Gene Upshaw is smiling right now.
According to numerous sources, federal Judge Susan Nelson has ruled in favor of the players in the "Brady Case," which would end the NFL lockout and force owners and players to negotiate while the league is open for business.
Nelson's decision will still need to make it through appeals court (the owners were ready to appeal before they had the hearing in the first place), but unless the appeals court deems that Nelson went completely renegade on the decision, there is a reasonably good chance it will stand and there will be a 2011 NFL season.
This is very interesting news just before the 2011 NFL Draft. To this point, the lack of free agency has been a major factor in the way the draft has shaped up. With teams having no idea when free agency will be (or what its terms will be) there has been an increased focus on grabbing NFL-ready players and filling immediate needs.
And while free agency will not begin prior to the draft (the appeals process will take weeks, at least), it does represent light at the end of the tunnel, which may bring some normalcy to the draft.
Teams like the Redskins or Cardinals who are expected to be after a quarterback in the draft might pass on Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and co., and instead look towards engineering a trade for Kevin Kolb.
They might have been thinking that earlier, too, but now that these front offices can look at a likely time frame for free agency to start (and it's not in September), they can look toward other plans for filling team needs.
Who wins most in the "Brady case" ruling (if it stands)?
Granted, the situation is still not perfect for anybody.
First of all, there still exists a chance that Nelson's ruling is overturned, which puts us back at lockout status quo. And until the appeal process is finished, the lockout will remain in place. If teams start altering their draft plans in anticipation of free agency and Nelson's decision is successfully appealed, it could be a very painful backfire.
In addition, free agency is no guarantee of anything. Players can do what they want, so even if teams set aside huge chunks of money to sign blue-chip free agents (until a new CBA is reached, 2011 will operate like 2010: uncapped), that doesn't mean teams are going to get the players they want.
This is why free agency normally comes before the draft. Teams go after the free agents they want, then given the result, they have a better idea of what to draft. This year won't be as smooth, and teams still won't be able to trade players during the draft. But it's far less of a moving target than it once was.
Also, front offices are now unlikely to decode any legal-ese surrounding new rules in contracts, free agency and perhaps most importantly, restricted free agency.
It had become almost a given that the new CBA was going to change the nature of restricted free agency so that players could become unrestricted free agents after less than the current six years. That was going to bump a number of restricted free agents into the open market.
To illustrate the difference this makes, let's look at the Detroit Lions. Their top cornerback from last year, Chris Houston, is a five-year veteran. Under the rules of the current/past CBA, Houston is still a restricted free agent, which means the Lions have the first right of retaining him.
The Lions are notoriously thin at cornerback, but Houston was a bright spot. With his likely return for 2011, cornerback becomes a much more secure position, at least for next year.
Without that desperation to fill a corner spot, will the Lions reach for other positions? Are they more likely to trade around, draft for value instead of need?
That's just one example, but it relates in some way to every team in the league.
We may not know how the draft is going to shake out, but we can say for sure that this ruling makes it a lot more interesting.