NFL Draft 2012: 5 Ways Free Agency Has Changed the Landscape of the Draft
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2011 was an anomaly in the NFL's offseason order of business due to the lockout and subsequent delay on free agency.
The draft became the first player-procurement stage for teams needing to address holes and add talent. Even while knowing that an open-signing period would occur, if the season were to be back on the table, front offices did not want to be cornered or held hostage by a fast-and-furious market.
Fast forward a year later to the present and the natural order of NFL player acquisition has been restored. Currently, we are into our third week of free agency, and the annual college-player lottery is exactly one month away.
Teams have predictably used this period, and much of their available player payroll, to augment their rosters with varying degrees of perceived wisdom, sensibility and prudence. As is customary in our industry, grades and opinions on nearly every move are rendered immediately with admitted degrees of fairness to these conclusions.
The ultimate value of most free-agent signings will be determined several years from now, but the surer and sooner ramifications of these commitments will be seen next month when the draft unfolds.
After I examined last week how free agency could be driving up the stock for a number of prospects, this slideshow takes a step back and seeks to identify some of the broader strokes of fundamental effect to the draft.
The primary impact comes in four areas: the changing of teams' priority roster needs, boosting stock at certain positions, depressing stock at other positions and creating flexibility for picks with different clubs. I will also address the quarterback carousel, touch on Peyton Manning's signing and how this is coloring the third-quarterback conversation.
Altering Teams' Primary Needs
Wimbley's signing allows Titans to pursue other needs.
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When teams commit significant resources to a present roster need, it usually results in a logical shift to another position of deficiency in the first round.
This is not always the case, however, as some organizations will double up a free-agent signing with a high pick especially if the latter is viewed as the best player available on the board.
But the prevailing tendency is for major veteran pickups to signal a club's focus onto another positional weakness in that same offseason. If the front office is correct in its respective evaluations of both the incoming, or re-signed, players and rookie selections, a team is able to improve in a hurry, reaping immediate gains the very next season in the win column.
The Titans currently hold the 20th pick in the first round, and that range could offer ample prospects at both pass-rusher (Whitney Mercilus or Nick Perry) and interior offensive line (Cordy Glenn, Peter Konz).
Although Konz could still be in play, as he is considered the clear-cut top center prospect in the class—another need in Tennessee—his value is not as good in this slot as would be a cornerback, to replace the departed Cortland Finnegan or a wide receiver to complement Kenny Britt.
There is very good potential value at these two positions where the Titans are drafting in players like Stephon Gilmore at corner or wideouts Kendall Wright and Michael Floyd.
Buffalo Bills: re-signing wide receiver Steve Johnson along with external additions at defensive end in Mario Williams and Mark Anderson.
The Bills are presently slotted 10th in the first round and the aforementioned signings of a No. 1 wide receiver and notable upgrades at defensive ends appear to point toward them addressing left tackle on April 26.
There are a couple of caveats here—the first being that incumbent free-agent starter Demetrius Bell could be brought back, as he has found very little substantial interest thus far on the open market.
Bell performed well during the seven games in which he was healthy a year ago, and logic dictates that he becomes increasingly affordable, potentially even on a one-year deal to re-establish his value 12 months from now, the longer he remains unsigned.
The second part of the equation is that there may not be a tackle that equates to the value of the Bills' position at 10, which could result in them trading back for a player like Riley Reiff or Jonathan Martin if they like one or both of them later in the round.
Boosting Positional Stock
A team may reach for Wright in the top 10 picks.
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When a number of players at a specific position are signed during the free-agency period, a transitive effect on the corresponding stock of that position is a reasonable, if not likely, byproduct of this movement.
A basic accounting of supply and demand also tells us that the more players signed from the same grouping should result in less emphasis on that spot, as well as the reverse for less activity connoting more urgency on those prospects in the draft.
