It’s kind of an empty feeling.
With the conclusion of the 2011 NFL draft, football fans now have to go back to the wait-and-see nervousness of whether the newest members of the elite professional football club will be allowed onto the field with current NFL teammates.
But assuming the NFL and its players come to some sort of agreement to get football out of the courts and onto the fields where it belongs, there are a large number of talented former collegiate football stars still waiting for an opportunity to play at the next level.
No one can sign until a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached and a lockout is avoided, but when that happens, following is a list of 10 guys who could potentially make a roster and some noise for an NFL team in 2012.
Mario Butler’s four-year career at Georgia Tech was a model of consistency.
During his senior season with the Yellow Jackets, the speedy corner recorded a career-high 48 tackles and grabbed an interception and broke up another seven passes.
His junior campaign in 2009 was just as impressive as the 6'1", 182-pounder notched 45 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and a pair of pics.
The year before that Butler made 41 tackles, one interception and 3.5 more tackles for loss.
Butler is thought to have the talent and raw athleticism to evolve into a shutdown-style corner at the professional level. His negatives, however, are in his stature, as scouts have mentioned that his thin build could make his ability to get physical with strong NFL wideouts difficult.
As a PrepStar All-Region selection at Nease High School, Butler led his team to the Florida State Class4-A title game.
After his 133-tackle senior season, which was 12th best in the nation in 2010, Orie Lemon was named a first-team all-Big 12 selection, the first for an Oklahoma State linebacker since 2003. Additionally, Lemon’s 101 solo tackles was the country’s third best total a season ago.
His stellar senior season is even more impressive when you consider Lemon came back from sitting out the entire 2009 season with a torn ACL, which he injured in practice just days before the first game of the year.
Really, Lemon’s productivity picked up last year, following the injury, where he left off in 2008.
As a junior, the 6'1", 245-pound Houston, Tex., native was named Honorable Mention All-Big 12 after recording 90 tackles for the team’s second-highest total.
In starting all 13 games, Lemon also recorded eight pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
In 2006, as a true freshman, Lemon returned an interception 73 yards for a score against Florida Atlantic, which was the longest by a Cowboy defender since 2001.
Showcasing his natural athletic ability, Lemon also threw for 1,214 yards and 14 touchdowns, while rushing for 600 more yards and 12 TDs as a prep quarterback at Houston’s Yates High School.
His slight 6'0", 189-pound stature perhaps cost him a chance to get drafted this year, but there’s little doubt that his ability, experience and drive will aid Oregon’s Jeff Maehl to overcome this slighting to get an opportunity to fill a spot on an NFL roster.
In addition to being a participant in the East-West Shrine Game following the 2010 season, Maehl garnered Honorable Mention All-America status from SI.com, and an All-Conference selection as named by the Pac-10 coaches.
Turning in only the eighth 1,000-yard receiving season with his 1,076 yards on 77 catches and 12 touchdowns, Maehl departed the Ducks tied for the Oregon single-season all-time record in receptions (77) and career receptions with 178.
Locke came to be known as one of those game-changing running backs during his Kentucky career.
The 5'8", 185-pound electrifying combo back racked up more than 2,600 yards and 22 rushing touchdowns to go along with his 883 receiving yards on 95 catches with three more scores. Additionally, Locke leaves the Wildcat program with a school record of 27.1 yards as a kickoff return specialist, which will certainly attract a few NFL suitors.
In his career, Locke broke the single-game 100-yard mark in rushing (eight times), receiving (once) and returning (twice). Oh, and he threw a 41-yard touchdown pass against Vanderbilt during his junior season in 2009.
The All-SEC recipient from Hugo, Okla., will surely get an opportunity to showcase his skills, at minimum, on some NFL squad’s special teams unit.
Spann is a 5'8", 200-pound running back from Northern Illinois whose combination of speed and size forced scouts to notice his abilities despite spending his playing days in the MAC.
The Indianapolis native won the MAC Offensive Player of the Year Award following a senior season that saw Spann rush for just under 100 yards per game for the Huskies in 2010.
Spann rushed for nearly 3,000 yards and 49 touchdowns in his four-year career at NIU.
But despite less-than-stellar 40-yard dash time of 4.53 at the NIU Pro Day, he drew interest from the San Diego Chargers, as general manager A.J. Smith made the trek from Southern California to Northern Illinois to check out Spann’s skills.
Spann, who was born on 8/8/88, was a first-team all-state selection his senior year at Indianapolis’ North Central High School, and a second-teamer following his junior season. Spann was also a talented and record-setting prep track star.
