With the old CBA expiring, and seemingly nothing in the pipeline in the near future, the scheduled start of the new league year may very well come and go without a single player changing teams. That's right, folks...free agency may not start on time this year. But there's another possibility: what if free agency...doesn't happen?
If the owners and the NFLPA can't come to an agreement by March 5, 2011, the scheduled start of the new league year, the owners are going to lock the players out. What this means for free agency is that it won't happen until a new CBA is agreed upon. There is a possibility that a new CBA could potentially not be agreed upon for quite some time; in fact, some think it could potentially cut into the season. This creates sort of a snowball effect:
1. No free agents would be able to be signed before the NFL Draft. Players would still be able to be franchised, but the tag wouldn't mean a whole lot without knowing what the new CBA entails; it would simply be a placeholder. Anyway, no free agents would be able to switch teams.
2. With no CBA in place, players would not be able to be traded. Draft picks could still be traded, but only for other draft picks; picks could not be swapped for players, and players could not be swapped for other players either. With no free agency and no trades, this means that the ONLY method of player acquisition for the foreseeable future would be the 2011 NFL Draft
3. With no CBA in place, 2011 draft picks would increase in importance. The usual rule of thumb when trading the next year's picks for this year's (in this case, trading 2012 picks for 2011 picks) is that the next year's pick would be a round higher than this year's pick (2012 1st-rounder for 2011 2nd-rounder). This rule of thumb would go out the window, and the price of picks in the 2011 draft would go up quite a bit. It is quite possible that the price of picks could increase so much that a 2011 3rd-round pick could potentially be worth as much as a 2012 1st-round pick. Even if it's not quite this high, it could still be something like a 2012 2nd-rounder AND a 2011 5th-rounder, which is still more than it would usually cost for a 2011 3rd-round pick.
4. After the draft, no undrafted players from the 2011 draft would be eligible to be picked up in undrafted free agency, as these players would technically be free agents and would not be allowed to sign any contracts until a new CBA was enacted. This means that the later rounds will likely be more substantive; teams will take the guy they want to make sure they get instead of trying to wait it out and sign players in undrafted free agency.
5. There is the potential that, if a new CBA is agreed upon very close to the start of the season, free agency could be postponed a year, forcing free agent players to stay on the teams they were on in 2010. It would be illogical to allow players to hit free agency only to have little to no time to not only sign with a new team, but also train with their new team and learn the playbook. This would mean that at the end of all the labor strife and negotiations, as the 2011 starts, the only new players on any team would be their 2011 draft picks and street free agents that were available at the end of the 2011 season.
Now, what does this mean for the Jaguars? They have a few options if this is the case:
1. The Jaguars can play it straight up and use their picks that they have wisely, hoping to add the players they need to make a playoff push. If this happens, the Jaguars will avoid trades involving 2012 picks and simply try to make the best picks they can. They could still move up and down in the 2011 draft, but they would treat the draft just like any other year.
2. The Jaguars can push all their chips to the center and trade 2012 picks for 2011 picks in the hopes that they can add enough talent to make a playoff run. This is a risky option; it assumes that there would be no free agency. If the Jaguars traded their 2012 picks for 2011 picks assuming that there will be no free agency only to have a new CBA agreed upon in time for free agency, the Jaguars will have misplayed their hand and royally screwed up their 2012 draft. However, the upside is that if there is no free agency in 2011, the Jaguars, along with any other teams who traded 2012 picks for 2011 picks, will have a leg up on the competition in terms of improving their chances in 2011.
3. The Jaguars can swap several of their 2011 picks for a haul of 2012 picks. If there is no free agency in 2011, the Jaguars will obviously have hurt their chances of improvement immensely. However, if there IS free agency in 2011, the Jaguars can take their haul of 2012 picks and patch their holes for 2011 with free agents in the hopes that they can make a playoff push in 2011.
My opinion is that #3 is the best possible option for the future of this team. Let's pretend the Jaguars trade, say, their 2011 2nd-rounder, 3rd-rounder, and 4th-rounder to other teams. In terms of 2012 picks, they could likely expect to receive something like a 1st-rounder and two 2nd-rounders, and also potentially a couple of replacement 2011 picks as well, perhaps a couple 5th-round picks. The Jaguars would still have one 4th-round pick remaining, and would have three 5th-round picks. In fact, their draft would look relatively similar to this past season's given the fact that D'Anthony Smith missed the entire season; the Jaguars had rookies from the 1st, 5th, and 6th rounds on their active roster, and no picks from any other rounds.
In the meantime, the Jaguars would be hoping that free agency does in fact take place in 2011; if so, they could attempt to sign some players as stopgaps in the hopes that they could compete in 2011. Veteran players searching for one or two-year deals or injured players looking to rehab their value before trying to hit a big payday would be ideal candidates. They could also obviously go after big-ticket players such as Chad Greenway or Barrett Ruud. This would place the Jaguars in an ideal situation; they would have a massive haul of 2012 picks AND would be able to improve their roster in order to compete in 2011.
If free agency does not occur in 2011, the Jaguars would be worse-off than many other teams in that their roster would look almost identical to their 2010 roster; however, I don't believe this would be a horrible thing for this team. The defense is likely two full drafts away from being fixed; picking up a massive haul in the 2012 draft would help ease the pain of not having many picks in 2011, and the team would be able to try to fill holes in 2012 free agency as well. Wayne Weaver seems impatient for playoffs, but if a new CBA isn't reached in time for free agency to take place for next season, hopefully he can curtail that impatience and be willing to do what's best for the team.
One major bump in the road for us as fans considering these options is that the teams will have MUCH greater knowledge than we will in terms of whether or not they believe free agency will occur. I wrote this piece using the assumption that free agency is slightly more likely NOT to occur simply for the reason of providing a perspective into what could potentially happen. When making a decision on what to do in 2011, Gene Smith will have to weigh the possibility of free agency taking place this year, and he will have much more information than we do or ever will. Keep that in mind when commenting on this post.
Obviously I think what I think matters; however, you may think differently. What do you think the best course of action for the Jaguars would be in the 2011 draft if a new CBA has not been reached by that time?
EDIT: Well, it appears this is kind of a useless discussion. Per @AskAnNFLAgent on Twitter, there is absolutely no chance of free agency not happening. See his timeline and mine (@CaliforniaJag) for the discussion. He says that free agency could potentially be shortened, but that the players will not agree to not have free agency at all. Anyway, for what it's worth. Sure glad I wasted an hour on this post.