But NFL positional markets are not simply about quantity on the supply and demand curve, but also quality. This notion is exemplified below with regard to the wide receiver crop.
Wide receiver: According to Pro Football Focus' free-agent tracker, 33 wideouts have been re-signed, franchised or inked by new teams since the beginning of free agency two weeks ago. This includes the trade of Brandon Marshall from the Miami Dolphins to the Chicago Bears.
This explosion would seem to indicate that most teams are preferring veterans to rookies for these depth charts, and we could see some talent slide, as we always do with receivers, come one month from now.
Upon closer analysis, though, it is revealed that very few of the aforementioned allotments project a likely expectation for upgrade. Names like Vincent Jackson, Brandon Lloyd, Dwayne Bowe, Stevie Johnson, DeSean Jackson and Brandon Marshall were the exception and not the norm.
This scarcity is put into further context because Bowe, Johnson and DeSean Jackson remained with their original clubs. Teams in the top 10 alone that could be seeking a potential No. 1 or immediate No. 2 receiver include Cleveland-4, St. Louis-6, Jacksonville-7, Miami-8, Carolina-9 and Buffalo-10.
Only one of those organizations will land projected top man Justin Blackmon, leaving the other five to ponder the value of either Kendall Wright or Michael Floyd that high. Their respective rises could also usher other receivers like Stephen Hill, Rueben Randle and Alshon Jeffery into the back of the first round.
Depressing Positional Stock
Grimes led a FA class of CBs that could push rookies down the board.
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The other side of the coin from the previous slide occurs when a free-agent grouping offers a deep and talented list of options from which needy teams may choose. Not only can the supply-quality index work against rookie draft prospects, but quantity can also enter into play.
If there are fewer teams looking for a specific profile of experience, ability and salary obligation than there are candidates that fit these criteria, repercussions on the aspiring high picks is only exacerbated.
This creates a favorable market for NFL teams but could potentially cost draft picks hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first round as their signing bonus and guaranteed money tumble with each succeeding pick.
Cornerback: A long and impressive cache of players at this position still has not been fully exhausted with the third week of free agency upon us.
If all of that was not sufficient to depress the first-round corner market in next month's draft, one elite (Lardarius Webb) and one very solid starter (William Middleton) are still available as restricted free agents.
All of this could lead to the second cornerback off the board, following Morris Claiborne who is a projected shoo-in as a top-six selection, at pick 20 or later.
Creating Flexibility for Teams
Jackson is one signing that could open things up for the Bucs.
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In other instances, free-agent additions can create greater draft-day flexibility by allowing NFL front offices to avoid focusing on a certain position due to need.
They are permitted to operate from a wider angle that may enable them to select who they think is the best player available, address a need at any number of spots or even double up at a specific area to enhance depth or competition.
Nowhere is this approach better illustrated than with teams that possess multiple glaring needs and/or a general dearth of talent up and down the roster. Each succeeding move in free agency seems to further energize the fanbase, theoretically boosting player quality along the way, as it widens the window of possibility in the draft.
Teams that find themselves in the lowly position of requiring multiple impact free-agent signings and still more high-end help in the draft, are typically further than one year away from being competitive. But if their veteran choices are shrewd and they have the money to spend, along with sound evaluations in the draft, a new era of success can be launched in earnest.
All three came with a significant expenditure of resources and guaranteed money and should make the Bucs one of the more entertaining and unpredictable teams to follow on draft day.
If Louisiana State cornerback Morris Claiborne is there at five, he is probably the best choice, but the Wright and Jackson signings could let them feel like they can go with Trent Richardson at running back.
Likewise with their early second-round pick, if they tabbed Claiborne at five, they could look best player available or even a running back at that spot instead of a wide receiver or interior offensive lineman.
After the trade the Rams made with the Washington Redskins for the No. 2 overall pick and the rights to Robert Griffin III, and the overall state of St. Louis' roster, it is all about talent and flexibility for new general manager Les Snead.
