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DMN: Draft order changes things

New restrictions are likely to create more trades. Michael Lombardi

Print This February 11, 2010, 12:00 PM EST

QUOTE: “Above all, we must forgive the unhappy souls who have elected to make the pilgrimage on foot, who skirt the shore and look uncomprehendingly upon the horror of the struggle, the joy of victory, the profound hopelessness of the vanquished.” -- Joseph Conrad

By now, we all know that as we enter the 2010 version of free agency, the NFL will be dramatically different than any free agency period before in the league. Here’s a quick guide to help you know what to expect:

Expect more trades

This will be the first time in NFL history that eight teams will not be free to sign any players during the free-agent period, so those eight teams will have to think outside the box to improve. The draft will provide some help, but once again, those eight teams will be at the bottom of the draft order, limiting their ability to get the best players. In the past, playoff teams would be seeded in the draft based on their regular-season records, regardless of how far they advanced in the playoffs, with the exception of the two Super Bowl teams. Now, all the teams are seeded based on how far they advanced:

21. Bengals 10-6           27. Cowboys 11-5
22. Patriots 10-6           28. Chargers 13-3
23. Packers 11-5          29. Jets 9-7
24. Eagles 11-5            30. Vikings 12-4
25. Ravens 9-7            31. Colts 14-2
26. Cardinals 10-6       32. Saints 13-3

In the previous seeding order, the Jets would be picking 21st in the draft. Now they’re eight spots later, which means eight players are off the board before they select. So the draft is not really a way for these eight teams to improve. As a result, I suspect more trades will be made this offseason.

Trades will happen now because of the new system and the restrictions placed on the final eight teams. For example, the Cardinals and Ravens can’t sign new players; they can replace players they lose for the same money, but adding to their roster will be challenging. So these eight teams share a common ground that’s different from the rest of the league, and much like baseball’s winter meetings, they’ll be more open to trade talks. For the Ravens to find a veteran receiver who can help their team, it will have to come via trade, and they’ll have to be willing to part with draft choices or restricted free agents.

Most teams that pick near the bottom of the first round realize that the players they choose will probably not impact their team for the upcoming season. They’re more likely to have an impact the following year. So how do these teams make improvements? It will have to come from the trade market, where there are no restrictions on player movement.

Restricted free agents are like gold -- for the tendering team

Players who have four years of service in this new system will not be free agents but rather restricted free agents. And these players will be the most valuable on the market -- not for their talent but for their contracts. The NFL is getting more and more like the NBA in that contracts are as important as talent. Normally, teams that want to sign a restricted free agent to a new deal are willing to pay above and beyond what the team that owns his rights would pay. But teams that have players in the four- to six-year range would be crazy to extend a player’s contract when they own his rights for two more years. Now, this will mean there will be some very unhappy players and our offseason news will be filled with complaints, but there’s nothing they can do. They’re trapped in the new system, and teams will not want to part with these players.

None of these players can be traded until they signed their tenders, so expect many of them to avoid signing a contract until the last minute, hoping a new team might make an offer. But in reality, no teams will make offers because of the rules and because most of the teams will over-commit tenders to secure these players. Why risk losing a good player when you can overpay a little and guarantee a team doesn’t make an offer?

The new system will be a challenge for every team, and improvement will only occur for those willing to broaden their approach to player personnel and willing to trade.

Follow me on Twitter: michaelombardi

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