team - such as former Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman with the Eagles - someone like Rolle can at least start to learn some concepts or vocabulary.

Former NFL coach Jon Gruden advised drafted rookies to spend their lockout downtime wisely.

"The first thing I'd do is find a projector and I'd find somebody that can get me game film of what I've got to learn," Gruden said. "Not only do they have to get in great shape, but they've got to learn the specifics of what defense they'll play in, what offense they'll play in. There is a tremendous amount of football that needs to be learned.

"So I'd encourage all of them to stay in shape, find a projector and start studying film, because the great players aren't locked out."

First-round picks such as Ohio State defensive lineman Cameron Heyward are less concerned than others. Their draft status ensures them a spot on the roster almost no matter what, and if finances are an issue, agents might be more likely to loan them money to get them through the lockout because of the lucrative contract yet to come.

Maybe that's why Heyward, taken 31st overall by Pittsburgh, felt comfortable enough to joke that if the lockout continued for long, "I'll come back (to OSU) for a fifth year. I'd love to do that."

But the undrafted players can't say that. They all face uncertainty, and some might face financial strain.

"You're sitting here at the end of April and your bank account is dry," said Jim Cordle, a former OSU offensive lineman who was undrafted in 2010 but signed with the New York Giants and spent the season on their practice squad. "You don't know if or when you will ever sign with a team, so what are you going to do? Hold on and try to live out the dream, or jump into the work force?"

The longer the lockout goes on, the tougher the road to a roster spot gets for undrafted free agents. They already are the lowest on the NFL's totem pole, but without being able to go through any mini-camps or offseason workouts, it might be next to impossible for them to catch on in the fall.

"It's an unbelievable disadvantage," Cordle said. "Rookie free agents are the first ones gone, anyway."

Cleveland-based agent Neil Cornrich said he is advising his clients to stay in school (if they have not graduated) and keep working out.

That's exactly what Rolle plans to do. He is on track to graduate in June.

"I am going to continue what I've been doing, which is going to school to get my degree, and continue to keep working hard - everything that 'B-Rolle' always does," Rolle said. "I know what my purpose is now. I know I have an organization that I'm now a part of."

Not everyone can say that, though. The undrafted are adrift like never before.

"Once I get to a team, I still think I can do things," Larimore said. "It's just kind of a matter of getting somewhere."

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