The 2011 NFL Draft is in the rearview mirror, and crickets -- muffled until now by the hype around the college selection show -- are audible.
No one hears them louder than the undrafted free agents that, in a normal year, would be the subject of the frenzied courtships that land around 400 guys their NFL shot.
And that's where the fledgling UFL comes in, with a golden opportunity to be pounced upon.
The aforementioned players, like North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney and Boston College LB Mark Herzlich who went undrafted, will be unable to sign with NFL teams and, as such, will be staring at weeks or even months of a lack of football employment ahead. Unless, of course, they take a non-NFL job, which is something the UFL can offer.
So the UFL's draft, and season, has been moved up, in part to help accommodate opportunities for a potential influx of pro football neophytes.
"If you really look at the population of NFL players, the majority are first- and second-round picks, but once you get past that, the second-biggest group is the undrafted group," said Omaha Nighthawks GM and former Saints VP of player personnel Rick Mueller. "Part of that's the numbers that sign after the draft, but it's also because it's a pretty good pool of talented players. The evaluation process is difficult for us, because we don't have the full staff (that NFL teams) do, but there's opportunity here.
"There's opportunity for players that can't get on teams to sign free-agent contracts to come to the league, and a chance for us to get younger as a league."
The logistics here are key. And much of the UFL's plan is dependent on the NFL getting the full stay it is now seeking from U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. A temporary stay of the lockout-lifting injunction is in effect, until the full stay, which would preserve the NFL's right to lock the players out and likely drag the work stoppage into summer, is ruled on. That ruling is expected this week. The UFL draft will be held on Monday, with every player undrafted by the NFL eligible to be picked. There then will be tryouts and minicamps, with training camp starting in mid-July, and the season kicking off in August and wrapping up by Halloween -- when eight NFL weeks are in the books.
One catch: Players signing UFL contracts will be bound to their teams until the end of the season, meaning no job-jumping to the NFL if the lockout ends sooner than a prospect might think. So players will have to weigh that in making their decisions, and what way a guy is leaning -- Mueller says the Nighthawks will be making calls Sunday to gage interest - will likely play into where he's drafted.
On the flip side, a player will have found a football home, and a place where he'd be more likely to get game experience. And by late October, if he'd proven himself a commodity, he'd still have more than half his rookie season left to chase his NFL dream.
"People don't realize that 11 percent of NFL rosters are made up of (former rookie) free agents," said Jerry Glanville, the Hartford Colonials' coach/GM and former Falcons and Oilers coach. "So can these guys play? Without question. In fact, a lot of the free agents that don't make it are with teams that don't have the need they fill. And you look at our team last year at Hartford, with 18 players off the roster playing in the NFL, we're pretty good anyway."
Two weeks after the UFL draft, on May 14, Glanville will be hosting a tryout in Houston. On May 21, he'll have a camp, run in conjunction with Marty Schottenheimer's Virginia Destroyers, in Atlanta. And on June 4, he'll hold another tryout in Hartford. Finally, a three-day, helmets-only minicamp will lead into the July 15 start of training camp.
The point is, Glanville and, presumably, a lot of other UFL folks will be pulling a lot of talent-procurement levers over the next three months. So there might be pressure on guys to sign, or miss their shot. It'll be an interesting decision for the very top rookie free-agent types to make.
One prominent agent said, in such a situation, he'd preach patience to that kind of player. But if the player was further down the list of undrafted guys -- and this would also apply for veteran "roster bubble" types" -- the agent said he might push him to sign, because if NFL training camps are truncated, it's hard to see everyone getting a fair shot to make teams.
And the overall fallout of all this? It could be massive.
The UFL sees the opportunity here to change the way that talented young players think of the league -- with the chance to make it a springboard to NFL success, rather than a landing spot after NFL failure.
"This is an opportunity for us to change the process, and it's not a window that's going to come open very often," said Mueller. "We can offer these players a UFL opportunity. You mention guys like Tony Romo or Jake Delhomme, well, they sat around to get their chance. We offer guys like that the opportunity to play, and do it as part of a three-to-four-month process, so that by Halloween, they can go to the NFL.
"And at that point, they'll have real pro football experience under their belt. In pro football, particularly at a position like quarterback, that's valuable. For all college free agents, it's important. We gotta capitalize on that, and show people the opportunity we have for guys to come in and play."
At the very least, it is giving a lot of players in their early 20s something to think about after shaking off the disappointment of not getting drafted.