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NFL labor unrest could lead to underclassmen exodus

Get ready for the undergraduates.

The NFL’s uncertain labor situation — with no salary cap in place for 2010, and a potential labor stoppage in 2011 — has many college players wondering what an uncapped year or a potential rookie wage scale could mean for them.

It also seems to have more juniors than ever thinking about whether to make an early move to the NFL.

“We’re looking at that and we’re talking to the right people about it. And we don’t know because they don’t know,” says Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who went through the early-entry process with several Southern Cal stars before taking the Huskies job. He investigated the issue for his current quarterback, junior Jake Locker, who chose to stay in school despite the likelihood he’d be a high draft pick in April.

“That’s the hard part. They’ve been talking about that thing for about five or six years now. That was one of the ploys to try to get (Matt) Leinart to come out early, that some of the agents were using. So that was how many years ago now, and they are still talking about it? So I don’t know.”

Nobody knows much of anything. An uncapped season next year, the first since 1993, will modify restrictions on free agency, but probably won’t have much effect on rookies. But if there’s no pro football in 2011, that would be devastating. The draft itself could disappear.

So, many player agents are projecting a record influx of eligible underclassmen into the 2010 draft. The most to enter early was 70 in 2008 and some agents believe close to 100 will declare in January. Those players have until Jan. 15 to decide, then have 72 hours to withdraw their names and retain college eligibility.

The NFL has made it easier for those players — who must be three years removed from senior year in high school — to be informed of their prospects. In 1994, the league, at the behest of the American Football Coaches Association, created the College Advisory Committee. Personnel evaluations from NFL clubs and scouting groups provided the collegians with opinions on where they might go in the draft, using five categores: as high as the first round; as high as the second; potentially in the third; not in the first three rounds; not at all.

Last year, 151 players were evaluated and 46 entered the draft, with only five not being selected.

Will the numbers jump this year, given the NFL labor landscape?

“I think that rumbling has been growing a little bit,” Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Polian says. “I think any time you are in a gray area, people can use that kind of lack of solid information or the lack of a solid plan to manipulate things to their benefit.”

That uncertainty plagues everyone, particularly players and agents.

“I know that the numbers are up even to this point,” says agent Joe Linta, who represents, among others, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco and center Matt Birk. “I think it stems from the media, the possibility of a work stoppage and more players understanding that there is no evidence to support that they will be picked higher if they stay.”

Adds Peter Schaffer, whose clients include Joe Thomas and Hakeem Nicks:

“Every year, historically, there are a lot more juniors that inquire than will come out, and every year we say it will be a lot. This is unique due to the uncertainty of the (collective bargaining agreement) and what effects that is going to have on the rookie salaries moving forward.

“A lot of people talking to the juniors are saying you should come out, there will be some artificial constraint on the rookies. There are a lot of juniors potentially coming out who will never be a top-10 pick and agents are telling them, ‘If you are a top-10 pick. ...’ It’s an issue. People will be using that to encourage juniors to come out and I don’t think that is right. They must decide only on what is best for their family and career.”

OK, so what is best?

The college players, who can’t contact agents without losing their eligibility, often look to their coaches for advice. If a coach is honest, he’ll temper his desire for a star to return for another season by offering a realistic evaluation of that player’s pro prospects.

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