When I made my last Big Board ranking, I did so under the assumption that the NFL Draft will be conducted as usual in April and that the impending lockout wouldn’t have much of an affect on the draft. This seems the be the approach the majority of the draftnik community has taken, but it’s a flawed one. The fact is, if there is a lockout starting in March, it will have massive consequences on the draft in April.
First and foremost, there appears to be some question about the legality of holding a draft in April while a lockout is in effect. Since the current CBA is set to expire on March 3, ostensibly the draft falls within the time period when NFL employees are locked out. This would include scouts and employees in the personnel departments. However, it seems the 2011 draft was included in the previous CBA, so it’s likely that the draft would still be held and I’d imagine teams would still find a way to scout players to make their selections.
Even so, there are a ton of questions as to how the offseason will progress through a work stoppage. Would rookie draft picks even receive contracts for the year in question? Rookie contract negotiations are usually difficult under the best of circumstances. If your general managers aren’t allowed to work, how will negotiations even take place? What kind of benchmarks will agents and teams use to determine the contracts when they can’t use past deals cleanly because no draft pick will play his rookie season. Assuming they could, would NFL teams even want to come to the table knowing the year is lost and that a rookie pay scale will probably be enacted for 2012?
I don’t want to be gloomy about the chance for a 2011 season, but I think it’s extremely unlikely that a new CBA will be struck before March 3. Everything that the NFLPA and the Owners have done so far suggests they are preparing for a lockout. DeMaurice Smith has explicitly said he believes the owners will lock out the players next season. The owners have made preparations towards such an eventuality. They will still make quite a bit of money from the league’s TV contracts even if no games are played. And the owners are planning to ask for a significant amount of concessions from the union, which will certainly make negotiations contentious. Since negotiations probably won’t become serious until the season is over, that leaves less than a month before the deadline to come up with an agreement that is acceptable to both sides. That’s simply not going to happen. The league faces deep seated, long term problems that will take a lot of time to sort through. Add to the mix that the union will most likely decertify itself just before the deadline so that it can sue the league once it settles on a lockout. With no union to negotiate with, the owners won’t be able to strike a new CBA. The whole process is likely to become extremely litigious, which gives no hope for a quick resolution.
So how does this effect the 2011 draft? At the very least, I think it means that the vast majority of underclassmen will elect to return to school for the 2011 season. Kyle Rudolph has already indicated that a lockout would probably cause him to return to school. “With a potential lockout, this is not a normal year,” he said. “That’s another thing that would incline me to stay in college.” (Groeschenn) My guess is that most of the other top underclassmen will follow suit. It’s a huge gamble–hiring an agent and declaring by the second week of January means you’ll have to sweat out the month and a half before the CBA deadline to see if the lock out will progress. And if there is a lockout, I think it’s in the clear advantage of an underclassman to remain in school so that he can finish his degree and avoid having to take a year off from football, especially since there are questions as to whether he’ll receive a contract this year even if he gets drafted.
Some will argue that the likelihood of a rookie pay scale being implemented into the next CBA will make it advantageous for underclassmen to declare if they’re being looked at in the first round. I heard this argument last season and I remain unconvinced by it. First off, no one knows when or if the pay scale might be implemented. Second, no one knows what it might look like, and if it will even be appreciably different from the sort of de facto pay scale that teams and agents already negotiate around. Third, the pay scale would only effect the first seven picks in the draft since the contract numbers for rookies have traditionally become significantly more manageable starting with the eight overall selection. A change effecting only the top seven players in the class is not a very significant one since it won’t involve the vast majority of teams and players. In effect, if you’re a junior that is using a future pay scale as your primary motivation to declare early, then you are gambling not only that there will be an impactful pay scale down the line, but that you’ll also be one of the first seven choices. That in itself is a huge gamble since underclassmen already have many disadvantages competing against seniors in the pre-draft process (inability to compete in all star games, one or more years less of tape).
In short, if I were an underclassman I would return to school for 2011. There is simply too much uncertainty around this year’s draft to justify the risk of coming out early. Your worst case scenario for going back to school is much more palatable than the same for coming out early. Maybe it makes sense for the players who are ranked among the 5-10 best players in the class at the end of the season to come out early. But player stock being as volatile as it is, being talked about as a top 5 pick in December doesn’t mean you’ll be one in April. In 2010, 53 underclassmen declared for the draft. This year, it’s possible we could see only the very best juniors, or the ones with eligibility problems like Cam Newton and Robert Quinn come out early.
Groeschen, Tom. “Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame star, takes it one step at a time”
Cincinnati.com. 8 November 2010. Web. 11 November 2010.