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Amid lockout, free-agent freeze, draft only certainty


NEW ORLEANS -- Usually at this time of the year, NFL general managers can walk into the room that holds their big boards, the ones that stack their own rosters, and have a good feel for what they need in the draft, a good feel for their team.

This year, those boards are full of question marks -- and the feel isn't as certain.

"It's unique," San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said here from the league meetings. "We've always said we're going to make X-amount of changes. We'll keep some guys and we'll lose some others. But this year we don't know the rules. So what do we know? We know there will be a draft. So we focus on that."

The current labor situation means there will almost certainly be no free agency before the draft, unless there's a miraculous settlement between the owners and players. Or if the April 6 injunction to overturn the lockout filed by the players forces the owners to implement 2010 rules and they decided to open free agency before the draft, which isn't likely.

Chargers GM A.J. Smith on the uncertainty ahead: 'It's very different ... The only thing I know is we have a draft.' (Getty Images)  
Chargers GM A.J. Smith on the uncertainty ahead: 'It's very different ... The only thing I know is we have a draft.' (Getty Images)  
Nobody knows for sure what will happen, which makes it trying times for those making the football decisions.

Will there be free agency? How many years for a player to become unrestricted? Will there be franchise tags?

On and on the questions go, all unanswered for now.

Of all the general managers, Smith is probably the best to discuss this situation. His roster is as tenuous as any. He has a long list of players who might or might not be free agents, depending on the system.

Some of those players are receiver Vincent Jackson, running back Darren Sproles, safety Eric Weddle, linebacker Kevin Burnett, receiver Malcom Floyd, tackle Jeromey Clary. Their availability depends on the system. For example, Jackson was given a franchise tag, but will those even be in play? Weddle, who was given a tender by the team, has four years of service so he might be unrestricted, depending on the system that is in place and that tender could be rendered useless.

"Usually at this point in time we have all our answers as we build our team," Smith said. "Then you go ahead and draft. In this case, we don't have those answers. So now we're just drafting football players."

The Chargers could conceivably lose Jackson, Floyd and Legedu Naanee, their top three receivers. So now Smith has to enter this draft not knowing if that will or can happen, but he said that won't change the way he drafts.

"It's very different," Smith said. "It's going to take great thought. But you draft good football players. I need factual information to think. Will I have a franchise player? Will I have restricted players? Or are they all free agents? I don't like in-between, but that's what we have. The only thing I know is we have a draft."

There is some thinking that without free agency to fill holes, some teams might draft more for need this year. That, according to several general managers, won't be the case.

At least that's what they say publicly.

"For now, you stick with the philosophy that you draft the best available player," Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. "We will factor needs into that, but this isn't going to ultimately change the way we draft. We know the other aspects of putting your team together will be resolved at some point."

Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney has the first pick in the draft. That comes with a reason. The Panthers weren't very good and they have holes -- lot of them.

But Hurney said picking just to fill holes could be risky.

"Honestly, we won't change a lot," Hurney said. "What we've tried to do is take the best player available within reason. If you've got several holes to fill and there's a tie between a guy who fills a need and doesn't fill a need, you take the player who fills a hole."

Free agency isn't what it used to be for teams. They've realized the risk can be greater than the reward.

The success of teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, two teams that don't focus on free agency but instead choose to build through the draft, backs up the point that drafting is the building block for any good franchise.

"The draft is where you always get the bulk of your team," Hurney said.

For now, it might be the only place teams will be getting any players, although there is still an outside chance that can change.

Don't hold your breath. I think the best-case scenario for free agency would be if the union wins its injunction to end the lockout, and the 2010 rules are put into place. That means free agency after six years and franchise and transition tags will stick.

But if that happens, most league sources don't think free agency would take place before the draft. A likely starting date would probably be May 1.

"We usually have the players penciled in for our team by now," Smith said. "It's different. That's for sure. But all you can do is draft. That much we know."

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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