Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Sports News

Ragged play, free agency frenzy ahead for NFL

By AP's Barry Wilner

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[July 26, 2011]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- If "futbol" is the beautiful game, football NFL-style could be the ugly stepchild this summer.

And maybe into the fall.

With the 4 1/2-month lockout over, everything about the next few weeks, perhaps months, in the NFL will be tough. The lockout erased all offseason activities; dozens of players, particularly rookies or those whose coaching staffs have changed, haven't seen playbooks yet. And it prevented players from working out at team facilities with team doctors and trainers, a key to staying in football shape.

"I think it's pretty much going to be a whirlwind," Bengals tight end Reggie Kelly said Monday. "It's going to be a lot of not necessarily chaos, but it's not going to be an ideal type of situation. A lot of things are fast-forwarded ...

"Obviously, we've never faced anything like this before. We never faced not having offseason training."

The whirlwind begins Tuesday, when teams can start signing 2011 draft picks and rookie free agents. They also can begin making trades and have conversations with veteran free agents from all teams. But no signings can occur until Friday, and there will be no window for teams to negotiate exclusively with their own veteran free agents.

"It's going to be like speed dating," agent Joe Linta said. "I worry we won't have the time to think about it like before. And we can't sign until Friday and can't practice until (next) Monday or Tuesday or so.

"Every coach will need a personal psychiatrist."

Of primary concern is that the product on the field might not match what the NFL usually provides, and that could be the biggest impact of the lockout.

"I don't think the product is going to be as good as early, especially if we have to play a preseason game as it's scheduled on a week's practice," Cardinals star receiver Larry Fitzgerald said Monday after the players' executive committee and team representatives approved a labor agreement with the league. "That's going to be tough."

If fans thought preseason games were hard to watch before, just wait.

And don't wait for the big stars to make many appearances, at least not until deep into the preseason. The first two weeks of exhibition games might look like scrimmages -- college scrimmages.

"I think we have to be very careful with these training camp practices and preseason games," Kelly said. "A lot of players don't have playbooks, a lot of young guys are not acclimated to the NFL yet. You have to gradually work guys into the NFL system. I could see guys suffer a lot of injuries, a lot of miscues and blown assignments. That's not what you want out of NFL football. You want to give the fans a good, quality game. Even if you err on the side of caution, I think that's good."

Tell that to the folks dishing out regular-season prices for tickets.

Then again, maybe they should be used to hiding their eyes.

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"How much sloppier can it get?" said Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, a plaintiff in the antitrust lawsuit that 10 players filed against the NFL on March 11. "You look at the first couple games of the preseason, even when we have minicamps and OTAs, the quality of play is to the point where nobody feels good about it. Now that we've missed all this offseason time, there are going to be even more growing pains for everybody."

With rookies and fringe players eager to impress, the prospect of injuries is greater than ever.

"The lack of offseason will seriously affect those that have not prepared on their own or at a facility," said Brian Martin, CEO of TEST Football Academies in Florida and New Jersey, places where dozens of NFL players train. "Based on working with over 60 active NFL guys, I believe it is roughly 50-50 with those that are workers and those who are not. Many rely on natural gifts, and they will be affected with the lack of mandatory conditioning.

"The most common injuries will be pulled muscles, hamstrings and groins primarily, due to lack of preparation," Martin said. "Players need to lengthen and strengthen muscles in the offseason to be ready for the rigors of the NFL."

No one can be ready for the rigors of a free agency frenzy, either.

Normally, on March 1, free agents are courted and wooed by various bidders. They make visits to team facilities, meet with coaches and other team personnel, perhaps with the owner. They sometimes even look at potential housing.

Perhaps most significantly, they take physicals. It's not unheard of for a team to pass on a free agent because of a sketchy physical -- just ask the Dolphins about Drew Brees' shoulder.

All of that could fall victim to the lockout.

"We'll be trying to get up to speed in 1 1/2 weeks or two," Linta said. "When they get on the field, it will be like trying to play a game right after minicamp in May."

[Associated Press; By BARRY WILNER]

AP Sports Writers Joseph White, Joe Kay and Jon Krawczynski contributed to this story.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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