Free Agents Stuck In Limbo

The New England Patriots are usually fairly aggressive when it comes to signing players who went undrafted. Danny Woodhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Sergio Brown are three UDFAs who had a big impact for the team last season. So what's happening to the 2011 FA class?

Their hometowns are far-flung, and they played in programs all over the country, but to visit the free agent players who were ignored in last weekend's NFL draft, you've got to travel to the state of Limbo.
 
As pointed out by various media outlets the past several days, and first detailed by The Sports Xchange several months ago, nearly 500 undrafted players who normally would have been signed by the league's 32 teams by now remain victims of the NFL lockout. No minicamps, no OTAs, no contracts or even pedestrian signing bonuses, and perhaps no summer work, even for guys who might otherwise have been little more than training camp fodder.
 
"It sucks," said North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney, arguably one of the highest-rated players undrafted, and likely to have been a so-called "priority" free agent in most years. "All you can do is stand by."
 
K. Burney, UNC
Burney turned in a solid showing during his all star game, drawign interest from a number of teams. (UNC Athletics)
There was a strange silence surrounding NFL teams when the last of the 254 choices was completed Saturday evening. In normal years, scouts would immediately be calling undrafted prospects -- in truth, such contact actually began in later rounds of the draft, to begin lining up players -- to offer contracts. There were no such calls last weekend. Teams finished their choices and closed up shop.
 
"It used to be that the calls would start as early as, say, the fourth round," said agent Don Henderson, with two clients (long snapper Danny Aiken of Virginia and Cincinnati kicker Jake Rogers) who were not drafted but typically would have been signed right after the lottery. "This year, no calls. The silence was deafening. It's like running in place. And no one knows when it's going to end."
 
If there was any skirting the contact rules set by the lockout, with teams phoning undrafted prospects to gauge their interest and perhaps establish some wink-nod parameters for future deals, no one was admitting it. In fact, agent Pat Dye Jr., whose firm represents three undrafted players, said efforts to "sell" players to franchises in the late stages of the draft were futile.
 
"We called every team about our guys," Dye said. "And teams weren't taking phone calls and weren't returning them."
 
One agent who represents an NFL coach said that not even his client would accept his call during the draft.
 
Clearly, the league office issued a memo directing teams against such contact and detailing the potential ramifications of it, and franchises heeded it.

And so the wait continues.
 
"We're telling our guys to hang tight," Dye said. "Continue working out, stay in shape, be ready, and we'll see where things go."
 
R.Lockette FVS
Lockette turned in blazing times at the Combine and his Pro Day yet still went  undrafted even after working out for  over a dozen teams including New England..  (Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE).
Said Notre Dame defensive tackle Ian Williams, who expected to be selected in the middle rounds, but went undrafted: "The hardest thing for some athletes is patience. But that's just how it is."
 
For now, at least, most free agents who figured to be signed to deals, and getting ready for orientation minicamps, remain solid in their hopes of an NFL opportunity. If the lockout stretches into June or July, however, and realistic chances of earning an NFL roster spot diminish, some may consider alternative leagues.
 
The UFL earlier this week held its draft and part of the mindset was to select players who were undrafted by the NFL and, perhaps, to take advantage of the lockout to offer an alternative. But of the 52 players chosen in the UFL draft, only seven were among the top five undrafted players at their respective positions, as rated by NFLDraftScout.com.
 
Arguably the highest-profile undrafted player, Boston College linebacker Matt Herzlich, chosen by Omaha of the UFL, has indicated he will wait a while longer to see what occurs with the lockout. Kentucky tailback Derrick Locke, another player who figures to be an NFL "priority" free agent, replied, "I'm not going to that (crap)," when asked if he would sign with the UFL. Henderson indicated that, because of the restrictive contracts offered by the UFL, the alternative league "isn't an option" for his clients right now.
 
One undrafted player who sources told The Sports Xchange will likely sign with the UFL is Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who was chosen first overall, by Hartford, in the UFL draft. Johnson, who had shoulder problems during his junior season and lost his starting job as a senior, is apparently attempting to demonstrate to NFL scouts that he is healthy again.
 
At this point, though, he appears to be in the minority. Most undrafted players who felt they would be signed as free agents in a normal year, appear prepared to hang tough and see how the NFL lockout proceeds. As unpalatable as Limbo seems to be, it's the desired state for now.
 
"It's wait and see," said Fort Valley State wide receiver Ricardo Lockette, a sprinter many felt would be drafted. "It's hard, but it is what it is."



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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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