The uncertainty of the NFL labor situation over the past couple of years hasn't been good for anyone or anything, with the possible exception of the bank accounts of the lawyers who are involved. That much seemingly everyone can agree on. What many can't agree on is who has been hurt most by the ongoing dispute.
The fans? Probably not, at least not until actual games are missed. This year's rookies, especially the undrafted free agents and low-round draft choices who may have a very limited opportunity to show what they can do and make an NFL team? They are certainly in the running.
My vote at this point, however, is for the players in the 2006 draft class. Not the entire class, mind you, but a subset who have already had their lives forever altered. Players like Vikings DE Ray Edwards, Steelers RT Willie Colon, Giants DT Barry Cofield and Titans LB Stephen Tulloch.
All of the aforementioned players were mid-round choices in 2006 and did everything asked of them as professional football players. They became above-average starters and stayed healthy for the entirety of their four-year contracts, and when they completed those contracts at the end of the 2009 season they hit the free-agent market and nothing.
Unlike players in their situation for the previous 16 years, they were not allowed to hit unrestricted free agency and receive a life-altering contract that could set their families up financially for life. Instead, the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement between players and owners kept them tied to their original teams under one-year deals.
It's like hitting a home run, only to be told when you get to home plate that the rules have changed while you were running the bases and you have to go back to third.
Except for these players, based on what has transpired thus far this year, it isn't even third base. They may, in fact, have to go all the way back to second. Part of their future remains unknown, but what is indisputable is that because the 2011 draft took place before free agency, they definitely are no longer standing even on third base.
That's because these players, even if they are granted unrestricted free agency at some point prior to the upcoming season as part of a new labor deal, still won't find the kind of market they saw and dreamt about during their first four years in the league.
Take Edwards, for example.
He had a breakout year in 2009 with 8½ sacks and dominating postseason performances against Dallas and New Orleans. In previous years he would have hit it big. Really big. Instead, Edwards was forced to return to the Vikings on a one-year contract and had a big 2010 season with eight sacks.
But instead of signing a contract in March that would have likely paid him close to $10 million per year with more than $20 million in guaranteed money, Edwards had to sit back and watch a number of teams that would have been interested in acquiring his services draft players at his position instead. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have been a great match for Edwards, but they drafted a defensive end in each of the first two rounds and will no longer be interested in him.
Many other teams took defensive ends high in the draft as well, so Edwards' market value has been adversely affected. Demand for his football services has fallen severely, so instead of landing a once-in-a-lifetime contract this offseason, Edwards is attempting to land blows in the boxing ring for $5,000, beginning May 20 at the Grand Casino Hinckley in Minnesota.
Edwards may even have to stay healthy and play well for one more season before he can hit free agency if the NFL re-opens business under the 2010 rules. That's no guarantee in a game as brutal as professional football.
Just ask Colon. He would have hit the market as one of the top right tackles in football last season, but instead signed the one-year, take-it-or-leave-it offer he received from the Steelers. Colon then ruptured his Achilles tendon in June and missed all of 2010, making it highly unlikely he will ever receive the kind of contract he had earned with his play over the previous four years.
I'm not saying you should feel sorry for these players. Not at all. They still are making hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, to play football. It could definitely be worse. Just look at the high unemployment numbers for the general population. Just know that for Colon, Edwards and the rest, the rules have changed midstream and their lives, and the lives of their families, will be forever altered as a result.
From the inbox
Q: My Tampa Bay Bucs appear to be in the running for Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency (if it ever happens). I'm wondering where you think he will land?
Ben from Adelaide, Australia
A: It is amazing to me how many fans are convinced their team will be the one to get Asomugha. He's been linked to close to a dozen teams including the Cowboys, Redskins, Texans, Eagles and Jets, and many others. My guess is he will go to a team in a major market that he perceives to be a legitimate contender. Given the dollars that will be necessary to acquire his services, I think it is highly unlikely he would land in Tampa Bay given the frugality of that organization in recent years.
Q: If the lockout ends before July and normal training camps are allowed to take place, what do you think the Niners chances are of winning the NFC West this year?
John from Rumford, R.I.
A: Not very good. I think teams with new head coaches, coordinators or quarterbacks will be at a significant disadvantage this year as a result of having no minicamps or organized team activities this spring. The Niners have newcomers at all of those positions, unless they bring back QB Alex Smith, and it seemed to me that draft picks like DE Aldon Smith and QB Colin Kaepernick are geared more for 2012 than 2011.
Q: Are the Eagles draft picks a direct reflection of their new offensive line coach? They've been one of the heaviest lines in the league recently, but each draft pick was light and undersized in comparison.
Paul from Washington, D.C.
A: Yes, Paul, they absolutely are. Former Eagles offensive line coach Juan Castillo -- who, curiously, is now the defensive coordinator in Philadelphia -- really valued size in his offensive linemen. In his mind, bigger was better pretty much across the board. New offensive line coach Howard Mudd, however, teaches very different techniques than his predecessor and places much more emphasis on quickness.
I was surprised, though, that the Eagles took G Danny Watkins in the first round. Mudd did not have a whole lot of success in Indianapolis with the linemen he drafted high (Tony Ugoh, Mike Pollak), but did better with mid-to-late rounders and undrafted free agents like Jeff Saturday, Ryan Diem and Jake Scott.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.