Labor battle takes a bite out of usual draft hype

Among top prospects, few worries about possibility of lockout

event begins Thursday with 1st round

  • NFL football draft prospect Cam Newton of Auburn high-fives youth participants at the NFL Play 60 football event in New York.
NFL football draft prospect Cam Newton of Auburn high-fives… (BILL KOSTROUN / REUTERS…)
April 27, 2011|By Sam Farmer, Tribune Newspapers

NEW YORK — In another year, under different circumstances, the Big Apple might have been Newton's Apple.

Cam Newton, that is, the Heisman Trophy-winning Auburn quarterback and presumed No. 1 draft pick of the Carolina Panthers.

Much more of the focus might be on him — he might even have worked out a contract with the Panthers before the draft got under way — and the conversations surrounding the event would be more about the actual game of football.

But this year is different, and the draft — the first round of which takes place Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall — feels like a sideshow to the bitter labor battle between the league's owners and players.

With U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ruling in favor of the players this week and instructing the NFL to lift the lockout, it's hard to ignore the cloud of uncertainty hovering over the marquee event of the offseason.

"We are in a period of uncertainty, and that is something you want to remove," commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters Wednesday during a youth football event at a Manhattan park in which 13 of the draft's top prospects participated. "It's one of the things I don't think is healthy for the players, the clubs and most importantly our fans. So the sooner we can get rid of that uncertainty, the better."

This much is clear: The draft will stretch over three days, with the opening round Thursday, the second and third rounds Friday, and the final four rounds Saturday. Teams will have up to 10 minutes between picks in the first round, seven minutes in the second and five for the remaining five rounds.

Newton attended Wednesday's event but didn't talk to reporters. Several of his fellow rookies-to-be stuck around, however, with many saying they are far more excited than anxious about what the future holds. None seemed overly concerned about the state of the labor fight.

"They're making progress now, so it's going to get done," Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn said. "It's looking better than it did a month ago."

Asked about the possibility of an abbreviated training camp, something that could happen if the NFL successfully appeals the latest ruling to lift to lockout, Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller said he's ready to adjust to whatever happens.

"I think we all trust the process," he said. "I think we all know what's going on. We appreciate the struggle that's going on with both sides. We understand that both sides are trying their hardest to get this thing done."

Miller is among the 10 plaintiffs named in the antitrust suit against the NFL, along with quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. There is a connection because Miller is represented by Athletes First of Irvine, Calif., and one of the agents there, Andrew Kessler, is the son of Jeffrey Kessler, lead attorney for the players.

Miller said he put a "tremendous amount" of thought into attaching his name to the lawsuit.

"I never did do it for the notoriety or anything like that," he said. "I did it to help out those guys. I think [teams] know that I'm not the type of guy to raise trouble. I think they all know that I did it for a greater purpose, and it hasn't really been a problem."

It isn't likely that Miller will have to wait around long Thursday. He's expected to be selected either second by Denver or third by Buffalo. He said, however, that his dream scenario would be to be drafted by his home-state Dallas Cowboys, although they would have to trade up from their No. 9 spot to get him.

LSU's Patrick Peterson, the top cornerback in the draft, said he will be happy to go anywhere — although he, too, named the Cowboys as his No. 1 choice.

"If the Cowboys came and got me, I could not explain the feeling I would have," he said. "That's the team I've always dreamed of seeing myself play for. If the Cowboys risk a lot to come up and get me, I would definitely go there and give them my all."

UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers didn't point to any particular team that he prefers, but he made it clear that he'll be disappointed if he isn't selected in the first round.

"I definitely believe that I'm a first-round talent," he said. "I want to leave here Thursday night and know what team I'm going to be on."

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