MOBILE, Ala. — Given all the uncertainty, the fierce rhetoric on both sides and the lack of discernible progress toward a new collective bargaining agreement in the NFL, the likelihood of a work stoppage increases daily.
But there is one sure thing on the NFL calendar, even if the league comes to a grinding halt, as early as March 4: The draft will be conducted, per usual, no matter the status of labor talks.
To that end, the annual meat market known as Senior Bowl week is under way, with NFL scouts and decisionmakers from far and wide evaluating prospects who soon will be NFL players. Football's next generation of stars will be weighed, measured, grilled and dissected all in the name of furthering their careers at the next level.
While those players are about to realize their dreams, they could be drafted at a time when they aren't allowed inside their teams' facilities or won't have interaction with their coaches or the benefit of crucial offseason workouts that are most beneficial to rookies. In an era when rookies are routinely pressed into major roles, a lockout could be a setback to rookies who might otherwise factor prominently.
Whatever happens, these baby-faced prospects are caught in the middle and powerless to do anything about any of it.
"It would be frustrating in the sense that I want to be there (the NFL) and I've dreamed and dreamed of being there," Cal All-Pac-10 defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "So, basically, I want to be there now."
"We can't control it, and we can't in any way affect it," said Washington's Jake Locker, one of the top quarterbacks available.
That's the cold reality these players face. There has been little reason for optimism as NFL team owners continue to seek a reduction in compensation for players, an attempt to take back some of the gains players made in the 2006 negotiations.
After hearing assessments like the one offered by Bucs union representative Jeff Faine, incoming rookies might find it hard to muster much optimism.
"Right now, it's not looking good, unfortunately," Faine said Monday from Rays outfielder B.J. Upton's charity bowling event in Tampa. "Hopefully the closer it gets, hopefully it'll start getting a little better."
He added, "No one is budging. We (players) are not ones to give up what we've already negotiated."
All of that probably means next to nothing to the 2011 rookie class. Just understanding the dynamics at work can be difficult for players in their early 20s who have little concept of how the business of the NFL works. In that respect, they're beginning to get an education.
"It kind of is (a wake-up call)," said Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, a projected first-round pick. "Going through your senior season, you hear the rumors on (television) about it and don't really pay attention to it too much because you're still a college kid. But then you finish your season and you're trying to make this your job and that's when it becomes the reality you face."
It's a huge departure from the culture in college where players don't have to deal with contracts or unions or collective bargaining agreements.
"In the NFL, it's a big switch," Jordan said. "The NFL is business. You get paid for a job — period."
But doing that job could be less lucrative for the draft's earliest picks by the time all is done. One issue up for debate is the implementation of a rookie salary cap that will take aim at the enormous contracts handed out to high draft picks.
The Bucs, for example, negotiated a deal with No. 3 overall choice Gerald McCoy worth more than $50 million last year. The impact will be distinct for a player such as Locker, who considered leaving for the NFL as an early entrant last year but elected to return for another season at Washington. His stock is perceived to have fallen significantly since. In 2010, he was seen as a top-10 pick. Now, projections suggest he could be a late first-round choice.
"Hey, it's something we can't control," he said Monday. "I play the game because I love to. I'll play for any amount of money."
Jordan was more demonstrative, offering a defense of the high rookie salaries.
"I sort of (understand) the main context of it, that they think rookies make too much right off the top before you prove yourself," he said. "I understand that. But I also think that you put in like eight years of work just to get to this point. What about that?"
That's one of many unanswered questions as the NFL inches toward an end to its labor peace. For players entering the draft, there's only one option.
"I think what we need to do as players," Locker said, "is do our best to prepare like there's going to be a draft like there always has been and just be as ready as we can for that day."
After that, they should prepare for just about anything.
Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report. Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.