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CBA uncertainty leaves combine dealings at a minimum

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My favorite thing about the NFL Scouting Combine is the fact that it's about much more than the draft itself. Sure, for hours a day young men are doing all they can at Lucas Oil Stadium in an attempt to improve their stock, but much of the most meaningful activity in Indianapolis takes place at night.

That's when agents and scouts and team executives can't help but bump into one another downtown, forming a human cocktail of sorts that results in a variety of NFL business to be conducted down the road. It's the closest thing the NFL has to baseball's winter meetings, and it's where seeds of free-agent deals have long been sown.

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This year, however, with the unresolved negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement trumping everything else in the football world, the combine wasn't quite the same. The overriding feeling from agents and team officials was that the level of communication between those sides was much more tempered than usual. The reality is that for years the tampering rules via free agency, once the combine hit, were widely disregarded (something that might or might not be addressed in the next CBA). It was not unusual for an agent to have a very good feel for which teams were willing to spend big on one of his clients. It might be a dirty little secret, but it's an open secret in NFL circles.

This year, though, much of that was curtailed. First of all, it's still unclear exactly which players will hit the free-agent market. And with no salary cap details sorted out, it would be difficult for any general manager to have a firm budget from his owner at this point. It's also hard to prioritize which free agents to sign when you don't know the scope of the entire market just yet. Don't get me wrong, plenty of clandestine conversations still took place, and agents could come away with some parameters of what the market might bear, but not with the clarity and thoroughness of years past.

That was the reality of the 2011 combine. It's indicative of where things stand between the league and the NFLPA as the expiration of this CBA draws closer by the hour. However, it was not the only major topic of discussion. With that in mind, here is some of what I gleaned while intermingling, at varying times of the day and night, during my stint in Indianapolis.

Four-year fall guys?

If the labor situation plays out as some experts believe it will -- with the NFLPA decertifying, the league and players engaging in dueling court cases and the sides playing the 2011 season under the 2010 rules, or something very close to them, then players with four accrued NFL seasons would take the biggest hit. It was a big topic of conversation among agents, while teams were coveting the opportunity to begin sending low restricted qualifying offers to players who otherwise could be in for a free-agent bonanza.

Normally these guys would be free to sign anywhere after four years of service, barring a franchise tag. But in 2010, the uncapped year, free agency jumped to six years. And if we played under those rules again in 2011, fourth-year guys would be in a bind.

"I understand why we would need to decertify to prevent a lockout," one agent said, "but the problem for me is what would happen to four-year free agents."

The NFLPA has studied the situation for months, and in union camp you hear chatter about the plight of the "pre-93s" -- the group of potential free agents who played under current rules in the early 1990s while the courts sought a resolution of the labor plight going on at that time. In a sport with an average career of 3 ½ years, and with the threat of serious injury very real, losing what could be a player's only shot at big bucks is huge.

But for a union with 1,500 odd members, no deal or set of circumstances is going to work for all. And as various NFLPA officials have said, the players would love to operate on the current rules for the indefinite future. If we do reach a conclusion to this labor mess that results in playing under the 2010 rules, then several agents said a possible battle could ensue over fifth-year free agents, given some of the language in the current CBA governing the final league year and what it could mean for fifth-year players.

Another side to all of this, plenty of assistant coaches -- the guys who could stand to lose the most in a lockout -- are quietly hoping for decertification, believing that maybe it avoids a lockout and salvages football in 2011. Many coaches must take a substantial pay cut, lose out on some benefits, and/or assume scouting duties during a lockout. It's a very dicey time for them and in that way aligns them with the players, who could also be looking at lost paychecks and/or bonuses. Several coaches and player development guys were grappling with how difficult it would be to cut off all contact with their players for potentially months on end, if we did have a lockout, and the sense of unease among this group of NFL employees was palpable.

Newton's ability in eye of beholder

I spent a good chunk of one night out with a few scouts, one whose team would be very much in the hunt for a top-10 quarterback and another whose club is not seeking QB help. The debate about Cam Newton and his potential for NFL success got very animated.

