NFL draft prospects facing a false start

Through the years, the NFL draft has settled into a rhythm.

After the end of the college season, draft-eligible players pick an agent, go to the NFL scouting combine, have a pro day, visit potential teams and wait for the big moment.

Early first-round picks will still shake hands with commissioner Roger Goodell, and 254 players will feel the rush of being selected on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The difference this year is in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement or court-ordered ending of a lockout, draftees will then wait for a second phone call telling them it's time to go to work.

It's a call that might not come for days, weeks or even months. America's finest young football players are facing an unprecedented false start.

"You're kind of in limbo," Cal running back Shane Vereen said.

Putting a draft class on ice is only one of the ramifications of NFL labor unrest as it pertains to the draft.

Veteran players can't be traded, meaning all deals will have to be made with other draft picks, either this year or in future drafts. Acquiring picks from drafts beyond 2011 brings with it some risk because there are no guarantees the next labor agreement will include a draft.

First-round picks can be flown in for media opportunities with their new teams, but barring a surprise agreement or court-mandated end to the lockout, all contact between the player and organization must cease.

Instead of the blur of activity that followed the selection process in past years, the most heavily scouted draft class in history will be on its own, with players having their families, agents and common sense to guide them.

"It's definitely going to be weird that right after the draft, you can't get your playbook, can't talk to your team or your coaches," said Stanford nose tackle Sione Fua, projected as a mid- to late-round pick. "I've got to do my part, stay in shape, just be ready for minicamps or training camp when the call comes."

With veteran players prohibited from interacting with their teams and free agency on hold, NFL teams have reversed the process of infusing talent.

Instead of signing free agents then filling needs with the draft, teams are looking closer and harder at this draft because coaching and scouting staffs have a lot of extra time on their hands.

When Central Washington running back Taiwan Jones held a pro day recently at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, Calif., representatives from 27 teams showed up to gather information.

"I've visited with several former colleagues that said these draft meetings are more thorough than ever before," ESPN analyst and former NFL coach Jon Gruden said by conference call. "Every coach, every scout, every member of the organization is sitting in on these meetings to study and learn about every player available because there are no players in the building for the offseason program."

Raiders coach Hue Jackson said the extra hours devoted to dissecting each player can be good or bad.

"You have more time to focus from round to round, player to player, every different scenario you can come up with in your mind," Jackson said. "But I still think there's no exact science to it all. Yes, there's more time " maybe more time to make a mistake."

Forty-Niners general manager Trent Baalke concedes there can be cases of over-analysis. He combats it with video.

"There's always a risk, but we try to go back to the film," Baalke said. "We can get enamored with the combine workouts, the pro day workouts, we can get enamored with interview sessions, but at some point you have to go back to the film. We try to base the board on what the film tells us."

Once they're selected, players will work out their own, often with trainers hired by their agents, to make sure they're changing from combine-specific workouts to those preparing them to play football.

Fua and Stanford teammate Ryan Whalen, a mid- to late-round projection as a wide receiver, remain in school, pursuing their degrees, and will work out at the school facility until notified they can begin their NFL careers.

"I want to play football as soon as I can and hopefully that gets resolved, but school is keeping me busy, it's keeping my mind focused," Whalen said.

At the NFL scouting combine, Ravens coach John Harbaugh could do little more than shrug his shoulders at questions concerning team-building during a lockout.

"No one has ever been down this road before," Harbaugh said. "It's out of our hands."

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