Underclassmen declaring for NFL draft in normal numbers

As college football underclassmen from Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck — staying in school — to LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson — leaving for the pros — weigh whether to head to the NFL, it’s clear they’re aware of the league’s impending labor unrest.

Still, that does not appear to be influencing many decisions ahead of Saturday’s deadline to declare for the draft.

“I don’t think the looming potential of the lockout is affecting decisions,” agent Peter Schaffer said in a telephone interview. “I really don’t believe the uncertainty of the labor situation is skewing decisions one way or another in any significant proportion. It’s pretty much been business as usual.”

Indeed, the NFL expects the number of underclassmen eligible for the draft to fall within the range established over the past decade. An average of 46 players was granted what the NFL calls “special eligibility” each draft since 2001, with a low of 35 that year and a high of 53 in both 2008 and 2010.

While Saturday is the last day an underclassman can put his name up for the draft, he then has 72 hours to change his mind. The NFL will announce the early entry candidates next Wednesday.

The current NFL labor deal expires in early March, and the players’ union is convinced the owners are planning to lock them out. Even if that happens, April’s draft will go on as scheduled, although rookies wouldn’t be able to sign contracts until a new collective bargaining agreement is in place.

Among the factors underclassmen might consider:

• It’s possible there won’t be a 2011 NFL season at all, so players leaving college could wind up sitting out an entire year.

• Even if an agreement is reached in time for next season to be played, the timing of a deal might result in shortened training camps or no minicamps, so “your development might be stunted a little versus years past,” Schaffer said. A rookie would have less time to learn his new team’s system and prove he deserves to start — or, in some cases, even make the roster.

• Owners are intent on having a rookie wage scale be part of a new CBA. Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote about “the outrageous sums paid to many unproven rookies” in a recent letter sent to fans about the labor situation, and such a change could apply to the 2011 draft class.

• Entering the pros sooner starts a player’s NFL “clock” sooner, moving him closer to his second contract and free agency, which could be particularly attractive if a rookie wage scale is created.

“The labor situation in the NFL right now is something each one of these guys had to evaluate as a reality of how it could affect their development,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said last week, when Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and two other juniors opted to enter the draft. “I think every guy did that.”

From what players making their announcements have said, it sounds as though plenty of more traditional factors are playing roles: how high they expect to be drafted; what the expectations are for their college teams next season; whether an injury in college could set them back; whether they think there is room to rise in the draft with another good college season, etc.

Two Oklahoma State players who announced Wednesday that they’ll return to college, All-America receiver Justin Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden, both said the NFL’s labor status didn’t affect their decisions.

Luck’s father, West Virginia athletic director and former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, said he discussed the implications of a potential lockout with Andrew. But Oliver Luck said that didn’t affect his son’s choice to remain at Stanford, which was more about continuing to play with his Cardinal teammates and graduating from school.

“I went through the ’82 strike as a player and retired before the ’87 season, when there was another strike,” Oliver Luck said. “As a lawyer, I shared information with him about the labor situation. In the end, that did not matter as much as those two other factors. That’s how he made his decision.”

While NFL spokesman Greg Aiello acknowledged the labor “uncertainty is affecting a lot of things,” he said he isn’t aware of anyone suggesting or requesting that the league change the deadline or procedures for underclassmen who want to make themselves eligible for the draft.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the two biggest stars for national champion Auburn — Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley, both juniors — hadn’t publicly announced their plans. Other top underclassmen who hadn’t made announcements included quarterbacks Kellen Moore of Boise State and Robert Griffin of Baylor.

Then there’s the case of Georgia receiver A.J. Green, a college junior who is widely considered a top-10 pick. He said he didn’t worry about the NFL’s labor unrest and the possibility of a rookie salary cap when figuring out whether to opt for the draft.

“If I had really thought about that,” Green said, “I probably would’ve stayed in school.”

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