The favorite target of 2010 Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton, Auburn wideout Darvin Adams led the Tigers with 52 receptions for 964 yards and seven touchdowns.
The lanky 6'3", 185-pound receiver had an even stronger sophomore campaign in 2009, recording a school-record 60 catches for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also set an SEC Championship Game record with 217 receiving yards.
Before his 66-catch, 867-yard, 11-TD senior season of high school as a receiver in Georgia, Adams played quarterback and threw for 974 yards and 15 TDs while rushing for another five scores his junior year.
He followed that standout season up with a 12-catch, 142-yard performance in his squad’s Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern, garnering game MVP honors.
Adams’ size are both his strength and weakness, as scouts love his height and reach, but feel he should bulk up a thin upper body to fight off the NFL’s physical cornerbacks.
Known as a big-play threat, Owen Spencer was a second-team All-ACC selection in 2010. The 6'2", 195-pound downfield option snared 60 passes for 912 yards and four touchdowns.
The year before, the Leland, NC native averaged 25.5 yards per reception that was tops in the NCAA and broke his own NC State record. That same 2009 season, Spencer was fourth in the ACC in receiving yards average with just under 70 yards per game.
In 2008, Spencer caught 15 passes that went for 20 yards or more.
During his prep days at North Brunswick High School, Spencer caught 57 passes, 26 of which went for touchdowns, during his junior and senior seasons.
Some scouts are concerned with his quickness and his hands, as well as his strength and aggressiveness.
But his big-play ability, lanky frame with long arms and good height and vertical leap make Spencer a guy who will be looked at seriously.
Once upon a time, North Carolina’s Kendric Burney was one of the hottest defensive prospects in the nation, as a 2010 second-team preseason All-American and a member of the Thorpe Award watchlist, which is awarded to the nation’s best defensive back.
But as 2010 began, due to NCAA violations, Burney was suspended for the first seven games of the season, and his promising final year turned into one of a disappointment.
Still, although Burney fell short of lofty expectations, the undersized, yet explosive corner is thought to be speedy enough with good experience and cover ability to be considered to land on an NFL’s roster.
The justifiable hype for Burney was a result of his first-team All-ACC season as a junior in 2009. Until his suspension, the Jacksonville, NC native had started every game during his Tar Heel career.
Although no teams took a chance on Delaware’s Pat Devlin in this year’s weird quarterback class, he’s likely a guy who was thought by some to be one of the last quarterbacks selected in this draft’s later rounds.
But when the final pick came off the board, Devlin was still without a team to play for.
The 6'4", 220-pound Pennsylvania product has long drawn comparisons to a fellow alum who is now one of the NFL’s better quarterbacks, Joe Flacco of the Ravens.
Devlin, like Flacco, transferred to Delaware from another school. And Devlin, a former Penn State Nittany Lion, moved on to become a Fighting Blue Hen following his sophomore season due to a lack of playing time, which were the same time frame and reasons that Flacco left Pitt for Delaware.
But Devlin, unlike Flacco, wasn’t drafted despite his 3,032 passing yards and 22 touchdowns with just three interceptions his senior season.
And although the knock against Devlin is overall arm strength, his accuracy and anticipation will still likely get him an opportunity with an NFL squad.
Simply due to the adversity that Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich had to overcome, it’s somewhat surprising that he didn’t get an opportunity in the NFL draft’s late rounds.
In proving that he’s got the drive, willpower and stamina to beat the odds, subsequently beating cancer, Herzlich won his battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
And after more than eight months of painful chemotherapy and laborious rehabilitation, Herzlich returned to the practice field with his Eagles teammates.
All the hard work and long hours had paid off and Herzlich made the long journey back to the Boston College starting lineup. And after starting in all 13 games, not only did he finish with a team third-best 65 tackles, but he earned the ACC’s Brian Piccolo Award and also won the Rudy Award.
Although Herzlich’s story is inspirational and moving, it’s important to note that the NFL is a big-business league and most teams aren’t willing to take a chance on someone based solely on perseverance.
However, it must be reminded to teams that prior to the discovery, and subsequent beat-down Herzlich put on cancer, he was one heck of a football player.
The best defender, in fact, in the ACC in 2008, as he was awarded the league’s Player of the Year Award.
He was also a Butkis Award finalist, a Lott Trophy finalist and an All-American (third-team by the Associated Press and a first-teamer as ranked by Rivals.com and Scouts.com).
For the kind of player he was before the cancer, and the kind of person he came as a result of overcoming the disease, I wouldn’t count a player like Herzlich out for long.