Remember when Judge Nelson ended the lockout on Monday? Yeah, well that was just another step in the game of legal football, so we thought. Her decision tonight though, on the eve of the draft, changes the game.
The league insisted that they would not reopen for business until they had taken their shot at getting a legal stay of the Judge's decision -- basically arguing that it made no sense to play by her rules alone when they have their own case in another court, before the National Labor Review Board. The Judge heard the NFL's request, and shot it down in a terse 20-page statement, essentially pooh-poohing any chance of their second case succeeding. She then fired a shot across the bow:
If NFL does not start free agency tomorrow, players counsel Quinn e-mailed me: "They could face contempt for being in blatant violation of a Court Order."
Of course, the owners are the ones with the lockout war chest. They may find it cheaper in the long run to pay the penalties of being in contempt now than to re-open their doors to the players without resettling payroll to an acceptable level. (But not if one of those penalties blooms into an antitrust suit -- the owners still have to be very careful.) And let's not forget, they still have a legal card or two up their sleeve:
NFL statement: "We are filing tonight a request with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay of the preliminary injunction pending our appeal. We believe there are strong legal and practical reasons that support a stay and that the Court of Appeals should have an opportunity to address the important legal issues that will be presented. We have asked the Court of Appeals to consider on an expedited basis both our request for a stay and the appeal itself. We are evaluating the District Court's decision and will advise our clubs in the morning on how to proceed."
But the possibilities abound... could free agency start tomorrow? Could players be traded on draft day? Does the Rams' draft board change? Let's explore:
The Rams could start signing free agents tomorrow morning. Or not.
One that is definitely on their list: Rams wideout and new St Louis resident Mark Clayton. They have been in talks with Clayton's agent since the end of the season, announcing their intentions of bringing him back. The Rams gave up their sixth-round pick for him last summer -- if Clayton signs this weekend, it would be like including a proven veteran in your draft class.
Even if free agency doesn't start, teams might be able to trade players for draft picks. Or not.
First on the trade block? The list of four- and five-year men who are floating in a limbo of restricted free agency. If the league reverts to 2010 rules, these guys are essentially chained to their teams like Oshiomogo Atogwe was last year. But if a new CBA is hammered out in the coming months that moves the gate to unrestricted free agency back to four years, then the teams who are holding their rights right now get diddly squat. Smart money says that some of the guys on this list are going to be cashed in now while they have value.
Here are three names on that list that could be worth a few phone calls in the morning from Devaney's war room:
Barry Cofield - DT - Giants
The Rams could see the 27-year-old Cofield as another Spagnuolo veteran who can immediately step in and perform, and it might change their draft board pretty significantly. While Fred Robbins had a miracle year, playing like he was in his prime at age 34, Cofield actually IS in his prime -- he's the 12th-rated defensive tackle in Pro Football Focus' rankings, ahead of guys like Aubrayo Franklin, Jay Ratliff, and even a guy named Ndamukong Suh.
The price? Reasonable. The Giants placed a second-round tender on Cofield, but perhaps a third-rounder (still a top-100 pick) or lower gets the deal done in this environment.
Malcom Floyd - WR - Chargers
Not the most consistent pass-catcher, but a lightning rod for downfield passing in San Diego's offense who was able to excel even without Vincent Jackson running beside him (and sucking up primary coverage) for most of the season. Speaking of Jackson, the Chargers have franchised him, so put that pipe dream aside -- there will certainly be some sort of franchise player rule in place next year.
The price? Prohibitively high. The Chargers tendered Floyd at the highest possible level - asking a first- and third-rounder in return. And we've already seen Chargers GM A.J. Smith's iron-fisted commitment to keeping his players under wraps...
James Anderson - LB - Panthers
James Anderson's name may not be widely known, but that's what happens when you toil for a 1-15 team. The Rams certainly know all about that. However, the Panthers' front seven on defense was surprisingly good, especially considering how much time they spent on the field signe their offensive ineuptitude.
What's more, Anderson may be the best 4-3 outside linebacker approaching any kind of free agency this season. He rates 3rd overall in Pro Football Focus' rankings at the position, amd the only player with positive scores across the board -- in pass rush, coverage, and stopping the run.
Price: Appealingly low. The Panthers have reportedly placed an "original round" tender on Anderson, and he was a round 3 pick to begin with. In this kind of uncertainty, and with as much rebuilding as Carolina needs, the Rams might offer a low pick and/or a young player of their own currently stuck in a logjam, like David Vobora or Eugene Sims.