- Associated Press - Saturday, February 26, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - NFL teams want to ignore the clock and keep it business at this week’s annual scouting combine.

With the league’s collective bargaining agreement expiring at the end of Thursday and the looming lockout less than a week away, the hype over this year’s top draft prospects has suddenly been overshadowed by talk about contingency plans, mediation and unification.

It’s a whole new universe for the NFL, which hasn’t had a work stoppage since 1987.

“Free agency doesn’t start until the new league year, and if there’s no league year, you can’t sign any free agents,” agent Tom Condon explained Friday.

The warning signs have been all over Indianapolis over the last two days.

On Thursday, league officials met with coaches and general managers to discuss different scenarios and lockout rules.

On Friday, it was DeMaurice Smith’s turn. The NFL Players Association executive director spent two hours meeting with agents and answering questions, left for lunch and then returned for the afternoon session.

Before walking in, he sent a clear message about the players’ desire.

“We want a deal and our hope is it will get done as quickly as possible,” he said.

It was a rare comment from Smith who, like league negotiators, has abided the request of federal mediator George Cohen not to comment publicly on the discussions. The two sides spent seven straight days working on the deal before Friday. Talks are scheduled to resume Tuesday.

The union even took the unusual step Friday of letting four prominent agents make the players’ case.

Condon, Ben Dogra, Drew Rosenhaus and Joel Segal stood side-by-side, presenting a unified front with Smith and his hopes. The agents represent some of the league’s biggest names, including brothers Peyton and Eli Manning, Michael Vick, Drew Brees, Terrell Owens and Adrian Peterson.

“We are 100 percent behind Dee Smith and my clients are 100 percent behind Dee Smith,” Rosenhaus said. “He’s doing everything he can to get a fair deal with the owners.”

Stranger still has been the awkwardness of the combine and talk of a lockout occurring simultaneously just blocks away from the site of next year’s Super Bowl, which some city residents fear could be lost because of a work stoppage.

And then there are the NFL prospects showing off their talents for interested teams.

During Smith’s morning speech, some agents at the closed-door meeting began tweeting that a lockout would prevent draft prospects from speaking with team representatives during pre-draft workouts on their college campuses. NFLPA spokesman George Atallah and the four agents quickly quashed those reports.

“With draft-eligible players, we will continue on as we have in the past,” Condon said. “We anticipate they will work out here, they will do their pro days and they will have visits with those teams.”

The future pros, who aren’t in the union yet, didn’t even know it was being discussed.

“I haven’t heard any of that,” Nebraska receiver Niles Paul said. “Honestly, as of right now, I’m not focused on that. I’m only doing what I can control. I’m confident they’ll get a deal done, but I’m here for the combine and trying to put myself in the best position to be drafted.”

The most recent CBA was signed in 2006, but owners exercised a clause in 2008 that let them opt out.

League owners want a greater percentage of the roughly $9 billion in annual revenue that is shared with the players. Among the other significant topics 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 threat of a lockout has sped up the pace of negotiations, too.

After months of infrequent and sometimes contentious talks, the sides 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.

But over the previous seven days, the two sides spent more than 40 hours in front of Cohen.

And most believe that a lockout is now inevitable.

“I’ve known Bob Batterman for a long time and his mantra is short-term pain for long-term gain,” longtime agent Tony Agnone said, a reference to the league’s outside counsel. “And he’s the lawyer leading the charge.”

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