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Teams must focus on talent over need with free agency clouded

James D. Smith / Associated Press
If teams draft strictly by their biggest need, a talented player like Dez Bryant might not have landed in Dallas.


It's a positive step the owners and players are talking, but if a new CBA isn't reached, this might be the first time that the draft will dominate the offseason since free agency came on the scene. This could change how teams go about drafting since the selection process might occur before free agency.

When I first entered the league in 1984, the draft was the only way to improve the team. Needs could only be addressed with picks, which made every selection a team need rather than taking the best available player. There were mistakes, as there are now, but back then the errors could not be polished over with a free-agent signing. Teams were static and improvement could only come from hitting on a pick or signing players that had been cut.

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All that changed when free agency entered the equation in 1993. Now, with the strong potential for a lockout, teams will be retro in their approach to the offseason. Will this promote a draft based on needs instead of the best player available because free agency could potentially come after the draft? Most organizations will make holes on the roster meet the best player available, kidding themselves into thinking they stayed true to their board and did not let their depth chart influence the final decision. Yet, in reality, a need forces a team to evaluate the players in this area harder and grading them easier.

By now, teams have determined their weak spots. Usually, that would accompany determining the needs free agency can solve and then moving on to the draft. The ability to marry both acquisition systems is essential. But with the potential of not having free agency, the draft will go first, which puts teams in a dilemma.

This dilemma should not apply for those picking in the top 10. In the old rookie system, because of the amount of money being given to draft picks, teams in the top 10 had must-pick positions that are not normally available in free agency. My motto used to be "teams must draft what they cannot buy." So drafting in the top 10 positions matters, not team needs. Offensive tackles, defensive linemen, cornerbacks and quarterbacks are positions that rarely make it to the open market.

However, for every other team, if this unique opportunity happens, then it should be viewed as a blessing. Picking the best player available is the only way to assure a team of having a great draft. Look no further than the Super Bowl champion Packers for sticking with their board. When they selected quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the first round of the 2005 draft, they already had Brett Favre. I understand Favre was contemplating retirement, even then, but he still had more good years left. Favre's indecision was not the reason for the pick; Rodgers having the highest grade at that time created the selection.

NFL Scouting Combine on NFL Network:
Follow more than 300 draft prospects with NFL Network's live coverage of the 2011 combine, which began on Thursday, Feb. 24 and will continue through Tuesday, March 1.

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When the Packers selected receiver Jordy Nelson at the top of the second round in 2008, they already had a formidable receiving corps. But both Rodgers and Nelson proved to be correct picks, not because of their positions but because of their talent.

The other side of the dilemma is when a team takes a player they are overly optimistic about, making them unwilling to sign someone at the same position. This will take potential teams off the market in free agency based on the outcome of the draft. Teams also won't know which players they can actually re-sign, creating the potential for more needs.

The draft is essentially about talent evaluation, therefore picking the most talented player should be the mandate. The board must be based on talent, not on needs or fudged so needs meet talent.

If we do have a lockout, it will be interesting to see if teams change their approach to the draft.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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