When is the last time free agency didn’t exist in the NFL? The answer is 1987. For over two decades, coaches, owners and general managers have had the luxury of sorting through, signing and keeping tabs on free agents that could potentially improve their team. From a fan’s perspective, free agency has given them something to monitor during the few crucial months of their lives when football wasn’t being played, better known as the offseason. That’s not the case this offseason, though.
As we speak, the fate of the NFL and its players are in the hands of one person. That person who holds the power in determining the outcome of the lockout is Susan Nelson, a U.S. district judge from St. Paul, Minn. Once she comes to her conclusion, trades, free agency and other normal NFL activities may potentially resume, but until then there are going to be zero trades, free agent transactions and possibly no NFL draft in 2012.
Because of this, NFL teams are beginning to rethink their strategies when it comes to April’s draft. With the draft currently being the only means of acquiring players, teams have to be careful when picking and rethink how they’re going to build their team.
Coaches, general managers, and scouts from every team are gathering all of the final necessary paperwork and information on college players that they are targeting to acquire in the draft.
"I was in the league in 1984 and that's what you dealt with all the time," Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "There wasn't any free agency. You had the draft, and that's what you built your team with. Trades were rare. I think it's going to be different for everybody that's involved."
For the Bengals, the ramifications of zero activity in free agency and trade markets means that they might be forced to draft a quarterback, a position that was originally believed to be filled for at least four more years, instead of selecting the best available player. But with Carson Palmer’s trade me or I’ll retire demands, the Bengals are being forced into a tight spot when it comes to the draft. Bengals owner has repeatedly told the media that he has no intentions of trading Palmer, while Carson has constantly reiterated that he has no intention of stepping foot into Paul Brown Stadium for the Bengals again.
Instead of drafting a player to fill one of their needs (prior to needing a quarterback), the Bengals may have no choice but to draft one of the "top" quarterbacks available. From the looks of it though, it would seem as if every quarterback available in the draft would be better suited to spend a year or two on the bench learning the system, plays and how everything else works instead of being thrust into a starting role with no experience or knowledge whatsoever.
Developing a quarterback might not be an option for the Bengals or any other team that has a need for a quarterback if the lockout isn’t settled in the near future. If the lockout is resolved in the near future, however, it would allow free agent signings and trading to resume and enable teams to be able to develop younger players. With the lockout being in affect coaches won’t be able to work with drafted players until a new agreement is reached.
"It's definitely uncharted waters," new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "The quarterback position is very important. He handles the ball on every play. But you're not going to overdo that. You have to take the best players available."
For some teams, selecting the best player might not be an option because, as of now, the draft appears to be the only means of improvement for teams across the league, forcing them to attempt to fill as many holes as possible.