The Unlucky NFL Draft Class of 2011

Traditionally, as soon as the name of Mr. Irrelevant is called, the phone lines begin heating up between teams and the agents of those representing priority free agents. However, due to the lockout, this will not be happening in 2011.
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After months of speculations and predictions the NFL draft will finally begin on Thursday, April 28. Commissioner Roger Goodell will host the festivities -- expect plenty of boos from New York's finest -- and call out the names of first round picks. The NFL draft typically serves as the point in time where a football player realizes his dreams of being selected by an NFL team.

Yet while the press and talking heads (quick nod of respect to personal favorite NFL Network and Boston College alumnus Mike Mayock) analyze and grade the teams' efforts over seven rounds, don't forget about how this year is unique.

Traditionally, as soon as the name of Mr. Irrelevant (the last pick of the draft) is called, the phone lines begin heating up between teams and the agents of those representing priority free agents (PFAs). However, due to the labor impasse, this will not be happening in 2011.

In giving a nod to history, the first NFL draft was held in 1936 and is now held annually at Radio City Music Hall in New York City at the end of April. While plenty of sports fans will argue over selections and trades, it's important to tip our cap to the man who conceived of professional league drafts -- Bert Bell. Tired of watching the NFL power brokers of the day --Bears, Packers, Redskins, and Giants -- sign all the college stars, Bell proposed a new system to distribute talent. As president of the Philadelphia Eagles, Bell proposed the concept of an NFL draft at a league meeting on May 18, 1935. The goal was competitive parity and after some discussion the league voted unanimously to support this new initiative.

(The Boston Globe's Greg A. Bedard has a wonderful story about Bell in the April 24, 2011 edition, noting this year serves as the 75th Anniversary of the NFL Draft. Here's a link to the story.)

(It is also no disrespect to Bell as a pioneer if you agree with Alan C. Milstein that entry drafts are illegal as he submitted in this article a few years back.)

The draft has turned into an event of astounding popularity as it now garners the attention of multiple television stations each providing nonstop, live coverage over multiple days. In order to further promote this event's popularity in 2010 the NFL decided to extend the timing of the draft from two to three days including coverage during prime time television for the first round selections.

The top prospects are brought to New York City, the site of the NFL draft, as they sit in the "green room" waiting to hear their names called out by the Commissioner. Once selected, they hug their family and agent -- not always in that order -- and then make their way on stage to have the obligatory photograph taken with the team's hat and the Commissioner on stage and then are whisked away for interviews. For other prospects, the three day draft can be a harrowing experience as the process is drawn out. Waiting to hear where an individual will be assigned to work as a professional athlete is a reasonably unique experience. Obviously, not every prospect will hear his name called during the draft.

In years without the shadow of a labor impasse, the time immediately following the final selection of the draft is when agents of undrafted players begin to ply their skills and experience. As soon as the draft is winding down, teams will begin to contact the agents of players who haven't been drafted. The offer -- will you sign as a "priority free agent" -- with our team? Signing bonuses are thrown around, as competition for the very best priority free agents can be fierce.

In most years, many argue that it is better to be a free agent than a late round draft selection as you can choose the team with the best opportunity for someone playing your position. An undrafted linebacker can find a team playing the right scheme for his skills with a true opportunity at his specific position. An agent and his client need to have done their homework as they select the best opportunity. The question is not who is offering the most money but how likely is the player to actually earn a roster spot rather than just serving as a summer camp participant?

Turning our attention back to 2011, priority free agents waiting for their cell phones to ring will hear only deafening silence. Why? Because the NFL lockout forbids any contact with free agents and that covers not only those NFL players whose contracts have ended but also those hoping to enter the league. Undrafted players coming out of college football this year will be left to wonder "now what?" Do they continue to work out, perhaps assuming greater debt with their agent who is now covering their training and living expenses, in hopes of signing with a team when the NFL and NFLPA are able to resolve their differences? Or, alternatively, do they accept the reality that the odds of their making a living playing professional football are now stacked against them and it's time to turn the page on their dream.

The stature of undrafted free agents who have carved out a successful NFL career are impressive -- Kurt Warner, Antonio Gates, Priest Holmes, Tony Romo, Jeff Saturday, and Adam Vinatieri to name a few. Furthermore, 14 players have made it to the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio -- including Warren Moon and Dick "Night Train" Lane -- without having the privilege of hearing their names called during the draft. However, one can only think about the negative impact this year's labor negotiation will have on those unlucky enough to be draft eligible in 2011 yet not hear their name called at the podium this week.

For many of us in the field of "sports law," professional league drafts are fascinating symbols. As sports fans they hold that special aura of future promise for our favorite teams. However, we also understand the unique laws that forbid MBA graduates to be forced to work in a city that selects them ("congratulations you're now assigned to a consulting firm in Vancouver!!"), yet allows a football player to have his rights assigned and told where to report for work.

While you enjoy the pomp and circumstance of this yearly spectacle, don't forget to tip your cap to Bert Bell and give thought to those PFAs who will be waiting by the phone as brighter minds than mine try to figure out how to get the business of football back up and running.

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