You might get a shot at acquiring those players sooner than you think, and the rest of the league likewise when it comes to such interesting free agents as Nnamdi Asomugha, Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Light and Cullen Jenkins.
With the mediated NFL labor talks in their 15th day at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service offices here -- and the two sides staring down a Friday night deadline to either reach a new Collective Bargaining Agreement or extend negotiations yet again -- there's a distinct possibility that trades and free agent movement could be allowed long before the two sides reach a new labor deal, sources close to the talks told SI.com Thursday.
How soon? Likely not until at least the middle of April, and maybe not 'til May. It would center on the legal labyrinth the case could go through if the players choose to decertify.
Should the negotiations here stall, and the players choose to decertify as a union, ownership would almost certainly declare their intentions to lock out the players. Then the players likely would move to get relief from U.S. District Judge David S. Doty in the form of an injunction. It's not certain what Doty would do, of course, but he has made some significant pro-player decisions while overseeing NFL labor. If Doty granted injunctive relief, he could likely rule that the league's last work rules were still applicable, or he could simply allow the NFL to institute a set of rules of its choosing. But it's a virtual certainty the NFL would appeal the injunction.
If the injunction survived the appeal process, the 2011 league year would start and the rules would include free agency and the ability to trade players.
One longtime Doty observer noted Thursday that an injunction could take up to a month to be issued under usual circumstances, and then the decision on whether the appeal would be allowed another week or two. A Friday decertification, then, could lead to the league restarting business, as forced by the court, by late April, around the time of the April 28-20 NFL Draft.
So the league year could begin before a new CBA happens. Free agency would begin. Trades could happen, possibly even in time for the three-day draft.
It's overstating it to say mayhem could ensue, but let's take the case of Asomugha, who clearly would be the best player on the open market. Asomugha, who turns 30 in July, is one of the best two cornerbacks in football, along with Darrelle Revis of the Jets. He made $28.5 million over the past two years with the Raiders. Since the 2010 league year did not have a salary cap, what would stop a cash-rich team -- the Cowboys, say -- from signing Asomugha to a $20-million-a-year contract?
But any team making such a rich signing would do so at its own risk. Owners adamantly want a salary cap going forward, and one will certainly be a possibility in whatever system would be in place in 2011 and beyond. It's uncertain, obviously, whether contracts signed under the 2010 rules would have financial impact on any future CBA.
The opening of the free market would be a stunning development. And if free agency and trading were allowed, it wouldn't be surprising to see a flurry of activity immediately when the market opens. In the 18-year history of free agency, teams have signed players on the market to fill some holes before the start of the draft. One of the things general managers and coaches said recently at the scouting combine is they like to use the cushion of free agency to prepare for the draft, so they don't have to fill all their roster holes through the draft day.
"There would be a rush to the market by some teams, but not all,'' one prominent agent said Thursday. "But to create action, you only need five, or six, or eight teams to be out there spending. I think you'd probably see a number of teams go out there quickly.''
Obviously, all of this is moot if the players never decertify the union. And it would be moot if Doty didn't grant a restraining order to a lockout.
But barring that, it's entirely possible that the free agency prep work teams did might be needed earlier than any league GM thought in this unpredictable offseason.