Had there not been a work stoppage, we would be in the fading end of the second round of free agency. The first typically comes in the first week of free agency, when the NFL universe turns from players in helmets and coaches in team-oriented sideline gear, to players, coaches and owners in business suits posing for grip-and-grin photo ops. The second usually comes in early April, as teams let the furor surrounding the initial eye-popping contracts that are announced die down and start filling needs with the Plan B-type free agents – those who will become starters with their new teams even though their former teams didn't make a legitimate effort to bring them back.
This time of year also produces trades that ship off disgruntled players to teams that have a glaring need at that position. The era of multiple first-round picks is over with the exception of the unexpected arrival of someone like Jay Cutler to the trade market before he has truly hit his prime. That wasn't always the case. Herschel Walker is the seminal example of the lopsided draft-picks-for-superstar trade (even though Ollie Mattson is still the king of the lopsided "me-for-a bunch of guys" swindle), but he is far from alone. Dallas traded two first-round picks for wide receiver Joey Galloway. The worst of one side taking advantage of another came, as it should be, between pirates.
In early 2002, despite being the only coach in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to ever post a winning record, Tony Dungy was fired. He had taken the Bucs to the playoffs in four of the last five seasons and each of the last three, but somehow there was a problem. The Bucs front office, in its incredibly finite wisdom, fired a coach beloved by fans and players alike. They had big plans to replace Dungy, but every high-profile former coach they made overtures toward declined – the general feeling being that if they would fire Dungy, what would prevent them from capriciously firing the new guy after a year if they didn't make the playoffs.
The Bucs were desperate and becoming a running joke in the early months of 2002. Their response stole the title of a Prince song two decades earlier – Let's Go Crazy.
Al Davis, ever the conundrum donned in black and silver (and occasionally an eye patch), found a Three Card Monty victim in Tampa Bay with the McKay family, who, by embellished historical accounts, had fans with torches and hayforks outside their offices. It was a fan base gone mad. After being shunned by their first, second and third options, they had to make a bold move. Bold, in this sense, being wrong.
The McKays made the bold decision to have the Buccaneers trade the Raiders four draft picks – two first-rounders and two second-rounders. For a superstar quarterback? Nope. For a pass-rushing defensive stud? Nope. It was for their head coach Jon Gruden.
In defense of the McKays, at least they got a Super Bowl ring less than a year later. You can't take that away from them. Mike Lynn got a rail offered up free of charge to help hoist him out of town. Many believe that Gruden won a Super Bowl with Dungy's team and the fact he played the Raiders team he built to get that ring was poetic justice. But the trade set the Bucs back for years
After selling their soul to the devil (or Davis), the Bucs paid a big price. In the final six years of his tenure as head coach, the Bucs made the playoffs just twice and were "one-and-done" in both. The last playoff game the franchise won was in that 2002 season. Had it been any team other than the Raiders, it would have parlayed that bonanza into multiple Super Bowl titles. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, they didn't get burned like the Vikings did when they helped build the Cowboys into a dynasty.
The result of trades like those that shipped out Walker, Galloway and Gruden has changed the draft landscape, as others have learned from those mistakes without actually placing their hands on the stove. The Vikings were able to get the seventh overall pick (ironically from Uncle Al) in the 2005 draft for Randy Moss. The fact they squandered it on Troy Williamson is a debate for another day. Moss has been traded twice since. In what could best be described as a three-year "craptacular" on Oakland, he was shipped out of the Bay Area to Back Bay in Boston for a fourth-round pick. A desperate Vikings team last year gave up a third-round pick to get him.
Despite those trades, the value of an undrafted player has taken precedence to a proven veteran. In the era of the salary cap, draft picks have become the currency of the NFL. The only hostage situations in the NFL these days are the result of a team making a bold move to step up in the draft. However, that may change – big time.
One of the big storylines heading into this year's draft is that the "have not" teams are "have not's" because they don't have a franchise quarterback. The Jets, Falcons and Ravens were in that category before taking franchise-type QBs – Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, respectively. For years, the Lions and Rams were the running jokes of the NFL, but after taking franchise QBs in the last two drafts, they are picking 13th and 14th, respectively – pulling themselves into the middle of the pack of NFL teams in a short period of time.
It is this recent piece of NFL history that makes the days, weeks and months after free agency starts critical for teams that don't take a quarterback in the draft. It can be argued that whatever teams pick Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert will answer their QB question. Both will be expected to start immediately and move the franchise forward. There isn't another quarterback, with the possible exception of Jake Locker, that is expected to step in and be a Week One starter – wherein lies the problem.
Three teams have quarterbacks under contract that, in a typical year, would have been moved like a "going out business" sale – Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb and Vince Young. Kolb, who would require a new contract, would have likely garnered a pair of second-round picks. McNabb could have been available for a single second-rounder. The same would probably stand for Young, but the Titans may have settled for a third-rounder.
That was then. This is now.
Barring a judicial decision to re-open the business of the NFL by Judge Susan Richard Nelson in Minneapolis between now and the draft, once the draft is over, the teams that don't have Newton or Gabbert are likely still going to be in need of a quarterback. Of the first 12 picks in the draft, a case can be made that 10 of them (all but Dallas and Houston) could be in the market for a QB. Newton and Gabbert account for two of those 10 teams. Even if one removes Denver and Buffalo from that list, there are still eight teams that aren't going to solve their QB problems in the draft.
What is going to ensue, barring a decision this week to open free agency before the draft, is a potential feeding frenzy on veteran quarterbacks when free agency and trades can begin. It's clear the Redskins are ready to rid themselves of McNabb. Ownership in Tennessee has all but thrown in the towel as it pertains to Young. Philadelphia knows it has a commodity and, if things work out as expected, they can move Kolb for a king's ransom.
Kolb used to be worth a pair of second-round picks. Now he might be worth a first- and second-round pick in 2012 – keeping in mind that the Eagles will realize no immediate benefit and the team that acquires him has already paid the mortgage on the 2011 draft. McNabb and Young could be worth more than they were a couple months ago as well because of the desperation of the post-draft teams that will still be without a quarterback.
To the victors go the spoils. If there is a benefit for teams that the 2011 draft is coming before free agency, it is with those teams that have quarterbacks under contract that want to move them. It's a seller's market and the price of playing poker just went up.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.