For NFL, free agency, draft hinges on outcome of CBA

Joe Banner says the Eagles may benefit if free agency is delayed.
Joe Banner says the Eagles may benefit if free agency is delayed.
Posted: February 24, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS - NFL personnel people usually come to the annual scouting combine with one eye on the 300-plus auditioning draft prospects, and the other eye on the approaching free-agency gold rush, which annually kicks off a few days after the college boys have run their final 40-yard dash and three-cone drill.

But if there isn't a new collective bargaining agreement by next Friday - and that's still where the smart money is - the free-agency gold rush, along with just about everything else in the league except the draft, will be put on ice. Depending on what happens with the labor negotiations, free agency could be delayed weeks or months, or could even be canceled altogether if this tug of war over the league's $9 billion revenue pie drags on into the summer and fall.

While the draft is the NFL's primary supply line of talent, many teams, including the Eagles, have used free agency to address some of their needs, which has allowed them to go into the draft with a more definitive idea of what they still need to get. This year the opposite could be true, with the April 28-30 draft setting the table for free agency.

"It will be different if [if free agency is delayed until after the draft]," Eagles president Joe Banner said. "But I think it will be helpful in terms of identifying where you really want to focus in free agency.

"There's been conversation in the league for years about whether the draft should take place before free agency. From a team's perspective, there are some interesting advantages to that. You can sit here right now and say, 'Well, the draft is very deep at position X.' But you have no idea whether you're going to be able to get any of those players you really like."

In the past, you've generally been able to get a pretty good feel for a team after the draft because most of its roster is set. But that won't necessarily be the case this year if there is a lockout and free agency is put on hold.

Especially since this has a chance to be the most talent-rich free-agency crop in history, with as many as 500 players becoming unrestricted free agents if a new CBA eventually includes the old 4-year service-time requirement to become a UFA.

"There's scheduled to be a very large number of free agents," Banner said. "Whatever the cap is, some will get very big deals and be very expensive, and some will slip through the cracks just because there are so many. There may be some opportunities to get some great players that can make a difference at large salaries, and there may be opportunities to get some guys that are very good players, but because there are so many free agents at once, they'll be very good values. We're going to try to be in position to take advantage of whatever we think will help us the most."

NFL personnel executives insist that if free agency gets pushed back because of a lockout, it will have little impact on their approach to the draft. But that remains to be seen.

For instance, would the Eagles have been as willing to trade up from No. 24 to 13 last year to grab defensive end Brandon Graham if they still had the option of getting a quality pass rusher in free agency?

Will they be as willing to pull the same type of move this year to go up and get one of the draft's top two cornerbacks - LSU's Patrick Peterson or Nebraska's Prince Amukamara - if they know All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha will be available in free agency?

"Right now, you don't even know what the free-agent situation's going to be this year," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "Is there going to be free agency? Is it going to be 4 years or 6 years [to become an unrestricted free agent]? How are they going to deal with the whole thing?

"If you don't have those answers, you have to go into your draft room and draft like you always do every year. I think you have to look at the big picture and not just, 'If we don't have training camp, do we need to get a [veteran] guy that's ready to play today?'

"I think if you start trying to answer questions with draft picks in the short term, you're going to get beat in the long term. The best thing you can do is take a step back and say, 'We're going to do what we always do. We're going to draft the best football players that fit our scheme because we can't worry about things we can't control right now.' "

The Eagles' offseason needs are pretty obvious to everyone, including them. They need a right cornerback opposite Asante Samuel to help reduce the number of touchdown passes they've given up the last two seasons (a mind-boggling 58 in 32 regular-season games).

With Graham recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and Juqua Parker another year older and Trent Cole running out of gas again down the stretch, they need difference-making pass rushers. And they need to upgrade the right side of their offensive line.

Mayock isn't impressed with the cornerback crop after Peterson and Amukamara, who both figure to be top-10 picks. "After them there's a dropoff," he said. "If you're looking for a corner at the end of the first round [the Eagles have the 23rd overall pick], you might have a problem. If you're looking for a defensive end, a defensive tackle or maybe an offensive tackle, though, you're in luck."

Mayock said this year's crop of defensive ends "is the best I've seen." As in ever. He has a first-round grade on no fewer than nine d-ends, though a few are five-technique players (for a 3-4 scheme).

He also is high on the draft's top six offensive tackles - Anthony Castonzo (Boston College), Nate Solder (Colorado), Tyron Smith (USC), Gabe Carimi (Wisconsin), Derek Sherrod (Mississippi State) and Ben Ijalana (Villanova).

Bottom line: If a lockout pushes back free agency, the Eagles still should be positioned nicely to get help in the draft and complete their offseason remodeling in free agency, if and when there is free agency.

"I think there will be opportunities," Banner said. "If there's a shorter [free-agency] window, maybe a team that has better preparation in terms of evaluating players, maybe a team that has multiple people capable of negotiating difficult contracts at the same time where most only have one, maybe the fact that we will have more flexibility than most teams from a cap perspective [will be an advantage].

"We're going to try to look at it as an opportunity, rather than dwelling on the fact that we wish we had more time to prepare."

Send e-mail to pdomo@aol.com

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