Herzlich drafted by UFL, a league that's gaining some leverage

Mark Herzlich watched 254 picks come and go over the weekend at the NFL draft, never hearing his name called.

The same fate didn’t await him during the UFL draft on Monday night. The Boston College linebacker, a cancer survivor, was selected by the Omaha Nighthawks of the 3-year-old league with the second-to-last of 52 picks.

Now he has a decision to make. Fight for a roster spot in the NFL, whenever it re-opens for business. Or be virtually assured of one in the UFL, with the idea of using his play there to give him a better shot at sticking in the big league.

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Until this year, most players have seen the UFL as a fallback option, but the uncertainty of the NFL’s labor situation has opened a door. The five-team league wants to take that door off its hinges.

"I think rather than consider us an option, we want players to see it as a strategy," said UFL commissioner Michael Huyghue, a former NFL team executive and player agent. "That is the goal. The undrafted free agents, the aging vets who want to play two more years, the transitioning injured player, we want to establish ourselves as the location for them."

The UFL has planned to take advantage of the 2011 lockout for more than two years, but things haven’t played out exactly the way the league would have liked. With the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals still deliberating over a stay of an injunction to lift the NFL lockout, the work stoppage could be preserved or ended in the coming days, creating even more tumult in an already uncertain situation.

While that might have pumped the brakes on the UFL raiding the crew of the approximately 400 undrafted free agents signed by the NFL teams each spring, it didn’t stop the poaching altogether. Herzlich was one of 21 examples in the 52-player draft, joined by quarterbacks Jerrod Johnson of Texas A&M, Ryan Colbourn of Fresno State and Jeremiah Masoli of Ole Miss. Another recognizable name from the college ranks was wide receiver Jeff Maehl of Oregon.

Should the NFL be granted a stay by the 8th Circuit Court in the coming days, more undrafted rookies could consider jumping over to the UFL as well. They would become test cases for Huyghue’s vision and perhaps outline the long-term viability of the league.

"I do think we have a lot more to prove," said the commissioner. "We have to prove we’re more than a weigh station to the NFL, but there’s a business model that makes sense here."

And that’s why Huyghue thinks success in a situation like this could eventually lead to the UFL partnering with the NFL.

It was never the intention of this league –- which is purposefully set in smaller markets -– to challenge the NFL’s dominance. Ultimately, the idea is to supplement the NFL, and Huyghue thinks the void that’s been there for a league like his is displayed in the 100 players, 18 coaches, and seven front-office personnel who have moved on to the NFL during the UFL’s first two years. Heck, even a referee moved over to the NFL from Huyghue’s ranks.

As such, Huyghue is also careful to be respectful of the big league.

"We need to walk softly and carry a big stick," said Huyghue. "The best way to deal with the NFL is with leverage, just like the players are trying to do in the labor situation. You get their attention when you have something to offer, and you have to avoid not getting run over in the process. The best way is to create a necessity. And you can do it without being a competitor, but taking advantage of your opportunities."

This is a big one for the UFL. Huyghue can only hope the players -– drafted into the league and otherwise -– like the chance the new league offers them.

A lot is riding on it for him.

"It’s all about having that option, if you’re a player," said Huyghue. "They don’t know the status of the NFL right now, and the labor situation might put them in a position where they have to sit out. And sitting out is the worst thing possible for their development. What we can offer is playing time, similar coaching, a similar pace, and a springboard to the next level."

If things work out the way Huyghue sees it, those players will reciprocate, and give the league a springboard of its own to bigger things.

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