A grizzled senior scout, who does not have a need for a quarterback and who has been in this business longer than many of us have been alive, is thoroughly convinced Newton has "It" in droves. He sees a moxie in him. He loves the athleticism. He was impressed with how Newton handled himself with the media horde during his press conference at the combine.

"This kid is a winner," the scout said. "He was at Florida when they were winning titles. He won a title in junior college. He won a title at Auburn. He has 'It.' Hell, if anyone has 'It,' this kid has it!"

Enter the other scout, the one whose team very much needs a QB and most certainly is pouring over everything Newton does. This scout has serious reservations about Newton, on and off field. To him, Newton's swagger borders on too cocky, too all-about-himself. Entrusting the franchise to this kid right now would be a concern. Skepticism reigned at this side of the table.

Newton had no shortage of interviews at the combine -- Redskins, Seahawks, Titans, Panthers, Cowboys, Jaguars, Bills, Bengals, 49ers, Dolphins, and Cardinals -- and, again, there were some mixed reviews. Some believed he displayed a maturity and composure beyond his years and took on his past foibles head-on. At least one team found him evasive. "He kept qualifying and re-qualifying his statements," according to a source. "You couldn't get a feel for what was real, or if some of it was rehearsed."

Personally, I thought Newton more than held his own addressing the media, but that too was open to interpretation, as some of my colleagues were less than impressed. I have a feeling the kid goes in the top 10 and is a productive NFL player in time. At least one offensive coordinator I spoke to thought that Blaine Gabbert would go first overall, and Newton would be taken by the Bills with the third pick. Wouldn't that be something?

Cornerstone

There is no lack of red flags regarding Colorado corner Jimmy Smith. His off-field issues are a big concern for many teams. It was certainly a big story at the combine. But according to one NFL coach, who has scouted the available corners at length, Smith is by far the best of the bunch.

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"He's the most natural corner in the draft," the coach said.

The coach said he has the best cover skills and that things seem to come instinctively to him. This coach, again, talking football only, greatly prefers Smith over Prince Amukamara or even Patrick Peterson. He said everything from the hips to ability to playing the ball worked in Smith's favor. Perhaps Smith will end up being one of the steals of the draft, particularly if he falls beyond the second round.

Character is viewed differently and weighs more heavily in some organizations than others. And maybe Smith has learned from his past and will be a model citizen in the future. The draft is truly an inexact science but Smith could end up surprising some people.

Odds and ends

» Spoke to someone this week who is convinced that when all is said and done, the magic number on a new contract for Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald, whether he stays in Arizona or goes elsewhere, would land in the $18-million-per-season range. If that is indeed the case, it might prove difficult for the Cardinals to get something done that prevents Fitzgerald from at least dipping his toes in the free-agent waters.

» If Steelers OT Willie Colon and Texans TE Owen Daniels end up as unrestricted free agents, their recent injury issues aren't likely to restrain their earning potential to any great degree. Colon is among the best available at his position, and teams always need tackles. The fact that he missed all of 2010 will hurt some, but I could still see him getting $7-$8 million a year on the open market.

Daniels missed half of 2009 due to injury and was not quite right at the start of last season, dogged by a hamstring injury. However, over the final four weeks, only Jason Witten had more receptions than Daniels (29 to 22) among all tight ends. Daniels had 271 receiving yards in that span (second only to Witten's 300). Daniels also had 13 first-down catches over those four games -- only Witten and Rob Gronkowski had more. His late-season push will not go unnoticed. And, like the Steelers with Colon, the Texans will make an effort to keep Daniels once we know what the new rules look like.

» The releasing of older, expensive free agents will continue until the waiver deadline Thursday afternoon. Arizona's Joey Porter, set to make $5.75 million in 2011, and San Francisco's Nate Clements, due to make $7.25 million, are two of the better known players who could be cut before then.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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