With the sixth pick, they can go wide receiver (Justin Blackmon), defensive tackle (Fletcher Cox) or offensive tackle (Riley Reiff). If Claiborne happens to fall to them, it would still be a very wise and defensible pick even after the addition of Finnegan.
And depending on which direction they go in the first, their two early picks in the second round (33 and 37) can be just as diverse, including what should be excellent value options at defensive tackle, interior offensive line, cornerback and wide receiver.
The Quarterback Carousel
Which team welcomes the third QB, and who will it be?
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There is no single position in American major professional team sports that is as crucial, discussed, analyzed and scrutinized than NFL quarterback.
A great one can set up a franchise for a decade while continued futility at the position can hinder an organization for an entire generation. More coaches, coordinators and front-office men have their careers made or slayed by the choices they make under center.
With all of this in mind, let us take a gander at the free-agent quarterback movement to date this offseason and then how that projects to affect the first round and at what point the third quarterback will have his name called.
2012 offseason quarterback migration
Jason Campbell from injured starter in Oakland to elite-level backup to Cutler in Chicago.
Kyle Orton from journeyman starter, last with Kansas City, to back up Romo in Dallas.
Caleb Hanie from backup in Chicago to all-important Manning understudy in Denver.
Peyton Manning signing on with the Broncos to potentially reshape that franchise.
Permit me an interlude to briefly examine what Denver has done at this position along with the accompanying dismissal of cult legend Tim Tebow.
Obviously, the Manning decision is a potential game-changer—one of the greatest players in NFL history. But can he play at the same level after coming back from the injury? Will he come back from it completely, and what will his durability be like? There is almost as much risk to this deal as there is potential payoff.
And given Manning's likely fragility, the Caleb Hanie election as his backup should something go awry is puzzling to me. Hanie has very little starting experience, and with said playing time, has shown that he is really just a No. 3 because of accuracy and decision making problems, despite the ability to create a few plays here and there.
Drew Stanton goes from backup in Detroit to the Jets before Tebow's trade booted him to the Colts, where he projects to caddy for Andrew Luck.
Brady Quinn departs backup duty in Denver to compete with sophomore Ricky Stanzi for the same honor in Kansas City.
Chad Henne from injured and later ousted starter with Miami to the Jaguars to push, mentor and likely surpass Blaine Gabbert on the depth chart.
David Garrard, who was released just before the 2011 season to promote the would-be phenom Gabbert in Jacksonville, returns from back surgery to join Matt Moore on Miami's depth chart.
Charlie Whitehurst, following a fairly inconsequential tour as the Seahawks' backup and would-be starter, returns to his signing organization to back up Rivers in San Diego.
Dan Orlovsky, following backup tours that got him some starting experience with the Lions and Colts, will serve as the No. 2 in Tampa Bay to Josh Freeman.
The previous move resulted in former Bucs backup Josh Johnson reconnecting with his college coach Jim Harbaugh (from UC-San Diego before all the Stanford-Luck hoopla) behind Alex Smith.
One of the more anticipated moves of the offseason saw Matt Flynn settle on the Seattle Seahawks to become their new starter for 2012.
What does all of this mean for the quarterback position in the first round for 2012? Well, it will not resemble the cluster panic of a year ago when the draft preceded free agency, resulting in several silly reaches.
The current consensus has the Miami Dolphins popping Texas A&M signal-caller Ryan Tannehill with the eighth pick, which would coincidentally place him with his college head coach, Mike Sherman, who moved on this offseason to become offensive coordinator in South Beach.
I am not a big believer in Tannehill but recognize that the majority of NFL teams likely view him as the third quarterback in the class. I think Miami will pass on him at eight, and he will either be selected as the product of a mid/late-first trade or, if he reaches 22, become a Cleveland Brown.
Either way, Tannehill figures to be the next quarterback chosen following the two superstar prospects at the top and safely inside the first round.