|Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press|
|Sam Shields went undrafted in April, but has been a major contributor to the Packers' Super Bowl run.|
MOBILE, Ala. -- The labor strife between the NFL and NFLPA seems to raise a new scenario every day, most of course, stemming around if no agreement is reached by the deadline of March 4.
One of the more interesting topics of discussions among scouts and coaches at Senior Bowl practices this week is the effect that a lockout/work stoppage would have on signing undrafted rookies. If there is no collective bargaining agreement in place following the draft, the scramble to sign players who weren't drafted won't exist because no free agents can be signed with no labor rules in place.
This is a much bigger issue than it might seem. All we have to do is look around the NFL to verify how important undrafted players are and see the impact they can have. Packers defensive backs Tramon Williams and rookie Sam Shields went undrafted and they've been crucial during the playoff run, combining for five interceptions. Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison went undrafted in 2002. Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount had a strong rookie season in 2010 after going undrafted out of Oregon.
As the scouts and coaches went about surveying the talent at the Senior Bowl, they know the reality is that several of the players participating won't be drafted, especially once underclassmen become part of the mix. One coach said those players who don't get drafted typically have to get into teams' strength programs and offseason training to get more coaching than those whose spots often are solidified by their draft status.
Undrafted rookies also tend to earn their keep on special teams, and with so much bad special teams play this past season, things could actually be worse if those type of players can't get signed in time for a fairly lengthy offseason of work. So, add another reason why so many of us are hoping owners and the NFLPA can come to terms soon.
'Toughness' the big theme
Maybe it's because Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was such a hot topic, but the buzzword among coaches and personnel evaluators at the Senior Bowl was "toughness." The evaluation of toughness is always part of the process, but in speaking to people, that also was a trait several teams were trying to add to their rosters.
At the front of the line in that category are the Atlanta Falcons. After going 13-3 and earning the NFC's top playoff seed, then having the Packers hand them their manhood in the divisional-playoff round, Atlanta is on a quest to get some impact-making tough guys on the roster, particularly on defense. Though the Falcons might not go defense early in the draft, they plan on finding some play-makers who stand up and make people take notice, something they don't have outside of end John Abraham and second-year safety William Moore.
A coach from an opposing team told me that the Falcons are one of the best teams in the league because of their coaching; but they don't scare opponents and they have no identity. Atlanta officials seem to recognize that. League sources said the Falcons' personnel evaluators came to grips that they have a good team but that they won games because of precision and discipline. In games where they had to roll up their sleeves and scrap, they lost.
In speaking with some folks with the Falcons, they feel they need to upgrade at so many positions that they seriously might draft the best player on their board each time because he could come in and compete for a starting job at nearly any spot. Atlanta also is looking for an offensive game-breaker and a player that fits that mold is Boise State wide receiver Titus Young. Young stood out big time in the first few Senior Bowl practices and is a player who we'll be hearing a lot about heading into the draft.
Besides trying to find a quarterback -- the main point of conversation among Vikings coaches and team officials other than them wondering where they'll play their games next season -- is how the roster will be shaped.
Tailback Adrian Peterson's salary escalates from $3.64 million to $10.7 million and will have to be reworked in all likelihood for salary cap purposes. There are also a wealth of key free agents, like Chad Greenway, Sidney Rice and Ray Edwards, whose status is unclear. With so much cap massaging needed, the thinking has been that Minnesota could lose a sizeable chunk of its roster. In conversations I had, that might not be the case. The Vikings seem set on keeping their core intact and with Brett Favre's $16 million salary coming off the books, they could have the flexibility to do so.
Coach Leslie Frazier told me that they feel they have most of the pieces in place to return to playoff-contending form -- of course, if they get the right player under center. I very much got the feeling from people I spoke with that Minnesota will add two quarterbacks, a veteran and a rookie to groom. Joe Webb also will continue to be developed, but it seems free-agent quarterback Tarvaris Jackson won't be dissuaded to test the free-agent market.
From conversations I had, it also appeared that Minnesota is set to move on without left tackle Bryant McKinnie. That could be the position it addresses with the No. 12 overall pick.
Just an observation
The Bengals' staff coached the North and the Bills coached the South, and it was intriguing to see the manner in which each staff handled their workouts. The Bengals' staff put their team through crisp, quickly paced, high-tempo drills mixing in special teams work between individual and team drills. Most practices in the NFL seem to move at this tempo, where drills move at a quick pace, in part for conditioning purposes, in part to keep players engaged and to prevent daydreaming.
Buffalo's pacing was far slower and far more instructional. The South squad got its work in, but it didn't nearly have as much pad popping or energy as the North unit. The difference in the two practice sessions were so noticeable that a lot of people talked about it. There were not judgments as to whether one style was better than the other, but the North workouts definitely were livelier.
Some players at the Senior Bowl who created a buzz:
» Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick (6-5, 225): One scout told me he'd be tough to game plan for because he can make the throws and is very mobile.
» San Diego State WR Vincent Brown (5-11, 184): A real head-turner; precise route runner with sticky hands that had a lot of people talking about him.
» Florida State Quarterback Christian Ponder (6-2, 222): He's viewed as a system quarterback, but he was making all the throws that were asked of him.
» Miami (Fla.) WR Leonard Hankerson (6-2, 205): This big wideout has showed well, enhancing his stock to go with his desirable measurables.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.