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Next step for some is limbo

Future fuzzy for players unlikely to be drafted

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / April 28, 2011

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Under normal circumstances, Boston College offensive lineman Thomas Claiborne would have been fielding phone calls over the last few days from NFL teams interested in adding him as a late-round draft pick or rookie free agent.

Under normal circumstances, if Claiborne isn’t one of the 254 players selected in the draft, he’d likely accept an offer from a team within a day or two after the draft.

Under normal circumstances, Claiborne’s football future would not be as uncertain as it appears right now.

But these are not normal times in the NFL, and Claiborne and dozens of other prospects like him will fall into a limbo thanks to the labor saga that has engulfed the NFL the last couple of months.

It is the limbo of the undrafted.

Every year, there are about as many players signed as rookie free agents as there are taken in the draft; New England brought in nine in 2010, seven of whom were with the team for training camp.

Being a rookie free agent doesn’t mean you have no chance. The Patriots, for example, have had at least one undrafted player make the 53-man opening day roster for seven straight years. Houston’s Arian Foster, the league’s leading rusher last year, was undrafted.

Though the owner-imposed lockout has been lifted via US District Judge Susan Richard Nelson’s order, the league wants a stay of her decision, which would keep it going.

During a lockout, no free agents, veterans or rookies, can be signed. Players who are drafted face an uncertain future as well, unable to report to the team they’ve been drafted by and start the tough task of learning a new playbook. But at least they know they have a home when labor peace arrives.

“It’s up in the air for everybody,’’ said Claiborne, who has discussed the variables with agent David Rich. “We did talk about the positive of it, the negative of it. We have to be ready for both.

“We’re not going into it blind, because there’s not a 100 percent chance that I’ll get drafted.’’

A Massachusetts native who was a highly decorated defensive lineman coming out of Wellesley High, Claiborne moved to the offensive side of the ball in 2008, before his redshirt sophomore season. He started all 14 games at right guard that year and 11 in 2009; his play that season was strong enough to land him on the 63-name Outland Trophy watch list for 2010. The Outland is awarded to the nation’s best interior offensive lineman.

A minor injury just before the season opener and the death of his grandfather were setbacks for Claiborne, but he did play in 12 games as a senior.

“My rankings have dropped a little bit,’’ he said. “I’m down a little bit on the draft board and stuff. I have heard positive feedback, I’ve heard from a couple of teams, it’s just what kind of player they need.’’

His teammate, defensive lineman Alex Albright, is another potential UFA. But for Albright, even getting consideration from NFL teams will be an achievement. At BC, he missed chunks of time with a broken leg, broken arm, spinal fusion after a neck injury, and a significant ankle injury.

Albright, a Cincinnati native who measures 6 feet 5 inches, 250 pounds, talked to his agent, Richard Katz, and is realistic about the chances of hearing his name during the final rounds of the draft.

“Rich has always been very straightforward with me,’’ Albright said. “And I said to him, ‘Tell it to me straight, how’s it looking?’ He said, ‘There’s a 50-50 chance or better you’ll be a free agent.’ It’s not anything new to me.’’

Albright was counting on his performance at pro day last month to improve his draft stock, and he posted his best results in the shuttle run, three-cone drill, and broad jump, though his 40-yard time was a bit slower than he ran during his training sessions in Florida.

Normally, agents for “bubble’’ players use the weeks leading up to the draft to research clubs where their players might fit and try to sell them there.

The lockout has made that more difficult.

“It’s aggravating,’’ said agent Terry Watson, who represents Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes and has two clients who could go undrafted. “As of right now, there are a lot of unknowns as to what we’re supposed to do. Hopefully, we’ll have more clarity and I can talk to scouts and executives about all of my guys.’’

“I’ve talked to a bunch of teams, and they say, ‘We’re preparing our draft board as if there’s going to be free agency,’ ’’ Rich said. “The only difference is, where there’s free agency, a lot of teams will spend time calling guys they think might be free agents, and they aren’t getting any of that.

“These last two weeks, guys that are bubble guys are usually getting calls: ‘How do we reach you?’ And they aren’t getting those calls. They’ve had almost no hope through the entire process.’’

Clairborne is big, even for an offensive lineman: He goes 6-2, 332. He is nimble for someone that size, but as Rich noted, certain teams go for oversized guards, while a team like the Patriots typically does not.

The wait for the undrafteds could go on for a week or two, or it could go on for months. All Claiborne and Albright can do is stay in shape. Claiborne has been working with former BC teammate and current Patriots defensive end Ron Brace at Train Boston, while Albright works out at Ignite in Cincinnati alongside Bengals such as Tank Johnson and Rey Maualuga and other NFLers.

That training costs money, however. Claiborne has gotten help from his parents and Rich, while Katz is assisting Albright.

Albright works two days a week in construction, which allows him the flexibility to continue his workouts. Claiborne isn’t working yet, but he has a job lined up in case the lockout drags on.

Despite the uncertainty, neither is going to give up on his dream soon.

“As long as I’m unsigned, I’ll continue working out,’’ Albright said. “But I’m not going to give up on training or give up on this dream because a piece of paper isn’t resolved.’’

As many an NFL player can attest, sometimes all it takes is a chance.

“My whole thing is, whenever I make it where I make it, I’m just going to show I can play football,’’ Claiborne said. “I hope some scout or some coach sees that I just love to play football and I give it everything I’ve got.

“When the call comes, I have to be ready, whether I’m drafted or a free agent.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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