Those plans took a detour when a contract dispute kept Crabtree away from the 49ers well into his rookie season. Now, another kind of dispute -- the one between the NFL and its players -- could block Crabtree and every other player from getting the offseason work they need to approach their potential.
The 49ers, sensitive to rules discouraging organized interaction between players and coaches during the labor dispute, have already shut down the informal coaching that often takes place this time of year. No meetings, no passing out playbooks, no hands-on instruction and possibly no shot at installing the new schemes that come with having a new staff. It figures to only get worse. An expiring labor agreement and potential lockout could wipe out offseason conditioning programs, minicamps and training camps, leaving teams scrambling if a deal does come together in time for the regular season.
NFL offseasons traditionally produce winners and losers, but this one threatens to produce only losers of varying degrees. Crabtree and the 49ers, both coming off a disappointing 2010 season, rank among the more vulnerable parties:
Cleveland, Denver, Carolina and San Francisco hired new head coaches from outside their organizations. These teams are starting over.
Tennessee, Oakland, Dallas and Minnesota promoted head coaches from within. These teams are transitioning.
Six of the eight teams with new head coaches have unsettled quarterback situations. Make it seven if you're not convinced Jason Campbell will start in Oakland.
Six of the eight teams with new head coaches are breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Dallas and Cleveland have no offensive coordinators.
Nine of the 24 teams with returning head coaches are breaking in at least one new coordinator on offense or defense.
Add it up and you have 17 teams, more than half the league, breaking in a new head coach and/or at least one coordinator. Two of the other teams, Miami and Washington, are figuring out their quarterback situations.
There's still time for the NFL and its players to strike a deal that would allow teams to prepare sufficiently for the 2011 season. But with the labor agreement set to expire Thursday night, let's take a closer look at four additional situations of note. (Update: The NFL and the players' union agreed to a 24-hour extension to the CBA on Thursday afternoon.)
By Pat Yasinskas, NFC South blog
There aren’t many NFL players with more to lose in a potential lockout than Tampa Bay wide receiver Arrelious Benn.
A second-round draft pick last season, Benn was just starting to show flashes of his potential when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Week 16. In a normal offseason, Benn would rehab his knee under the microscope of the team’s medical staff and get some valuable offseason work with quarterback Josh Freeman and fellow receiver and draft classmate Mike Williams on the field.
But this offseason might be far from normal. A lockout would prevent Benn (and all the other players) from even entering One Buccaneer Place. He wouldn’t be able to interact with any team personnel, and that includes the medical staff. In other words, Benn would have to finish rehabilitating the injury on his own.
The Bucs have said they aren’t going to comment on the offseason progress of individual injuries, and they declined to make Benn available for comment for this story. But, in a recent interview with PewterReport.com, Benn said he already is getting around without a brace and is confident he’ll be ready for the start of training camp.
He wouldn’t go into great detail, but said he has alternative plans for his rehab if there is a lockout.
"Oh, yeah, I have a plan for what I’m going to do in rehab to get better," Benn said. "I’ll just be ready and go full speed ahead."
The speed may have to continue to come back with an independent medical and rehab team. But all indications are that Benn is progressing well. He took over the starting position opposite Williams last season, and the plan is for them to be together with Freeman for the long term.
The Bucs could have more to lose in a lockout than a lot of teams, and that’s not just because of Benn’s situation. After going 3-13 in 2009, Tampa Bay went 10-6 last season and had the league’s youngest roster. The arrow seemed to be pointing up for this franchise. But a lockout and the possible loss of offseason workouts with the coaching staff could be a blow to this team’s progress.
There is uncertainty, but Benn said he remains focused on being healthy for a productive second season. He might have to handle the rehab part of that on his own and, in some ways, the on-field work might have to be handled in a similar manner. Freeman has said several times he plans to lead regular workouts with his receivers if there is a lockout. Benn plans to take part in those workouts.
“We are a young team, but we have a lot of guys that want to be leaders,’’ Benn said. “I’m pretty sure we will organize something if we have to.’’
By James Walker, AFC North blog
If there is one rebuilding team that can least afford a lockout, it is the Cleveland Browns. This is a huge offseason for the franchise and second-year quarterback Colt McCoy, who is slated to learn a new West Coast offense.
McCoy, a 2010 third-round pick, got a taste of being a starter for eight games as a rookie. Despite showing some good things, McCoy also made some first-year mistakes. It's not clear whether he is Cleveland’s long-term solution.
