It is a chilling thought as we ponder the uncertain future of the NFL: What if free agency doesn't happen this offseason? What if the labor situation isn't resolved until late, too late to conduct free agency? What happens if the only way to acquire players in this offseason is to have the April draft, to make trades once the CBA is established and pick players off the waiver wire?
It is something that I really hadn't considered until I read SI.com's Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback. He thinks there is going to be a lockout, and he thinks the issue won't be resolved until late in the summer. And he thinks that there might not be free agency.
So what happens to the Eagles in that instance? Can they satisfy their needs via the draft, and the trade route, and by signing other teams' castoffs? It is something to think about in these slower days of mid-February.
Under the scenario of no free agency, and in this make-it-up world as we imagine now, all players whose contracts set to expire on March 4 would have their rights return to their current teams. How expired contracts would be resolved is another question, but this is a pretend scenario that has many holes. If there was no shopping period, free agents like linebacker Stewart Bradley, safety Quintin Mikell, offensive guard Max Jean-Gilles, running back Jerome Harrison and the rest would remain the property of the Eagles.
We have talked about the team's needs, and it is fairly safe to say that the Eagles can add pieces throughout the defense as well as their offensive line. There are questions about the depth at running back, given the idea that Harrison would become a free agent, and of course the quarterback picture is worth discussing every day, each night.
So let's say the Eagles would get every one of their scheduled free agents back. Where would the needs be in that case?
It is much more complicated than this, of course, because the draft is going to happen on April 28, and that weekend changes teams' outlooks every year. Like it or not, teams need to draft well to stay in contention, and there is no question that every NFL team prefers building in the draft rather than relying on free agency to add talent to the roster. But let's say teams went into the draft knowing they would *only *have that weekend to bring onboard substantial talent to the table.
Would the Eagles be able to strike gold on one or two immediate-impact players and step into the upper echelon of the league?
It's probably something that every NFL front office has to consider along the way if the storm clouds don't clear before March 4. If there is no CBA, and the lack of a contract extends beyond April, everything changes. The whole process as we know it goes down the drain, and teams are thrown into uncharted waters.
Let's identify needs here, as we look at the current roster.
1. Defensive end
The Eagles added some roster competition when they signed Phillip Hunt on Friday, but the Canadian Football League star is far from a guarantee to make the team. He'll battle with a pretty deep group. Still, is there is a front-line talent to help Trent Cole? Brandon Graham is a logical candidate, and he has an exciting upside, but he is coming off the ACL injury and it's hard to expect a player to return to 100 percent health less than 12 months after surgery.
Darryl Tapp figures to step into the rotation more and compete with Juqua Parker on the left side, and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim needs to make a large leap forward in his second NFL season. Ricky Sapp is 255 pounds and he is developing.
This draft is said to be extremely deep in defensive linemen. It wouldn't be out of the question for the Eagles to address the position once again.
2. Right cornerback
Every Eagles fan dreams of the Eagles either moving up in the draft and signing one of the top two or three corners in the draft or making a splash in free agency and signing a high-profile veteran. It may not be that the Eagles can do either, that they instead must rely upon the group they have in place to work with new corners coach Johnnie Lynn.
Is Dimitri Patterson going to step up? How about second-year man Trevard Lindley or Brandon Hughes or one of the young corners (Gerard Lawson and Isaish Trufant) ready to become the guy? Joselio Hanson is a solid nickel corner, and we know his game. He can help everywhere at the cornerback position, but he has not been looked at here to date as a long-term starter.
This is not out of the question, even if there is free agency. The Eagles may want to channel their efforts at developing what they have and address other needs rather than putting all of their eggs in one, high-priced veteran basket. And they may not be able to get that instant-starter kind of player in the draft. How many rookies walk right in and start and play at a super-high level?
3. Right guard
Neither dominated, but both Max Jean-Gilles and Nick Cole have played well enough in the past to allow the offense to score loads of points and win a lot of games. Is there a player in the draft who would come right in and play better than each of those veterans?
The Eagles are going to look at their options here. New line coach Howard Mudd has his work cut out for him and he is up to the challenge. He will enjoy working with such a talented offensive group, although he would benefit from adding a couple of pieces.
4. Right tackle
His struggles in the playoff loss to Green Bay have put Winston Justice on the spot. The Eagles, remember, signed Justice to a long-term contract in 2009 and penciled him in as the starter. Mudd has no reason to favor Justice because of his draft status or his contract, so Justice starts from scratch with the new coach. Is he good enough to protect Michael Vick's blind side?
Where do King Dunlap and Austin Howard fit in with Mudd at the helm? Interesting stuff ahead for the offensive line.
5. Return specialist
You could see the Eagles adding one in the draft, maybe an explosive wide receiver who could also help a return game that just wasn't productive enough in 2010. The Eagles could really get some help that way, but is there a rookie who can make that kind of a difference and who is good enough to win a job at wide receiver? Are we talking about using a high draft pick on a return man/wide receiver? Can the Eagles, with their other needs, afford to address a specialist here?
This is just an idle conversation, naturally. Nobody really knows what is going to happen in the months ahead, so teams have to prepare for everything. Any possibly scenario can happen here, including no free agency.
Much of the conversation among fans is free agency and who might sign where. That is normal fare for this time of the calendar year. In a usual situation, free agency would begin in three weeks. Nothing, right now, is normal about the NFL, so teams have to evaluate their rosters honestly now and make the most of every move they consider in the weeks to come.