NEW YORK -- Lockout. Such a big, bad, scary word.
Apparently not for college football players interested in early entry into this year's draft.
A total of 56 underclassmen went that route, confident the lockout either wouldn't occur -- it did, on March 12 -- or wouldn't last long. With the NFL work stoppage a month old and counting, the reality of having nowhere to go after the draft is beginning to hit those prospects like a blitzing linebacker.
"The type of stuff going on with the lockout is not in my control and never was," Connecticut running back Jordan Todman said. "I could not be sure if it would happen or not, and I had to make a decision based on what I felt was best for my career.
"I felt this was my time, and I felt I could compete with the best running backs in this class and do well. And so, based on that, I made the decision. The potential lockout wasn't a big part of it."
Other players agreed the time was right to move on, even if they might be moving into limbo, with three more early entrants declaring this year than last -- and 10 more than in 2009.
"It was discussed, sure," Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "At no point has anyone really feared missing the whole season, and I got advice from enough people that figured things would be OK. It never played into my decision."
Even now, with the April 28-30 draft at hand and no labor peace on the horizon, these youngsters are preparing to be selected, meet the staffs of their new team, then go about preparing to be pros. Yet, they know minicamps, where they first are immersed in the playbook, could be lost to the lockout. Voluntary offseason training sessions wouldn't exist. Same for training camps.
All the while, the guys lucky enough to be drafted can't use club facilities or have their agents negotiate contracts. Perhaps the best they can hope for is to be called by their new team's offensive and defensive leaders for workouts organized by the players.
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That might be farfetched, as well.
Not with players having to provide their own insurance, as well as equipment and venues.
This is what all those players left school early to get into? Wasn't it an extra gamble, particularly for those who figure to go midway through the draft? Or worse, not be selected at all, leaving them looking at the Canadian Football League or United Football League because they're uncertain if they have any value to NFL teams?
"I have definitely thought about that," said Keiser, who's projected to go in the second half of the draft. "It isn't the ideal situation for a player coming in his first year into the NFL. I'm in school right now for the spring quarter, and it won't end before June, and then I'm going to have to see what progress has been made in the whole lockout issue."
And if the NFL still is closed for business, Keiser calls moving back home with his parents in Pittsburgh and getting a job "a definite possibility."
Smith had the luxury of already graduating college with a degree in criminal justice, although he has a year of eligibility remaining. So he was planning for a possible lockout all along.
"It was something I knew I would have to deal with if I leave school," Smith said, "and I talked to players in the league and to my agents and to others, and they were all kind of confident that they will get it resolved.
"But I graduated school, and I have a lot of things going in my favor. I have a bunch of things I can do with my degree. I'll be training in Miami with (Chad) Ochocinco and Donte' Stallworth and other guys I know in the pros. I'm still optimistic, oh, yeah."
Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis is among 12 running backs to declare early for the draft. He also dismissed the impact of a lockout on his decision, noting the move had more to do with his position.
"Obviously, a running back takes the most pounding of any position out there," said Lewis, who goes 5-foot-8, 195 pounds, but is considered a pretty good inside runner. "And the career for a running back is not that long. You have to try to get to the NFL as quickly as possible. I felt I had two great years, and it was time to chase my dream.
"It is tough this way and makes it a lot harder than for other rookies coming in other years. All we can do is wait to get that call (for being drafted), then wait to get that call for going in to start to work with your team."
The lockout also puts a focus on early entrants' lack of experience. In normal years, most teams don't worry about drafting a 20- or 21-year-old player because of all the time they have to develop him for his first season. This year, if all those minicamps and workouts and even summer practices are canceled, the learning curve would be short and steep.
That could affect whom a team selects if it rates two players equally -- it happens more than you might think. The pick easily could turn on maturity and just how many games a player had in college.
"In years past, teams would bring in rookies almost immediately and try to get them ready to contribute right away," agent Drew Rosenhaus said. "We do not have that option. This will hold back the progress of the rookies, underclassmen or not. It's a crummy situation."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press