April 6. Put that date on your calendar because that's when court proceedings begin for the players' attempt to get an injunction blocking the lockout. At this point, Judge Susan Nelson's decision in that hearing is the last best hope for having football in 2011. Lifting the lockout would allow the league to resume business while the lawyers fight out the CBA battle in court. If that does happen, the most likely scenario is that the league picks back up where it left off in 2010, uncapped and free agent rules that limit unrestricted free agency to players with six years of experience.
Under that scenario, a once-bountiful 2011 free agent market will get very, very thin on talent, limiting the St. Louis Rams' options for upgrading the roster via the free agent route. Let's a take a look at the potential RAMifications.
In-house free agents
Like other teams, St. Louis issued RFA tenders to a number of players who qualified for restricted free agency under either system. Daniel Fells, Laurent Robinson and Gary Gibson were three players tendered offers who would be free agents under the four-year system. The others that received tenders, including John Greco and David Vobora, qualify as RFAs under either system. They did not tender an offer to RB Kenneth Darby, who would have been a RFA under the six-year rules. Reverting to the uncapped 2010 rules means Robinson, Fells and Gibson's RFA tenders still mean something. It's telling that the Rams did not extend a RFA tender to DT Clifton Ryan, who has four years experience and will be looking for work elsewhere should the injunction happen and the league year gets started.
Starting the league year will also allow the Rams to complete a deal with WR Mark Clayton, a free agent. Before the lockout, Clayton and the Rams were said to be close to a deal. Adam Goldberg and S Michael Lewis are the other unrestricted free agents. I would think Lewis has a shot to return to the roster since the Rams need help at S and he represents an affordable option with starting experience. Goldberg did not play well starting at right guard this year, but he is a versatile offensive lineman, an adequate sub at four positions. There's value in that. If the Rams pass on bringing him back, the Wyoming product will certainly find a home somewhere, if free agency happens.
Outside free agents
Reverting to the no-cap rules will absolutely drain the pool of available free agents, one that looked like a real bumper crop this year. Franchise tags would most certainly be honored in the injunction deal, so Vincent Jackson is off the market. Ditto Sidney Rice, who received a first-round tender from the Vikings. Under the four-year rules, Rice would have likely been the hottest commodity on the market. NY Giants' WR Steve Smith got the same treatment, as did the Packers' James Jones and San Diego WR Malcom Floyd.
Another free agent of supreme interest to the Rams is Giants DT Barry Cofield. The Giants tendered the five-year veteran at the second round level, meaning he's probably not going anywhere unless they cut him or trade him between now and the start of the season, if there's a season.
The 49ers tendered a couple of players of interest as well, players who would be free agents under the normal four-year rule. FS Dashon Goldson and LB Manny Lawson would have each been big gets for Billy Devaney, if the Rams were to target them, but that's far less likely now.
Who's left in free agency
The easiest answer to that question is: not much. However, Devaney has used free agency in the past to fill holes and bolster the depth chart. The 2010 free agent class looked much like this one, with very little top tier talent available thanks to the no-cap year and a six-year UFA rule. Devaney used the limited market smartly, bringing in plug and play starters like Na'il DIggs and Fred Robbins. Obviously, Robbins had a much bigger impact than many expected and DIggs was serviceable on the strongside. Hank Fraley and Kevin Dockery, brought in to bolster depth, didn't pan out as well, but the same idea of bringing in a couple guys to supplement the depth chart could be the best move the Rams make in free agency this year.
One of the most notable names who will still be available in free agency is Eagles S Quintin Mikell. The eight-year veteran automatically qualifies as one to watch given Spagnuolo's tendencies to bring in known commodities. Philly would like to have him back, but he could certainly be a fit for the Rams. Patriots S Brandon McGowan is another UFA candidate. One of the better defensive backs on the market is Raiders FS Michael Huff, who did not receive a RFA tender despite having just 5 years of experience.
The top available free agent receivers under the six-year scenario will be Braylon Edwards and Mike Sims-Walker, a talented bunch with more questions about character and health than actual results.
Running back Darren Sproles will be on the market. The running back free agent market was thin to begin with, and it's really slim pickins' under the six-year rule. Tampa Bay RB Cadillac Williams has become a solid third down back, able to catch a pass and pick up a blitz, Kenneth Darby's old job. It's not a stretch the think that the Rams could add two running backs this offseason.
Baltimore CB Chris Carr is a name to know in free agency, but he'll probably be looking for a starting job somewhere as opposed to a third corner job in St. Louis.
At outside linebacker, veterans like Mike Peterson, 34, in Atlanta and Ben Leber, 32, in Minnesota provide a couple of options for depth under the six-year rule. Another name to keep an eye on is Panthers LB Thomas Davis. Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole was a LB coach in Carolina before coming to St. Louis. Davis a good weakside linebacker, but he missed last season because of a torn ACL. Needless to say, he's an injury risk, but it could be a risk worth taking if the Rams can get another player at the position behind him.
The injunction hearing is set for April 6. It could get moved up...it could get moved back too. Shortly thereafter, hopefully, the league could be back in business, in which case this barren free agent market will still be like a gift from above compared to the alternative of no football at all.