The current NFL and NFLPA collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is set to expire on March 3, 2011. That date is also when NFL Free Agency should start, however unless a new CBA is agreed upon by March 3, 2011 free agency cannot happen. It's looking likely that there will be an NFL lockout, but I do not believe it will be one that will last long enough to dramatically effect the 2011 NFL season. What is very likely with the looming lockout however, is that the NFL Draft will occur before the free agency period. I tried to find out when the last time this happened. I employed Google, Twitter, and asked the rest of my SBNation.com bloggers, but I couldn't find an answer. The NFL Draft started in 1936 and from what I was able to gather, free agency has never been held after the NFL Draft occurred.
If it happens, it could dramitically change how some franchises approach the NFL Draft.
Currently, teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars claim to employ the "Best Available Player" (BAP) strategy when drafting. This means the front office will rank the players in the draft and pick by the players rank when it's their turn. Currently the Jaguars pick 16th overall, so theoretically they should pick the highest ranked player on their draft board at that pick. However true that is will never be known, but with free agency potentially after the draft this season, a lot more NFL teams could use this method.
Typically, free agency is used by teams to fill glaring holes. For instance, the Jaguars desperately needed a pass rusher last off season. Two days into free agency last year I first reported Aaron Kampman was in town and would be signed, and boom... The Jaguars addressed their biggest need with a proven veteran. Prior to that, the vast majority it Mock Drafts and pundits called for the Jaguars to draft a defensive end in the first round. While it was still possible to do so, because Aaron Kampman was signed, it freed the Jaguars hand to stick by their BAP philosophy. On the other hand, the teams who strike out in free agency may look to address their biggest need in the draft.
For instance, the Philadelphia Eagles "struck out" looking for a pass rusher last season in free agency. They were rumored to be hot on the trail of current Chicago Bear Julius Peppers, but missed. They were also high on the trail of Aaron Kampan, but the Jaguars snapped him up. Then the Detroit Lions snapped up Kyle Vanden Bosch. The top three free agent pass rushers were gone. Fast forward to the NFL draft, the Eagles moved up in the draft to pick defensive end Brandon Graham.
Now that the free agency period will potentially be after the draft, it could swing how teams approach. It could free more teams to use the BAP methodology and fill in the gaps in free agency. Conversely, some teams might look at it as a way to pick their needs in the draft and go with young players, then use free agency as the "miss" fill in. It could also work to drive down some of the costs in free agency.
For instance, everyone wants cornerback Nnamdi Asomugah. There are potentially 4 or 5 cornerbacks who will be taken in the first round this year, so it could limit the market for Asomugah. Asomugah will likely still get paid, but the market will be smaller. Not only that, but the secondary free agent cornerbacks cost will likely be driven down because the need for them will not be as great and may have been filled in the draft with younger, cheaper players.
It's going to be an interesting situation to follow.