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Draft King Analysis

December 21, 2011
Lou Pickney,

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One of the tricky things about constructing an NFL mock draft is trying to figure out not only who the top prospects are but also anticipating likely moves by teams in free agency. You can have a brilliantly deduced draft board end up being torn to shreds by teams filling needs via free agency and/or having new needs created due to losing players to free agency. Last year's lockout helped on that end -- with no player movement, it was easier to determine a given team's need, though there was also the difficulty of not knowing who a given team planned to attempt to keep once the lockout ended.

With the new Collective Bargaining Agreement restoring unrestricted free agency rights to players with 4+ years of NFL tenure, we're back to how things were in the 2009 off-season. In 2010, the final year of the previous CBA, players had to have six years of NFL tenure to be unrestricted free agents, which created all kinds of gridlock with unhappy players holding out (e.g. San Diego WR Vincent Jackson and New England OG Logan Mankins). That's unlikely to happen in the future, with the new CBA allowing a massive $30,000 a day fine for any player holding out.

Look back at this past August and you'll see the evidence of the impact of the new CBA: guys like San Francisco RB Frank Gore and Philadelphia WR DeSean Jackson ended their brief respective holdouts once they realized how much money they stood to lose from it. Only Tennessee RB Chris Johnson had a protracted holdout, and he succeeded in landing a new contract only because of how vital he appeared to be to the Titans, one year removed from his 2,000+ yard rushing season of 2009.

This is not to say that there won't be holdouts in the future in the NFL, but the volume will likely be very low and likely won't last very long. My hope is that this will finally create a distinction between a player under contract refusing to report to camp (a real holdout) versus an unsigned player that is either tethered to a club via a franchise tag or from the team acquiring his rights via the draft. You're not a holdout if there is no contract in place, but that term has been thrown around loosely for years, much to my chagrin.

Antwan Odom
An injured right Achilles tendon ended Antwam Odom's 2009 season. (Icon SMI)
In many ways, unrestricted free agency after four years is good for the league's efforts to maintain parity among the 32 teams. Example: Tennessee used a second-round pick in 2004 on Alabama DE Antwan Odom and signed him to a four-year contract. He performed well for the Titans, and when his initial contract was up (and with the Titans deciding not to use the franchise tag on him) he was free to sign with anyone, and he chose Cincinnati, a team that needed help at defensive end.

Things didn't work out long-term in Cincy for Odom, though he did have a monster start to the 2009 season, including an amazing five sack performance on Aaron Rodgers in a 31-24 week two victory. Injuries and a later suspension derailed what had looked like a major coup for Cincinnati with Odom, but his story fits the bill for what I suspect most in the NFL like to see, young players living up to their billing and then cashing in on a nice second contract.

Odom performed well for four seasons in Nashville, hit the free agent market, received a five-year, $29.5 million contract (with $11.5 million guaranteed), and filled a need spot for the Bengals. Again, the wheels ultimately fell off for him, but had he stayed healthy and out of NFL suspension trouble (he was suspended for four games in 2010 for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs) he looked like a perfect example for how the NFL system can and should work.

Note: I strongly suspect that there's a correlation between Odom's five sack performance against Green Bay in 2009 and the Packers deciding to use first round picks in 2010 (Iowa OT Bryan Bulaga) and 2011 (Mississippi State OT Derek Sherrod) on offensive tackles. Ironically, those two players both suffered injuries in Kansas City this past Sunday, causing concern for fans of the now 13-1 Packers as the playoffs draw closer.

With only four years needed for UFA, as opposed to six, it makes it tougher for teams to stockpile and horde skilled players in backup roles. It makes sense for the players, it makes sense for the league (not paying outrageous money to unproven rookies), and it helps there to be more of a competitive balance in the NFL. Win-win-win.

For players eligible for early entry into the NFL (those three years removed from their high school class graduation), the usual deliberations are being made on if they should leave for the pro level or return to school for the 2012 season. This is particularly true for draft-eligible guys at Southern Cal, which is bowl ineligible this year and also have some elite, NFL-ready talent in QB Matt Barkley and OT Matt Kalil.

Kalil has already announced plans to leave the Trojans for the NFL, though until he signs with an agent he could change his mind. But until he actually signs with Tom Condon (who he is expected to sign with as his agent and who also is the agent for his brother, Carolina center Ryan Kalil), he could potentially go back to school. Once he signs with Condon, the asterisk on the Draft King 2012 NFL Mock Draft board will turn into a squiggle. Once you get the squiggle, there's no going back. Just ask former USC WR Mike Williams about that if you doubt me.

As for this year's pending free agents, there is always the possibility of their current team signing them to a new deal before free agency begins in February 2012. Some will for sure be slapped with the franchise tag (like Saints QB Drew Brees), but the tag can be a salary cap burden, so it's not an automatic move for teams to use.

With all of that in mind, tomorrow I'll have an article on here looking over the top potential NFL free agents, discuss the likelihood of them being franchised (as Shane Douglas might say), and look at the likelihood of both the top restricted and unrestricted players to end up playing for another team in 2012.


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