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Doc's NFL Notebook

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The NFL Players’ Association decertified as a union on March 11, resulting in the league locking out the players. The two sides appeared close to agreeing on a new collective bargaining agreement, but for now the fight heads to the courts.

The early April hearing U.S. District Court in Minneapolis saw players will request an injunction that will allow the season to go on as schedule while the courts settle on a decision. The league has argued that the NFLPA’s decertification is a sham, and will ask the court not to issue an injunction before the National Labor Relations Board makes a decision on the decertification.

Catch As Catch Can’t
While the lockout continues, coaches and team officials are not allowed to contact players, and vice versa. Players were also not allowed to workout or meet with coaches in a designated downtime period earlier this year, unbeknownst to 49ers new coach Jim Harbaugh. He admitted to playing catch with quarterback Alex Smith during that period, as a way of meeting with Smith and working on his mechanics. The session broke league rules that guard against coaches conducting meetings or workouts during the downtime, and San Francisco is expected to be one of five teams to be fined for violating the NFL’s policy.

Getting Drafty
The only transactions that can be made during the lockout will be the draft picks made April 28-30, but the contentions between the league and players may affect a longtime NFL Draft tradition. While not calling for a true boycott, the Players’ Association has “suggested” that top prospects not attend the draft event at Radio City Music Hall. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith does not want incoming rookies to shake NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s hand in the midst of the multi-billion-dollar dispute between the two sides. The Players’ Association will reportedly offer draftees the opportunity to attend an alternative party in New York City with their future teammates.

Return to Sender
When the NFL eventually gets back to on-field action, there will be new rules to play by. The most significant is the moving of kickoffs from the 30-yard-line to the 35, equivalent to college rules. The competition committee made the change to decrease the number of injuries on kick returns. Still, top-flight kick returners like Cleveland’s Joshua Cribbs protested the shift, with Cribbs fearing that return men “will become obsolete.” In addition, the kickoff coverage team must line up between the 30 and 35 to reduce collision speed. About 16-percent of kicks went for touchbacks last season, and Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders noted that 28-percent of kickoffs went between 65 and 69 yards, kicks that would land in the endzone under the new rule.

Changing Lanes
A league-wide work stoppage has not stopped two players from pursuing their athletic talents in venues other than football. Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski turned to the boxing ring where he was 75-15 as an amateur, defeating Richard Bryant in Las Vegas on March 12. Zbikowski won by TKO in the first two minutes of the fight, his second pro win in as many fights, and hired Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward to help prepare for future fights. Meanwhile, Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco stayed on a field, but switched from football to soccer. Sporting Kansas City of the MLS offered the receiver a four-day practice trial, with both the team and Ochocinco serious about his prospects of joining the team on a full-time basis.

Top Guns
It’s rare to still have many questions surrounding the top pick with less than a month until the draft, but there remains a sharp divide over whom Carolina will take at number one. Most highly regarded mock drafts at the end of March were split between two players, Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert and DT Marcell Dareus. Advocates for a Gabbert selection do not think Jimmy Clausen is a long-term answer at quarterback for the Panthers, and are impressed by Gabbert’s size, arm strength, and instincts. Others believe Carolina will take the well-rounded and disruptive Dareus to anchor new coach Ron Rivera’s defense. The debate may continue until draft day, thanks to the lockout. Unlike past top-picking teams, Carolina cannot sign their #1 choice prior to the draft.

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