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Record number of underclassmen declare for NFL draft

NEW YORK — Cam Newton and Nick Fairley of national champion Auburn are among 56 non-seniors who applied for April’s NFL draft — a record total, but only three more than last year.

The uncertainty surrounding the league’s labor situation does not appear to have had a significant effect on underclassmen opting to declare for the draft. The NFL released the list Wednesday, and it’s the fifth time in seven years that more than 50 players were granted what the league calls “special eligibility.”

There were 53 players in 2010 and 2008, the previous high; 52 in 2006; 51 in 2005.

Newton, a quarterback, and Fairley, a defensive tackle, are joined by three other All-American juniors heading to the draft: Kentucky receiver-returner Randall Cobb, Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.

The most notable player to announce on Wednesday his decision to go pro was Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget, who is projected as possible first-round pick.

There weren’t any surprising additions to the list — or omissions. Most underclassmen who were deciding whether to enter the draft had made their choices public by Saturday’s deadline to tell the NFL they wanted to leave school early. Players then had 72 hours to withdraw their names, but no notable players changed their minds.

One top underclassman not on the list: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who had said he would be returning to school. His father, former NFL quarterback and current West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, said they discussed the possible lockout in the league but that wasn’t a decisive factor in Andrew’s choice.

The draft is April 28-30, even if there is no new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expires in early March. If owners lock out the players — as the union expects — rookies wouldn’t be able to sign contracts until a new CBA is in place.

Among the factors underclassmen might have considered:

• It’s possible there won’t be a 2011 NFL season, so players leaving college could wind up sitting out an entire year.

• Even if an agreement is reached in time for next season to be played, the timing of a deal might result in shortened training camps or no minicamps, so a rookie would have less time to learn his new team’s system and prove he deserves to start — or, in some cases, even make the roster.

• Owners are intent on having a rookie wage scale be part of a new CBA. Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote about “the outrageous sums paid to many unproven rookies” in a recent letter sent to fans about the labor situation, and such a change could apply to the 2011 draft class.

• Entering the pros sooner starts a player’s NFL “clock,” moving him closer to his second contract and free agency, which could be particularly attractive if a rookie wage scale is created.

Still, in a telephone interview before last weekend’s deadline, agent Peter Schaffer said he didn’t think a potential lockout was affecting decisions.

“I really don’t believe the uncertainty of the labor situation is skewing decisions one way or another in any significant proportion,” Schaffer said. “It’s pretty much been business as usual.”

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