Offseason work helped Emmanuel Sanders emerge as the Steelers' No. 3 wide receiver last season.
By Gerry Dulac Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Shortly after he was drafted by the Steelers, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders did as much work as he could to prepare for his rookie season in the NFL.
A third-round selection from Southern Methodist, Sanders spent as many days as he could at the Steelers' South Side facility, working with his position coach, studying the playbook and watching film of every game played the previous two seasons by receivers Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward.
The result: Sanders contributed more than expected as a rookie, catching 28 passes for 376 yards and eventually pushing out veteran Antwaan Randle El as the No. 3 receiver.
Such a situation will not exist for rookies entering the NFL in 2011, not if there is a lockout that continues past the April draft and eventually curtails or eliminates the offseason training teams can conduct with their players.
"It definitely will be tough on an incoming rookie, not having too much time to prepare to make a team," said Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews, the brother of Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. "You've just got to train harder and know whenever [the collective bargaining agreement] does get signed you'll be ready to go compete."
Of all the players affected by a potential lockout, the players who aren't in the NFL right now likely will be the ones who feel the greatest impact.
Even though the league will conduct the draft as scheduled, rookies will not be able to have any contact with their new teams until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. That means they will not be able to do what Sanders and other rookies have done in the past --work out, study film and meet with coaches at their respective training facilities.
What's more, teams will not be able to sign undrafted rookies as free agents until after the potential lockout ends --further reducing the chances of those players making a roster, much less contributing, because they will have less time to get ready for their rookie season.
In the past, the Steelers have signed such players as Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison, running back Willie Parker and fullback Dan Kreider as rookie free agents.
"We're talking about something I can't talk about," said Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert. "Honestly, this draft is like any other. We're preparing the same way and, whatever happens after that, we'll adjust."
Most of the college players at the recent NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis will be drafted and won't have to worry about signing as a rookie free agent. Nonetheless, if a lockout covers an extended period, the number of rookies who will make contributions in 2011 will be significantly fewer than previous seasons.
In other words, don't expect to see players such as center Maurkice Pouncey come to training camp and make an immediate impact in their rookie season.
Or quarterbacks such as Cam Newton of Auburn and Blaine Gabbert of Missouri be first-year sensations like No. 1 overall pick, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, was last year. Quarterback is the position that requires the most offseason training and preparation.
"It would definitely be frustrating if there would be a lockout," said Gabbert, who emerged from the combine as likely the top quarterback in the draft.
"I'm sure they're going to reach an agreement sooner or later. And, whenever they do reach an agreement, I'll be right in the playbook the next day."
"Right now, I'm going to control what I can," said University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker.
"I think everybody will tell you the same thing. We're going to be as prepared for this process as we can, do as well as we can [at the combine] and then, from here, go get ready for our pro days, do well there, put our best foot forward and deal with those things as they come. Stay prepared to play and, whenever we get that opportunity, be ready for it."
The Steelers benefited from their 2010 class because of the stunning emergence of Pouncey, production from Sanders and sixth-round pick Antonio Brown and the play of linebackers Jason Worilds (No. 2) and Stevenson Sylvester (No. 5) on special teams.
But other teams used a lot of rookies to get into the postseason as well. The New England Patriots had the best record in the AFC with the help of four rookies -- cornerback Devin McCourty, linebacker Brandon Spikes and tight ends Rob Gronkowski (Woodland Hills High School) and Aaron Hernandez. The surprising Kansas City Chiefs won the AFC West because of rookie safeties Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis and running back Dexter McCluster.
And, in the NFC, Tampa Bay improved from three victories to 10 when they became the first NFL team in eight years to win a game with seven rookie starters.
Such contributions could be drastically reduced this year with a lockout.
"I'm preparing to start playing, so, even if there aren't OTAs and minicamp, I'm going to be doing my own thing to make sure I'm ready to play football," said Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi.
"The one thing is, you have to be in the best shape you can possibly be in," said North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin.
"You're going to have to stay in shape, stay focused, because, after the draft, wherever you may go, you just want to make sure you're in shape and you're ready because, any day, they could get a deal done. And then you have to go out there and perform for your team.
"You're an investment, and they want to see a return on their investment."