No free agency makes the NFL draft a tougher game

Monday, April 25, 2011 | 7:43 p.m. CDT

NEW YORK — Strange. Unique. Weird.

Those are the buzz words for this week's NFL draft, the most unusual selection process since free agency began 18 years ago. No one is quite sure how this year's draft will play out.

Unable to plug holes with free agents because of an owners lockout in its seventh week — an injunction granted Monday to the players seeking an end to the work stoppage isn't likely to impact the draft — NFL teams could look to pick rookies who seem more prepared to have an early impact. That goes against the general philosophy of past drafts to grab the highest-rated player, even if he doesn't figure to contribute early on.

Because many team needs have not been addressed by signing veterans, some clubs could reach in the draft to fill those holes.

"I think my feeling on that is that it actually helps us with the draft," said Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, who now runs football operations for the Broncos. "Now we can find the best players that are on that draft board that can come in and are really going to help us, and then to fill in with free agency rather than having free agency and having to fill through the draft.

"If you're filling through the draft, then you're drafting with need. This way we can go out and, in my opinion, get the best players for the Denver Broncos and then fill with free agency. It doesn't put the pressure on us to draft with need. We now have the time in free agency, if we have some holes after the draft, to address those holes."

So maybe there won't be much reaching.

"I don't want to reach for players just to fill a roster spot," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said. "You have to be smart. Free agency will open up again. I do know that."

And maybe there will be.

"That's the challenge all of the time and that's a great question from that point of view because you fight that," Bills scouting chief Tom Modrak said. "If you have an open hole, you want to be sure you don't want to put a player in there just because it is (open). You want to still get a good player, a good talent, you're not oblivious ... to what that is.

"Let's say you feel you're deep at a particular position, you still don't want to overlook people because at some point they become a good value."

This draft is filled with challenges aside from the usual ones such as is this quarterback (Blaine Gabbert) more NFL-ready than that one (Cam Newton)? Is this dangerous receiver (A.J. Green) more of a game-breaker than that one (Julio Jones)?

For personnel men from Seattle to Miami, draft-day trading has an entirely new dynamic: No actual players can be swapped. Not just veterans, either; once a player is drafted, he can't be dealt elsewhere on Thursday, Friday or Saturday — or until the lockout ends.

Draft slots can be traded as long as they haven't yet been filled.

And with the draft being challenged in the players' lawsuit against the league to get the lockout lifted, who knows if 2012 picks are worth anything?

Many of the men doing the selecting admit they've had more time to do actual scouting or to dissect more video than ever. But they also must be careful it doesn't lead to overanalysis.

"I have been able to watch more players myself with free agency not here," Giants General Manager Jerry Reese said about his recent video viewing. "But we've put in about the same preparation time."

Reese says he isn't looking for anything different in 2011 with NFL business at a standstill than he was in his previous four drafts during labor peace.

"I wish we could get a lot of guys who play right away," Reese said, "but most of these guys are developmental. You don't get those Randy Moss-type guys.

"We don't want to make it harder than it is. We're not splitting the atom in the draft room."

Gabbert Watch

Buffalo Bills, third pick
With so many holes to address on a team that's coming off a 4-12 season, the Bills aren't in a position to be choosy. A pass-rushing or run-stopping linebacker's an option, with Texas A&M's Von Miller listed in numerous mock drafts as a potential selection. Buffalo's porous defensive line can use help. How about an offensive tackle?

Who knows, with coach Chan Gailey's reputation for developing quarterbacks, maybe this is the year Buffalo takes a serious run at filling the face-of-the-franchise-sized position that's been left unsettled since Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season. Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, anyone?

Cincinnati Bengals, fourth pick
Andy Dalton. Blaine Gabbert. Christian Ponder. The Bengals have watched each of the quarterbacks throw in private workouts the last few weeks, imagining how each might fit into an offense that's currently in upheaval. But Cincinnati is more likely to try to add a playmaker to their defense or look for a receiver to replace Chad Ochocinco.

"There comes a great value with that pick," Marvin Lewis said on Monday, "and we want to make sure, in every pick that we make, that we get a player that meets that value and we feel real good about him in that particular slot."

The Bengals think a desirable quarterback could be left in the second round.

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