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A Striking Draft

by Jared Belson & Matt Marino on Mar. 3, 2011
[As seen in USA Today's NFL Draft Magazine]

Welcome to the 2011 NFL offseason. Everyone from players to fans to mascots is worried about what might happen if a new agreement is not reached by tonight at 12:00PM when the collective bargaining agreement expires and a strike ensues. It is worth considering, then, how a strike—or even the mere threat of one—might affect the NFL Draft and the players involved.

But before sports fans forget about football and decide to completely immerse themselves in the NBA and NHL playoffs in April, it's worth noting: There will be an NFL draft.

Still, with a potential strike looming, what kind of draft might it be?

Originally the conventional wisdom was that this year’s draft would feature a very weak incoming class with just a small number of underclassmen declaring their eligibility. But once again, the record of declared underclassmen has been broken: 56 student-athletes entered the draft. Among them some of the most talented individuals in college football.

Yet these young guns may not realize just how debilitating an NFL strike would be.

If there is a strike, there will be no offseason workouts, no minicamps, no training camp, no practice. Players cannot even train by themselves at team facilities because they will be physically locked out-barred from practice fields, stadiums, locker rooms, and training facilities.

A strike would temporarily eliminate the salary cap, without which drafted players could not be signed. Rookie salary structures would disappear as well. Undrafted prospects would not be able to sign as free agents, leaving them stranded to compete with all the other regular free agents who will likely have no homes.

Andrew Luck might not look so misguided after all—a strike could, theoretically, set back players selected in the 2011 NFL Draft for their entire careers. Without the ability to practice, train and learn the respective schemes and systems in their pivotal first years, they will be left at a serious disadvantage. Underclassmen already have one or two less years of experience than their upperclassmen peers, so the road will be even harder for them. Without a salary and access to the team’s facilities, it will be tough for these players to provide themselves with the type of training that is necessary to sustain a full NFL season.

Still, there are a few arguments in favor of declaring. First, even if rookies do not play an entire regular-season schedule, they will still be able to accrue a season towards free agency, which will allow them to sign a long contract at an earlier date and at a younger age than members of the follow year’s draft class.

And if a strike fails to materialize, draftees can start getting paid, instead of playing for free for another year or two in college. Granted they will likely not be paid as handsomely as they had been in the past if there is an agreement, since a rookie wage scale will most likely be in place.

Under the current system, when a player is drafted, he is signed to a contract based on an allotted amount in a pool given to each team. That contract is negotiated by a player’s agent. With a rookie wage scale in place, each slot in the draft would have a predetermined contract associated with it. There would also be a much lower amount allotted for draft picks.

Previously top picks were able to secure $45-50 million. That figure will likely drop to the $20-30 million range. The length of rookie contracts will also likely be shortened. Currently the top 16 picks can sign for up to six years, though most other picks do not do not exceed four years.

A new agreement could bring the length of the top picks down to four years and contracts for later picks down to just three years. While it may mean less money to start their career, it could mean more money later on since, again, they’ll be eligible for a much bigger contract in free agency. However, if young players do not perform up to par, owners could cut their losses a lot faster, and then they'll have less money.

In the event of a strike, players will hardly be out on the streets. While the league will not be allowed to profit off drafted players, the players themselves will be able to accept any marketing deals they want, including deals for liquor, casinos, and other non-NFL-sanctioned products. In addition, if they are willing to risk injury, the players would be able to play in the UFL, as the league allows its players to accept an NFL contract once the season is over.

A strike or an agreement will ultimately change the NFL landscape. It will change the outlook for the players, owners, coaches, scouts, and even the fans. It might help the game in the long run, but the short-term effect could be devastating.

At least we still have the draft.

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