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NFL labor talks continue as Combine begins


From Staff and Wire Reports



WASHINGTON -- There''s a week left until the NFL''s collective bargaining agreement with the players'' union expires. 


And today could be a key day. It also is an important day for players who hope to realize their dreams of playing in the NFL. 


Former Mississippi State standouts Derek Sherrod, Pernell McPhee, Chris White, and K.J. Wright are among more than 300 college players who have been invited to attend the annual NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. 


More than 600 NFL personnel are expected to be at the Combine, which will put players through a variety of interviews, psychological tests, and physical drills. The tests are used to help the teams gauge the prospects of players in advance of the NFL draft on April 28-30 in New York. 


Players will be tested in the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical and broad jump, three-cone drill, and shuttle run. They also will go through positions drills. 


University of Mississippi defensive linemen Jerrell Powe and Kentrell Lockett and Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, running back Mark Ingram, wide receiver Julio Jones, defensive end Marcell Dareus, and offensive lineman James Carpenter and Southern Miss wide receiver DeAndre Brown also were invited to attend the event. 


Former NFL scout Bucky Brooks, who now works for, wrote on that website that Sherrod, a 6-foot-6, 305-pounder from Columbus, is tied for fifth among the best offensive tackle prospects. 


"He is an athletic edge blocker with an excellent frame and good movement skills," Brooks wrote for the website. "He is surprisingly nimble for his size and shows good lateral quickness in space. As a pass blocker, he looks like a natural left tackle with the ability to mirror speed rushers. He reacts and adjusts to counter moves well and flashes a good initial punch engaging with a rusher. With a game that is built on finesse skills, Sherrod struggles against power players. He lacks the strength, balance, and body control to anchor against bull rushes and will need to develop an effective counter to thrive as a pro." 


Brooks said the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears are teams that could draft Sherrod. 


But the league''s labor discussions have cast doubt as to when the next wave of players will get a chance to realize their NFL dreams. Today, the sides are expected to wrap up a week of face-to-face meetings overseen by a federal mediator in Washington. 


There''s also a hearing scheduled before a U.S. District Court judge in Minneapolis, about the NFL Players Association''s complaint accusing the league of improperly negotiating TV contracts. 


At the combine, the league will hold a session for general managers, coaches and various officials from the 32 teams, who are expected to get an update on the CBA talks. 


The current labor deal expires at the end of the day March 3, and the union has said for quite some time that it expects the league to lock out players shortly thereafter if a new deal isn''t reached. 


After months of infrequent and sometimes contentious bargaining, the sides have been communicating regularly since Friday -- more than 40 hours of mediation spread over six consecutive days. It''s not clear what progress -- if any -- has been made, because mediator George Cohen asked everyone involved to keep mum. 


"I just can''t say anything. I''m afraid of Mr. Cohen," NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said when he left Wednesday''s session. "I''m going to just say, ''No comment.'' See you tomorrow morning." 


The league and union went more than two months without any formal bargaining until Feb. 5, the day before the Super Bowl. The sides met again once the next week, then called off a second meeting that had been scheduled for the following day. 


The most recent CBA was signed in 2006, but owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008. 


The biggest issue separating the sides is how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues. Among the other significant points in negotiations: a rookie wage scale; the owners'' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players. 


The voluntary mediation is seen as an attempt to spur progress. 


NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith and most of his negotiating group -- including four current players -- left Wednesday''s session a little after 5:30 p.m. 


That was less than an hour after Smith and a dozen members of the union''s team returned from a 1 1/2-hour break. It wasn''t clear what, if any, significance the break holds, although it was the first time since the mediation began that either side left the building en masse in the middle of a day. Generally, the groups have arrived in the morning and departed in the evening. 


NFLPA executive committee members Brian Dawkins of the Denver Broncos, Jeff Saturday of the Indianapolis Colts, and Mike Vrabel and Brian Waters of the Kansas City Chiefs participated Wednesday. Nine of that committee''s 11 members have been present at some point during these six days of talks; union president Kevin Mawae and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees have not been seen entering or exiting the meetings. 


With Commissioner Roger Goodell and Pash slated to be in Washington for mediation, they were expected to miss Thursday''s GMs-coaches meeting in Indianapolis. 


The NFL and union also will keep tabs on what happens in Minneapolis, where the union''s appeal of this month''s ruling on TV contracts will be heard. The union has accused the NFL of structuring TV contracts so owners would be guaranteed money even if there were a lockout in 2011 -- while not getting the most revenue possible in other seasons, when income would need to be shared with players. 




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