Labor uncertainty affects draft plans

BY Alex Marvez • April 27, 2011

Imagine trying to run a harness race where the cart is ahead of the horse.

This is how NFL general managers are forced to jockey entering this week's NFL draft.

For the first time since the collective bargaining agreement was enacted in 1993, the draft will be held before the free-agent signing period. All signings, trades and other player transactions that normally begin in March were barred when the NFL enacted a lockout of its players following a labor impasse and the CBA's expiration.

If that hasn't complicated matters enough for GMs, there also is the outside chance that the NFL lockout could be lifted during the draft pending appeals being made by the league and the rulings of Susan Nelson. She is the federal district judge who ordered the NFL lockout lifted on Monday, creating chaos among NFL teams about how to proceed with personnel moves and interaction with players at team headquarters.

The NFL Players Association sent a letter to player agents Tuesday night saying they could begin negotiating veteran contracts with franchises. This generated even more confusion among team officials who are currently keeping the status quo with lockout rules (and risk being accused of collusion by doing so for much longer). NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash admitted Tuesday that he didn't know when the league calendar would be forced to start until the legal process played out further.

In a worst-case scenario for the NFL, free agency would begin during the draft. This would stretch personnel staffs whose sole focus right now is the draft that will be held Thursday through Saturday in New York.

Rick Spielman, Minnesota's vice president of player personnel, joked Tuesday about how the recruitment of free agents would be impacted under such a scenario.

"It would be tough to take them out to dinner Thursday night if that would happen," he said.

At least to this point, clubs are proceeding as if the draft is the first step toward augmenting their rosters.

"Free agency doesn’t affect how you evaluate college players. It affects your strategy," Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said last week at his team's pre-draft news conference. "Normally by this time, you have hit some musts that you needed to put on your team. Now, it is kind of wide open. Your musts, your wants and your needs are all there and you just have to supplement it with free agency after the draft.”

That creates a difficult dynamic for a squad like the Dolphins. The franchise has a variety of offensive needs: running back, center/guard, wide receiver, tight end and — most importantly — quarterback. Yet there are no guarantees Miami will be able to find upgrades at those positions via trade or free agency because the rules for future transactions remain murky.

If the lockout is lifted, the league must adopt parameters for how business will be conducted. One possibility is the continuation of CBA rules from 2010 that featured no salary cap but also limited unrestricted free agency to players with six accrued NFL seasons rather than four like before.

Such guidelines would relegate top potential unrestricted free agents such as Minnesota wide receiver Sidney Rice, Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams and Dallas left tackle Doug Free to restricted free-agent status. They also would require high draft-pick compensation from any suitor that tendered an offer sheet.

Such a designation would greatly limit player movement. Only one restricted free agent in 2010 (running back Mike Bell) signed an offer sheet because teams are so reluctant to surrender draft choices.

The New York Jets are set to enter the draft uncertain whether wide receiver Santonio Holmes — a five-year veteran — will be a restricted or unrestricted free agent. If it's the former, the Jets will likely have Holmes back for one more season. If it's the latter, the Jets risk losing both Holmes and pending unrestricted free agent wideout Braylon Edwards to other teams.

During his pre-draft news conference, Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum admits this scenario could affect how the team selects.

"It's the judgment of the best player on the board versus what's going to happen in free agency," he said. "If we feel like down the road we're going to have trouble getting a player back, that may break a tie in the draft room."

Uncertainty also may cause some teams to ignore their draft boards and choose players based upon short-term need rather than grade.

"You try to pick the best player available," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "You try not to reach. You try not to panic when something happens because it is pretty intense during draft time."

That's easier said than done. The temptation to "reach" this year will never be greater -- especially at the quarterback position.

With a slew of franchises needing help under center, players who would have been selected later in other years may sneak into the first and second rounds this week even though "over-drafting" is one of the biggest mistakes a squad can make.

The labor uncertainty should benefit teams that already have most of their roster under contract as well as coaching continuity. The rules regarding offseason workouts or having football-related contact with players are seemingly up in the air because of Nelson’s decision, putting new coaching staffs in a difficult position.

The current absence of rookie minicamps and offseason programs also would greatly affect how much impact a first-year player can make in 2011. It may make a team reluctant to draft a raw prospect that needs several years of seasoning before being ready to push for a starting spot.

"It’s going to be harder to get rookies on the field. There’s no question about it," Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Everybody’s going to have the same problem. Would you want guys who were more ready to play early? We always do. We’re not really looking for projects too much."

Reese also is realistic about how much immediate help a draft class can provide even under normal circumstances.

"Your first (three) picks, you want those guys to come in and contribute right away," he said. "But after that, if you get a guy that plays a significant amount, this is really a bonus.

"These kids are developmental. Something is wrong with all of them. Most of them have strength issues when they come in."

Those issues seem small compared to the ones facing team executives wondering what type of NFL landscape will be shaped by the current labor strife.

"All we can do right now is to draft," Reese said. "We will make adjustments after. That’s really all you can do because you really don’t know what is going to happen."

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