By many accounts, the NFL lockout is entering its final weeks and we hope to soon be watching a press conference between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith announcing the end of the work stoppage and re-entering the world of football as we knew it.
Once the lockout is over, teams are going to have plenty of work to do. Here, we look at the priority list for each team once that day comes.
Read the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Yes, an overlooked item on the post-lockout checklist but it's an important one. Last week while speaking with an NFL executive, I said the start of free agency would be a long and crazy night for him because it will come any day now when the CBA is completed. Not exactly, he said. The league is expected to give teams at least a couple of days to simply familiarize themselves with the new rules. Not many folks think about this but simply understanding the rules -- and doing so in just a few days -- could turn into an advantage for some. Some teams may not find the loopholes that will inevitably pop up in the new CBA and other teams will. That said, most front offices should have a general idea of what the new rules will be once the lockout ends.
Find your undrafted free agents. One of the groups of players hurt most by the NFL lockout is undrafted free agents. The undrafted free agency period is usually a whirlwind that comes as soon as the NFL draft ends but, thanks to the lockout, there has been no undrafted free agency yet. Teams have a lot more time this year to prepare for the UDFAs so I can envision a scenario where some of the elite UDFAs receive larger signing bonuses because teams have had time to study more tape and get a better understanding of what they're getting in these guys. Plus, there will probably be more competition for the elite UDFAs. It's believed that there will be a window for undrafted free agency shortly after the lockout ends. The latest report suggested that within four days of the new CBA becoming ratified there would be a window to sign UDFAs. Unfortunately, there's going to be more than a few of these guys that don't ever get the opportunity they would have received in previous years simply due to the lack of a regular offseason.
Re-sign your own free agents. This should be near the top of the list of things to do and arguably the most important. Teams probably had a pretty good idea of which players they wanted to keep before the lockout started last March, and they've had an entire offseason to study 2010 game tape, so there's been plenty of time to determine who they want to stay. And, let's be honest, some teams have probably already talked to agents to nail down the general framework of what it would cost to keep certain players. Retaining your own players is even more importantthis year because the lockout has knocked out an entire offseason which would normally be spent getting newly signed free agents or UDFAs acclimated to the team. Without that full offseason, having guys that know the system and are ready to step in and immediately contribute is more valuable than in years past. There will be plenty of players that, in a normal year, wouldn't have been re-signed but, in this lockout-shortened year, will be going back to their teams.
Bring in unrestricted free agents on the open market. While re-signing their own guys, teams also need to be hitting the open market. It's expected that, if a labor agreement comes sometime this month, there will be some sort of free agency period, perhaps a week after a new labor agreement is completed. It will be shorter than in years past so teams need to be on the ball and already have a priority list of unrestricted free agents they want to sign. In previous years these teams would have time to bring players in and get a closer look at signing them but, with a shorter free agency period, they may not have the luxury of time so they should be done with their film work and have a very good idea of which unrestricted free agents they want. This is tricky because teams will be re-signing their own guys, bringing in UDFAs all while preparing for unrestricted free agency. In years past the draft would come after free agency so teams could plug whatever holes they didn't fill in free agency. This year, that process is reversed, and it's going to make things fun to watch.
Sign your rookies to contracts. The forgotten part of the 2011 NFL draft -- actually signing the guys you picked. This will be pushed down the priority list because the items above are more critical to the short-term future of your team. But if the various forms of free agency take the attention of most of the front offices around the league then it's easy to see a situation where a lot of players are late to training camp because they don't have a signed contract. On that note, there are a couple of important things to remember. First, we don't know what the rookie wage scale will say. Maybe the new rules will make it easier to sign your rookies and this won't be a big deal. Maybe they'll punish players for holding out past the start of training camp. Whatever it is, there will be new rules and we don't completely know what those will be yet. Second, despite the communication rules during the lockout, I'm sure front offices have been talking to agents coming up with a general idea of where they each stand on rookie contract negotiations.