Commentary

Time-sensitive issue: Undrafted FAs

If labor crisis extends into summer months, undrafted class of 2011 could go to waste

Originally Published: May 6, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

LeGarrette BlountCary Edmondson/US PresswireLeGarrette Blount went from undrafted free agent to standout RB in 2010. The longer the labor crisis lingers, the tougher it will be for an undrafted player from this year's class to make a similar impact.

The words "irreparable harm" have been used in courtrooms from St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis over the past couple months of labor strife.

Although I think this NFL labor dispute is causing irreparable harm to the most popular sport in the land, one of the many true victims is the class of undrafted free agents, who can't be signed, contacted or embraced.

Undrafted doesn't mean unwanted. Although most undrafted players don't have immediate impacts on teams, their value to rosters is more immense than NFL lawyers might want to argue. As the 17-week season evolves, teams lean more and more on undrafted players because they fill for the void from the attrition caused by injury.

Last year, 51 undrafted players made opening day 53-man rosters. By the end of the season, that number had swelled to 140, more than four players per team. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had 10, the Dallas Cowboys nine and the Buffalo Bills eight.

With most teams operating on the reality that there is an average of two-and-a-half injuries a week, coaches have to prepare each class of undrafted players for use during the season. As a result, current rosters have 239 undrafted players signed from the class of 2010.

The Packers needed undrafted linebacker Frank Zombo in their 3-4 defense. The top two rookie running backs in 2010 -- LeGarrette Blount of the Bucs and Chris Ivory of the Saints -- came from the undrafted class.

But the longer the 2011 class goes without coaching or training within the structure of teams, the more this class could be wasted. The clock really starts in mid-May, when college players -- drafted and undrafted -- annually are allowed to report to teams and train. There are more than a dozen schools -- some from the Pac-10 and Big Ten -- whose class schedules go through early June, delaying the NFL training of certain players. But at least the players from those schools get a playbook and some instruction before training camp.

The undrafted class of 2011 might not get anything. For one, no one is making any money. Teams weren't allowed to make post-draft signings and give undrafted players places to call home. These players have to train on their own at their own expense. If they have injuries, they have to hope they are getting the right training and the right nutrition.

The NFL secured its expedited hearing in the 8th Circuit Court for June 3. A decision from the three-judge panel could come sometime in late June or early July. But that timing effectively kills the offseason and really affects the undrafted class. The loss of a month or two of prep would leave these players lost. Going into a training camp cold without coaching and training would put them way behind in terms of learning playbooks and the nuances of the NFL game.

The damage to the undrafted class could be minimal if both sides pound out a labor agreement on May 16, when they are scheduled for federally ordered mediation. But the way things have been going, you have to figure both sides will be staring at each other and waiting for the June 3 trial date.

The UFL drafted close to two dozen 2011 undrafted players and is waiving the $25,000 transfer fee if those players sign and eventually leave the UFL.

If this labor problem lasts through at least late June or July, as expected, undrafted players will be harmed and teams will feel the impact by the middle of the season, when other players are suffering the harm from injuries.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer