Formers Spartans are now free agents stuck in NFL lockout limbo

Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News

Beverly Hills— The hardest part of the NFL lockout from the players’ perspective is the uncertainty it carries with it.

Will players miss a paycheck? Will they be restricted or unrestricted free agents? Are they going to have to take a pay cut?

Those are all questions that no one has the answers to right now.

But for undrafted free agents like Michigan State receiver Mark Dell and tight end Charlie Gantt, their fear is that the lockout could cost them their football careers altogether.

In a normal NFL year, teams would contact players like Dell and Gantt immediately after the draft in hopes of signing them to a free-agent contract. They’d have a contract, a playbook and would already be preparing for minicamps, but not this year.

Because of the lockout, teams were prohibited from signing undrafted free agents. In fact, they could only talk to players during the draft. So, there was a flood of calls from teams to players projected to go undrafted late on the final day of the draft.

Dell said he was contacted by the Lions, Redskins, Patriots, Colts and a couple of other teams that told him they were interested in signing him as a free agent. Dell said they were brief conversations and because of the lockout he hasn’t talked to any of those teams since.

.”It’s been very difficult, actually,” Dell said. “Just for the simple fact that I haven’t played football since Jan. 1. During this time in college, I would have already wrapped up spring ball and been doing some conditioning, at least some football. Not being able to play any football except for the times I’m doing it on my own has been difficult.”

But Dell said he’s at least trying to finding a positive in a bad situation.

“I look at the lockout as both good and bad,” he said. “I believe everything happens for a reason. It gives me an opportunity to get bigger, faster and stronger and I’m taking full advantage of it.”

Dell said he’s working out three times a day to stay ready for the phone call he hopes is coming sooner rather than later.

But Gantt says he’s preparing for all possible scenarios, including an extended lockout.

Like Dell, Gantt was contacted by a number of teams that included the Redskins, Chiefs and Dolphins late on the final day of the draft to tell him they were interested in signing him to a free-agent deal. But he’s also preparing for the worst.

“I’ve got an interview at Beaumont (Hospital) with the chancellor because I want to go to physician assistant school,” he said. “Every day that goes by, I have a worse and worse chance of making a team because I’m not going to know any plays and I’m not going to have any reps.”

Dell thinks the lockout will have the biggest effect on undrafted players teams will invite to training camp. Those players will be coming in with a distinct disadvantage because of the time away from football and the new environment of the NFL to which they’ll not be acclimated. Dell is hoping the coaches take that into consideration and are a little more patient with those players.

“It’s a bit of a disadvantage just as far as learning the concepts and the offense,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the physical play of it. It’s the mental reps and gaining the knowledge of the game and picking up the game from veterans and the playbook. That’s what we’re missing the most.”

Stay or go?

Current NFL players such as Lions quarterback Drew Stanton are also in limbo thanks to the lockout.

No collective bargaining agreement means no rules for free agency. And for a four-year veteran like Stanton, that means a state of flux because he doesn’t yet know if he’s a restricted or unrestricted free agent. He’s doesn’t know if he’s staying or going.

In the old CBA that the owners opted out of, players who had played through their current contract and had at least four years in the league were unrestricted free agents, meaning they could sign with any team.

In last year’s final year of the old CBA, the rules were different and players needed at least six years to reach unrestricted status. Four- and five-year players were restricted free agents, making it much tougher for other teams to sign them.

No one really knows what rules will be in effect in 2011 and that has Stanton uneasy.

“It’s tough because we don’t necessarily have any more information than anyone else,” Stanton said after a workout with teammates at Detroit Country Day last week. “We’re flying by the seat of our pants because once something does get resolved it’s going to be contingent on what our status is.”

The Lions tendered Stanton a restricted free-agent contract at the original-round level under last year’s rules before the lockout took effect. Since Stanton was a second-round pick in 2007, the compensation the Lions would get if he signed elsewhere and the Lions declined to match the offer made to him would be a second-round pick from that team.

But with all restricted free agents, whether or not these tenders apply in the new CBA remains to be seen. It’s possible that the rules could change and have four-year players become unrestricted.

“I’m going to prepare as if I’m going to be here,” he said. “I don’t know it’s tough to say because I want to find the best situation for myself and the organization that’s going to do the best for them. (The Lions) offered me a tender and hopefully when this all gets resolved we’ll have a clearer picture of what that means. Right now, it’s nice to know (the Lions) want me here from their side. But once this all gets resolved, maybe they don’t. Time will tell.”

Time is what a lot of players have on their hands right now and an uncertain future has a lot of them feeling uneasy.

“I just love the game of football,” Dell said. “Being away from it is a little different. I’m ready for that phone call.”

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