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CBA issues create strange days in Indy

2/23/2011
Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum, left, and coach Rex Ryan are ready for any scenario in this odd offseason. AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

The NFL scouting combine was conceived as an event to prepare for the upcoming draft.

As Februarys came and went, the scene in Indianapolis became a football personnel free-for-all. Free agency, potential trades and contract extensions are discussed as much as Johnny Touchdown's 40-yard dash time.

Agents scamper about to vend their pending free agents and get as much face time with NFL executives as possible. General managers convene over rib eyes at the St. Elmo Steak House or even steal a few words while waiting in line at the hotel coffee shop.

The scene should be decidedly different when personnel evaluators, agents and prospects gather this week. The combine opens Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium and runs through Tuesday.

Rather than a big bazaar for all a team's roster needs, the combine will be a little bizarre.

The collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players will expire at the end of business next Wednesday. If a new CBA can't be brokered by then, most NFL personnel operations will be suspended. No player trades. No free agency.

The only way for teams to make adjustments would be at the draft in April.

"I've never been to Indy so close to the expiration of a labor agreement," New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said of what lies ahead. He spoke while driving, his GPS system fittingly announcing in the background she was "recalculating route."

"But our mindset is to carry on and be prepared and go from there," Tannenbaum continued. "There's uncertainty, but the only thing we can control is preparation, and we feel good that we'll be ready."

For all intents and purposes, the NFL offseason begins the second the confetti falls at the Super Bowl. But the way-offseason likely will begin in a week.

"This is going to be a combine that's focused on the draft and the new CBA," former Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers executive Vinny Cerrato said. "You don't have to focus on free agency. You can concentrate on the draft because that's all you got."

Heightened importance on the draft plus the anticipation of a rookie wage scale in the next CBA might create added interest for moving up in this year's draft. With the inability to sign or trade players, draft picks are the only available currency, and teams could be compelled to convert multiple selections into a premium pick.

In recent years, teams at the front of the draft have tried to trade out of seemingly plum positions because they didn't want to pay the exorbitant contracts that go along with the honor.

Oakland Raiders bust JaMarcus Russell is the poster child for such wasteful draft spending. Even the No. 1 picks who work out, for instance Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long, immediately become the highest-paid players at their positions before playing a single NFL snap.

But with a rookie wage scale, teams would be able to limit financial risk. The New England Patriots are in terrific position to try this philosophy if willing. The Patriots own two draft choices in each of the first three rounds.

The Buffalo Bills own the AFC East's most valuable pick at No. 3. It should be easier to trade it this year if they were of a mind to do so.

"I would expect to see more trading in this draft and people wanting to trade up higher because there's definitely going to be a salary structure for rookies," Cerrato said. "You can trade up and it won't kill you."

The Jets are in a personnel holding pattern. They have 17 free agents, by far the most in the AFC East. The big names include receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

Teams can re-sign players up until the CBA expires, but the Jets are almost certain to decline because they don't know what the new rules will be.

How many years of experience will a player need to be an unrestricted free agent? A restricted free agent? How high will the salary cap ceiling be?

The only move the Jets expected to make was placing the franchise tag on inside linebacker David Harris, and even that maneuver will be in dispute. The NFL believes franchise tags are permissible. The NFL Players Association disagrees. It's possible a court will agree with the union and render Harris a free agent despite the franchise tag.

The longer there's no CBA -- Cerrato predicted there won't be a new one until August at the earliest -- the more handcuffed teams will be when it comes to addressing roster needs.

By the time the draft transpires, teams are supposed to have sifted through the free agency pool for nearly two months. Valuable veterans get their contracts extended. Trades go down.

In the AFC East last year, the Dolphins traded for receiver Brandon Marshall, the Jets traded for Holmes and Cromartie, the Jets signed running back LaDainian Tomlinson and pass-rusher Jason Taylor, the Patriots re-signed five important veterans, including nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and the Bills signed tackle Cornell Green, defensive end Dwan Edwards and Andra Davis -- all in the two months before the draft.

Such moves are unlikely to occur this year until after the draft, adding emphasis to a "best available player" approach when it's time for any team to pick.

For a wheeler-dealer such as Tannenbaum, this offseason might feel like walking up to the first tee box with only three clubs in his bag.

"If you've ever seen me play golf," Tannenbaum said, "I don't really need a lot of clubs to embarrass myself."

No free agency also means the Jets will have to wait to see how attractive they are as a destination for incoming free agents. Polls popped up during the season that showed Rex Ryan was the head coach players around the league most wanted to play for if given the opportunity.

Even so, the Jets can't afford to go into the draft assuming they'll be able to address their wants and needs in a free-agency scramble. Free agency probably will be the latest option to mold a roster this year.

Tannenbaum sounded like someone intent on avoiding stress over circumstances outside his control. After all, the Jets successfully coped with a handicap last offseason as a team constrained by the "final eight" plan, which prevented them from making particular free-agent acquisitions in the uncapped year.

"However the draft falls in line with anything else, we'll be prepared," Tannenbaum said. "We always look at the offseason as a big continuum to improve the team, from the first day of the league year through the last game -- trades, practice-squad signings, whatever it may be."

Cerrato stressed teams must be ready for a variety of developments, including the unexpected: a new CBA before next Wednesday's expiration.

"You have to assume March 3 is still the day because you can't get caught not having done your work and they get a CBA deal done," Cerrato said. "I would think most teams have their free-agency stuff done. If there is no deal, then they're at least ready for when a deal gets done. If that's after the draft, you go back and reevaluate your priorities because your needs are going to change."

Cerrato surmised every NFL team will need to compose provisional draft and free-agency boards for various possible scenarios.

Clubs would rank free agents based on interest level, and when they determine which positions are particularly deep for them (albeit with no guarantees), their scouts could skew their draft needs elsewhere.

It's a strange time, but personnel executives have no choice but to deal with it.

"We're excited," Tannenbaum said. "It's the first opportunity to put the Pittsburgh loss in the rearview mirror and say 'It's 2011. It's a fresh start. Let's go put the best Jets team together we can.' We fell short, but we have a lot of tangible reasons to be excited. We have more wood to chop, and when they say 'Go,' we'll be ready."

"We always look at the draft as an opportunity to improve the team. It's a fun time of year and an important piece to lay the foundation."

Even if the foundation has shifted.