Mark Your Calendar

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Mark Your Calendar
by Warren DeLuca

With the 2003 season in the books, thoughts of Texan fans turn to the 2004 draft and the opportunity to plug some holes in the roster and give the team another talent upgrade. The draft is still months away, but there are plenty of key dates and events between now and then that could impact what happens at the NFL’s annual selection meeting.

January 9: Cactus Bowl (7:00 p.m., Fox Southwest). Played down in Kingsville, this all-star game features players from Division II programs. A few of these small-school players are drafted each year.

January 10: East-West Shrine Game (1:00 p.m., ESPN). The Shrine Game is the second most prominent all-star game and while its rosters are not loaded with future first-rounders, the game usually involves many quality prospects.

January 15: Deadline for underclassmen to petition the NFL for early entry into the draft. Under the current rule, only players who graduated from high school at least three seasons ago may enter the draft before they have exhausted their college eligibility. An underclassman player who has petitioned the NFL may change his mind before the 15th, but if he has signed a contract with or received cash or other benefits from an agent, the NCAA will probably not reinstate his college eligibility. The outcome of Maurice Clarett’s lawsuit against the NFL could impact this deadline, but a ruling is not expected before January 15.

January 17: Las Vegas Classic (2:30 p.m., College Sports Television). Formerly known as the Paradise Bowl, this game moves to Sin City after being held in St. George, Utah for two years. It is one of the lower-tier all-star games.

January 17: Hula Bowl (7:00 p.m., ESPN). The Hula Bowl draws some of the bigger names in college football, although not always the best pro prospects. The incentive of a week in Maui will occasionally bring in some of the top players to the Aina (land) and Kai (ocean) teams, though.

January 24: Senior Bowl (3:00 p.m., ESPN). The Senior Bowl is the biggest of the all-star games, featuring the top senior prospects (or at least the top seniors who choose to play in an all-star game). Top picks Carson Palmer and David Carr have played in the last two Senior Bowls. The staffs of the two NFL teams that earned the top two picks in the upcoming draft coach the squads. This year that is the Charger and Raider coaches, although if Oakland does not have a staff in place the duties will go to the Cardinals…and if the Cards do not have a staff, the Giants…and if the Giants do not have a staff, the Redskins… and if the ‘Skins do not have a staff, the Lions. Last year, Dom Capers’ staff coached one of the teams since Cincinnati was in the middle of a coaching change, and got a close look at players like Bennie Joppru, Dave Ragone, Seth Wand, Domanick Davis, and Terrance Martin. The week of practices are generally scrutinized harder by the coaches, scouts, and GMs than is the game itself. Mobile is the place to be if you are an out-of-work coach as a great deal of networking occurs around the game and practices.

January 30: The date by which U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin hopes to rule in the Clarett case. A decision for Clarett could open the NFL draft to all amateur players, including those straight from high school.

January 31: Florida Gridiron Classic (11:00 a.m., ESPN). This game used to showcase players who had played high school or college football in Florida against players from the rest of the country, but now has a north vs. south match up. It is on par with the Las Vegas Classic.

February 1: Super Bowl XXXVIII (5:25 p.m., CBS). You may have heard a thing or two about this coming to town, but what does it have to do with the draft? It settles the draft order (other than the sixth and seventh picks – more on that later), with the 31st pick going to the loser and the 32nd to the winner.

February 18-24: The NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. The NFL invites over 300 prospects to its annual meat market. Grouped by position, the players go through interviews (each team may submit requests for up to 60 players, with the interviews lasting 15 minutes each), physical examinations, psychological and intelligence testing (the Wunderlich test), weight lifting (bench press), sprints, broad and vertical jumps, agility tests, and position-specific drills. In theory, the combine allows the teams to evaluate (to the extent that they may be evaluated in shorts and t-shirts) all of the players at each position side-by-side, and gives the players the opportunity to distinguish themselves from their peers. However, many of the top players elect to not fully participate, choosing to work out at a later date on more of their own terms. The turf at the RCA Dome has a reputation for causing slower than expected sprint times.

March 1: Free agency begins. The comings and goings of free agents can drastically change a team’s needs in the draft.

March 1: The trading period begins. Texan property Drew Henson should be the subject of much discussion, if not action.

March 2-26 (estimated): Pro days on college campuses across the country. College programs invite NFL coaches, scouts, and personnel men to watch the school’s draft prospects work out. Players who were not invited to the combine can show their wares and those who did work out in Indy can try to improve on their showings. 160 schools held pro days last year. Some of the smaller programs have more than one pro day in order to help ensure that they make it on enough scouts’ busy travel itineraries.

March 24 (estimated): The Falcons and Browns flip a coin to determine the seventh and eighth picks in the draft. The teams finished with identical records (5-11) and opponents’ winning percentage (.539), which is the only tiebreaker that applies since Atlanta and Cleveland play in different conferences. They will settle it the old-fashioned way – heads or tails – about a month before the draft.

March 26-April 22 (estimated): Teams bring players in to the team facilities for interviews and even more testing. The NFL limits the number of players that each team can bring in to 20. Each team’s list is confidential, but the agents usually leak the information when their clients are invited. With this in mind, some teams invite a few players in whom they really have little interest in order to mask the team’s true draft day intentions.

March 26-April 22 (estimated): Players hold individual workouts. These are conducted at the player’s college campus, the facility at which he has been training, or any other location of his and his agent’s choosing. A player who performed poorly at the combine or his school’s pro day (such as Terrell Suggs last year) or is rehabbing an injury (Willis McGahee) may hold a workout within days of the draft.

April 15: The period in which teams may sign other team’s restricted free agents to offer sheets ends. A restricted free agents’ 2003 team has four days after the player signs the offer sheet to decide if it will match the offer, or let the player go and receive a draft choice as compensation. The round of the compensation pick depends upon the amount of the contract offer that the player’s 2003 team made to him at the start of the free agency period.

April 23: The Texans hold Henson’s draft rights until the day of the 2004 draft, so this is the last day in which they can sign Henson to a contract. They must sign him before they can trade him. If the clock strikes midnight and Friday night becomes Saturday morning without the Texans having obtained Henson’s signature on a contract, the teams rights go poof like something out of Cinderella and Henson re-enters the draft pool.

April 24: The first three rounds of the 2004 NFL Draft. The big day is here.

April 25: Rounds four through seven. Not as high profile as the previous day, but a team may still find quality players (such as Domanick Davis) and make intriguing picks (Drew Henson). After the draft concludes, the teams begin working the phones to try to sign any undrafted players in whom they have interest.

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