As of now, the UFL is the only professional football league in America scheduled to play games in 2011, which should prove quite beneficial to a league struggling to find its place in the market in 2010.
Even when the lockout lifts and the NFL schedule resumes, though, the UFL still figures to be relevant. How so? UFL players can be signed to NFL rosters as free agents. Think of the UFL as a farm system of sorts; it allows maligned or lesser-known players the ability to stay in football shape and put themselves on film in order to potentially entice an NFL team into signing them as a free agent for the stretch run of their season.
Is this common? No. But occasionally a solid UFL player finds himself contributing on an NFL roster. Consider Dominic Rhodes. The former Indianapolis Colt ran for the Florida Tuskers in 2010 before re-joining the Colts for the final quarter of the season. In those three NFL games, Rhodes averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 37 rushes.
While it is not likely that any 2011 UFL player will have a substantial impact on a 2011 NFL roster, a few players could still find themselves on an NFL roster and at least contributing. Here is a look at five UFL players who could play their way into the NFL in 2011.
Former University of Maryland Terrapin safety Terrell Skinner actually enjoyed a brief stint with both the Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings before joining the Hartford Colonials in the UFL.
Skinner, who was not able to stay healthy in his brief NFL career, has the speed and measurables teams look for in special teams players. He's 6'2", strong and runs a respectable 4.5 forty-yard dash. On paper, he's an ideal special teams coverage player, able to get down the field quickly and attack the returner. Unfortunately, he's just spend too much time on the sidelines, rendered inactive by injury.
If Skinner puts together a solid UFL campaign, stays healthy and manages to display solid tackling skills, it wouldn't be shocking to see him land on an injury-ravaged NFL roster in need of special teams players in 2011.
Former Jacksonville Jaguar linebacker Clint Ingram saw his playing time reduced over the course of his four-year career with the Jaguars, producing his best results his rookie season and steadfastly declining since.
Ingram still should have the skillset to contribute in the NFL, though, and much like the aforementioned Skinner, could received a call from an NFL team desperate for special teams bodies after second and third-string players are forced into starting roles. Ingram has the speed and explosiveness to contribute on special teams and even serve as a decent reserve linebacker.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Ingram get called up to the big leagues in December 2011.
Former Nebraska Cornhuskers offensive tackle Mike Smith was selected with the 23rd overall pick in the 2011 UFL Draft and will seek to prove NFL teams wrong for passing on him after he missed all of 2010 with a broken leg.
Had he not missed the 2010 Nebraska football season, Smith may have been one of the top offensive tackles in the 2011 NFL Draft. However, given his inactivity, NFL teams passed on him and their loss, the UFL hopes, was Omaha's gain.
If Smith can develop with the Nighthawks and regain his former strength and form, NFL teams will certainly come calling, if not to ask him to contribute to their 2011 roster then to sign him to a prospective contract aimed at giving him a shot at 2012 training camp.
Former Tennessee Titans cornerback Reynaldo Hill was never an ideal candidate to get major minutes at defensive back for the Titans, but then they probably could have done worse, too.
Hill appears to be in the same category as other guys on this list like Skinner and Ingram that have faded in their careers as NFL starters but still boast enough athleticism and ability to be valuable special teams contributors. Again, I can't emphasize enough the likelihood of NFL teams raiding UFL rosters for special teams players once injuries set in and disrupt the 2011 NFL season. When this inevitably happens, NFL teams will search for the fastest players and surest tacklers on the market with previous playing experience. Guys like Hill.
Don't expect Hill to make any noise in the NFL for the 2011 season. But don't be surprised if he's at least contributing at some point either.
I'm honestly a bit surprised that former Oregon Ducks wide receiver -- and 52nd overall pick in the 2011 UFL Draft -- Jeff Maehl was not selected in the 2011 NFL Draft.
A dominant national championship performance was enough to propel Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton from mid-to-late first round pick all the way to top three consideration, so I figured at least Maehl would justify seventh-round consideration after tallying nine receptions for 133 yards in the BCS title game.
I guess I was wrong.
Maehl is slated to join the Destroyers for the 2011 UFL season, but could play his way into solid NFL consideration with an impressive UFL outing. It's still possible he could actually receive an NFL training camp invite if and when the lockout is lifted, but for now, his best bet is to impress in the UFL and garner NFL attention.
His solid hands, good speed and impressive (for his build) leaping ability should have him registering on NFL radars sooner rather than later.