With a rookie head coach in Pat Shurmur, who will implement a new offense and switch to a 4-3 defense in 2011, McCoy’s development and ability to grasp a new scheme in his second year is perhaps the biggest key to helping turn Cleveland around. But a lockout would reduce the preparation time for McCoy and his young receivers such as Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi.
“Timing and execution are extremely important in the West Coast offense,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “While I think McCoy's skill set lends him to being a good fit in the West Coast offense, he is still extremely young and will need a lot of reps -- both physical and mental -- with the new terminology.”
McCoy already is fighting an uphill battle. He’s the youngest quarterback in a division filled with veterans Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer (for now) and Joe Flacco. All three quarterbacks have made at least two playoff appearances, although Palmer recently demanded a trade from the Cincinnati Bengals and his status is uncertain.
McCoy cannot discuss any team-related issues with his coaches, study the playbook or train at the facilities until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. With every day that passes, McCoy, who has a strong work ethic, will miss another opportunity to take a step forward.
The Browns are in a tough division, but Cleveland president Mike Holmgren now has his hand-picked quarterback (McCoy) and hand-picked head coach (Shurmur) in place. So, regardless of how much time is missed this offseason, there will be pressure on the Browns to win games in 2011.
Undrafted rookie free agents
By Tim Graham, AFC East blog
The NFL draft is stressful enough for prospects. They wait for their phones to light up, watch ESPN's ticker, repeatedly click refresh on their browsers or try to distract themselves by refusing to pay any attention at all.
A select few know they'll be drafted. A larger group wonders whether their names will be called before Mr. Irrelevant closes the show.
This year's draft will be even more worrisome for the latter group.
Absent a collective bargaining agreement, the draft still will take place April 28-30. But players who aren't selected in those seven rounds won't be allowed to sign with teams because free agency won't exist.
The moments immediately after the draft involve frenzied phone calls. Teams scurry to sign unattached prospects in hopes of landing the next Tony Romo, Arian Foster, LeGarrette Blount, Wes Welker, Antonio Gates or Bart Scott.
Rookie free agents are necessary to building a roster and maintaining a personnel budget. Although this year's undrafted rookies eventually will get opportunities to find work once there's a new CBA, a prolonged lockout will cripple their chances of making an immediate impact.
When a new CBA is struck, veteran free agents will overshadow the undrafted rookies. Under normal circumstances, the veterans have been picked over long before the draft begins. That allows front offices to concentrate solely on the newbies. We can expect a free-for-all this time.
Undrafted rookies also will face a tougher time when it comes to development. These are marginal pro prospects, long shots who must get into a team's offseason conditioning program as quickly as possible. It would be almost impossible to expect a rookie free agent to understand NFL schemes minus minicamps and voluntary workouts and with a compressed training camp.
These also are the kinds of players who make their way into the NFL on special teams. Imagine how many mistakes we'll see if teams insist on using their undrafted and late-round rookies on return and coverage units.
Those triple-jeopardy Minnesota Vikings
By Kevin Seifert, NFC North blog
The Minnesota Vikings could be on the verge of a lockout trifecta.
They are installing a new offensive scheme under recently hired coordinator Bill Musgrave.
They almost certainly will open the 2011 season with a new starting quarterback.
And if a lockout consumes the entire offseason, and presumably ends in time for training camp, the Vikings will find themselves far behind the proverbial eight ball.
All NFL teams use the offseason to install scheme tweaks, develop players and set a foundation for training camp. Everyone would be affected if the lockout forces the cancellation of critical offseason programs.
But the impact won’t be equal. A team in the Vikings’ situation will open the season further behind than many of its opponents. A lockout prohibits coaches and players from interacting, eliminating the chance to acclimate players into the new scheme and -- most importantly -- start working with the new quarterback. Even if the immediate decision is to start second-year player Joe Webb, he will be as new to Musgrave’s system as anyone the Vikings might bring in.
So whenever practices do begin, the Vikings will be going through basic installation drills at a time when other teams are reviewing the tweaks to their established schemes. The other three NFC North teams will all be working with the same quarterbacks they opened last season with.
The Vikings will be breaking in someone new, possibly a rookie.
There’s not much that new coach Leslie Frazier can do other than wait it out.
“You don’t want to make any excuses,” Frazier said. “So, in our mind, we’re approaching it like there’s going to be football and we’ve got to make sure that we’re doing what we can do within the parameters of whatever the league allows us to do. And when we get ready to go, we’ll be ready to go.”