NFL Labor Unrest: How Will It Affect Draft Strategies?

In a typical NFL season, as February rolls into March, the blogosphere becomes saturated by posts concerning the impending arrival of free agency: breathless proclamations about which players, at what positions (and for what money) might our favorite team pursue? This, of course, is not your typical year; until a new CBA is agreed upon, there will be no free agency as we have come to understand it. So, even though teams are currently extending tenders to their own unrestricted free agents (or not, as Dave has recently posted), they will not be pursuing other teams unrestricted FAs.

I think this will have a significant effect on the 2011 NFL draft. History has shown that the teams who consistently have successful drafts tend to adhere to their boards and take the best available player when it comes time for them to pick. A pure "BPA" drafting strategy would, of course, hamstring a team's war-room; no team wants to end up with four cornerbacks and a kicker. So, this strategy is most successfully pursued when, if several available players with similar grades are on the board, they choose the guy who fits a position of need (or a position in which they will have need the following season) and when teams are willing to trade up or back to get in range to grab a player who fits a need. Employing these strategies, teams can maximize their overall talent by bringing on the best group of players possible.

But this strategy is only viable when a team doesn't need to use the draft to fill specific roster holes. If a team simply must draft a player at a specific position, then they either have to get lucky, draft a less-talented player, or sell out to secure a player they like. The last two of these options usually leads to a less-talented draft haul, in terms of quality or quantity, respectively. For this reason, the smartest teams have learned to use the free agency period to fill roster holes. If I know I'm going into the offseason without, say, either a #2 cornerback or a viable left guard, I'll pick up a mid-priced veteran at each of these positions in free agency (a Kyle Kosier-type of guy) so that I can stick to a purer BPA philosophy during the draft. If I happen to draft a player at one of these positions, that's okay; the kid can compete with the vet, and I've got useful, necessary depth at the position. If not, I've still got a solid player at every position on my roster as well as a more talented overall team.

Without a proper free agency period, teams won't be able to sign guys to fill roster holes before the draft. Unless a CBA is agreed upon by late April, therefore, teams are more likely to go into the draft with uneven rosters. In an earlier post, I noted that one of the pre-draft processes that teams engage in is "clustering"--determining where groups of players at a specific position might gather. If, for example, a team needs a center, a running back and an inside linebacker, they have to ascertain when in the draft a cluster of players with similar at each of those positions might be available. Thus a team drafting with the 23rd pick in each round might discover that they were most likely to find a cluster of similar center prospects at the bottom of the second round and a group of more or less equal ILB candidates at the bottom of the fourth round. So, they'd feel pretty secure that a player they like would be available when they were on the clock.

But what if there were no running back "cluster" in the last third of a round? That team would be forced to trade up or down to select their RB. Thanks to the absence of a CBA, most teams, like the squad in our fictional example, will have plenty of needs to fill where they shouldn't necessarily expect to find a player or players they like at the spot where they pick.

Consequently, I think we'll see a lot more trading than usual, as teams jump up and down in an effort to draft players at positions of need in the areas where they have them graded. In 2010, there were 162 draft-day trades; it wouldn't surprise me to see that number eclipsed by a substantial margin this year. Because of the NFL's much-publicized labor unrest, the 2011 iteration of the "Annual Selection Meeting" should be an even wilder ride than usual.

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