NFL Labor: Free agency question still looms

Clark says issue an important one

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Steelers safety Ryan Clark said it was good that the National Football League will allow him and his teammates to immediately begin working out, talking with coaches, even watching film at the team's facility.

And while he said it was a positive step because it gives young players a chance to learn more and develop further, Clark said there still remains another big hurdle for veteran players who are without contracts.

What will happen with free agency?

That could be decided as early as today, too, when the NFL is expected to release detailed guidelines for free agency, trades and other roster moves -- something that has been put on hold since the collective bargaining agreement expired March 11.

"I think it's a positive step for us and a positive step for getting guys on the field," said Clark, the team's player representative. "But if the NFL isn't going to let free agency start, it's still not enough."

"Yeah, it's good we can talk with coaches and work out and all that, but if they're like, 'We're still not going to let you do anything in free agency, we're not going to let you on the market,' then it's not good."

In any other year with a CBA in place, free agency always takes place before the draft. The significance of that is it allows teams to address needs by signing veteran players who are unrestricted free agents, sometimes at an inflated market value.

But, since the beginning of the labor strife between the players and owners, the free agency period was delayed, if not thrust into limbo.

Even if the league decides to let free agency begin Monday, which is a possibility, it still comes after teams already have addressed their needs in the NFL draft that began Thursday night.

That, Clark said, drastically could affect the market value of a player such as cornerback Ike Taylor, an unrestricted free agent. He likely would be in less demand after the draft.

"It's really tough on free agents because they didn't allow any movement," Clark said. "What can you do? "

Even Kevin Colbert, the team's director of football operations, said the Steelers are making draft decisions based on their current team, which means players who are under contract.

Taylor's market value, effectively, could be hurt in both instances, though the Steelers have had preliminary discussions about re-signing him.

"If a team knows it has a draft pick at that position, it's going to be tougher on [free agents] to get a deal," Clark said.

The NFL decided Thursday that players can report to their respective facilities and do anything they would normally do in the offseason, beginning today. That decision came five days after a federal judge declared the lockout by the owners was illegal, including work out with strength coaches. But there are guidelines to follow.

Mandatory minicamps and voluntary offseason practices can begin immediately under rules of the old collective bargaining agreement. That means team-supervised workouts will count toward bonuses for players who have such clauses in their contracts.

Players, though, can only work out on their own at team facilities if they have health insurance in place.

"It's good because we can get some football done between now and training camp," said linebackers coach Keith Butler. "I need to some of my young guys and get them in the film room."

The biggest benefactor of the NFL's decision is that rookies who are drafted this weekend will be allowed to start working out with their respective teams and accept playbooks.

"We can watch film with coaches, get some workouts in, that's good," Clark said. "No one wants to sit out. No one wants to come in to the facility just to talk to the receptionist. I love the guy, but I'm not there to talk to him. If you can't work, we're not going to come in. But at least now we can."

Labor inside

The league is expected to distribute guidelines to teams on "post-injunction operations" today. Page D-12.


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