Labor issues raise importance of draft

By now, you know what the draft is really about: hype. Every quarterback is Elway! Every linebacker is LT! Every team's draft class could save the franchise! All of this lasts until the first minicamp, when we suddenly remember that we won't know for at least three years whether many of these guys can, you know, play.

So with that in mind, I'm here to deliver -- more hype!

As labor fate would have it, this year's draft is actually more crucial than it appears. In fact, because of the collective bargaining impasse between the league and its players -- and because of the unclear future it presents -- the 2010 draft might be the most important one in recent memory.

Why? Let's go to the Big Board.

1. 2010 probably will be the last year of huge rookie salaries

The next collective bargaining agreement -- whenever it's agreed upon -- certainly will include a rookie wage cap implemented before the 2011 draft. It's one of the few points that, in principle, both the union and league agree on. The details won't be finalized for a while, but many in the league think you'll see the top picks receiving deals in the three-year, $12 million range.

What does that mean for this year? Teams will try to depress salaries for this year's picks. Owners of teams drafting in the top seven will not want to be the last suckers to give unproven rookies tens of millions in guaranteed money. So, expect lowball contract offers, which could lead to nasty holdouts. No agent will allow his client to settle for less than last year's picks received; if so, his career will be over. And so, these contract disputes could get ugly.

2. The draft, not free agency, is where teams are focusing

You probably know the basics of how the "uncapped year" will affect free agency. More than 200 players who thought they'd qualify for unrestricted free agency won't; instead, they'll be restricted free agents, which will make it much more difficult to change teams. With slim chances of significantly improving their clubs via free agency, GMs are focusing on the draft more closely than ever. It's common sense: Do you overpay for one RFA or instead build through the draft, where players can be attained more cheaply?

For teams that routinely build through the draft, such as the Steelers, Ravens, Packers and Eagles, it's old hat. For teams that write big checks for free agents, such as the Redskins, it might take some getting used to. With free agency uncertain beyond this year -- will the cap come back? -- teams that nail the 2010 draft could very well be the ones that improve the most during the next three years.

3. Top picks might be better investments than ever

As ESPN draft guru Todd McShay wrote two weeks ago, the big-four positions -- quarterback, pass-rusher, offensive tackle and cornerback -- are the most important (although you could add defensive tackle in there, too). As the 2006 draft seemed at the time to have a lot of franchise skill players -- Vince Young, Reggie Bush, Jay Cutler, Vernon Davis -- this year's draft is loaded along the offensive and defensive lines. Defensive linemen Gerald McCoy, Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul, coupled with O-linemen Anthony Davis and Russell Okung, are perfect picks for teams that appreciate the value of long-term investments as opposed to teams that burn first-rounders on high-burnout picks like running backs. Draft well in 2010, and you could have the pieces in place to turn around a franchise.

4. Teams might control those top picks longer, too

By current, uncapped-year CBA rules, players must accrue six NFL seasons before they're eligible for unrestricted free agency. If that language holds up in the next CBA, it would mean that teams would control their draft picks for six years -- the prime of their careers -- for less money than ever. Of course, the language could change in the next CBA. But whether it's because of lower rookie salaries (a certainty) or longer restrictions on their ability to hit the free market (a possibility), teams will get more out of their investments, starting with the 2010 class.

5. Expect more pressure on young players -- especially QBs

Say there's a lockout in 2011, which looks more likely every day. Many folks around the league think the owners and players would reach an agreement by July 2011, just in time for training camp. Owners don't want to risk damaging their business by missing games; the players' window to make millions is small, and they'll want to play. But if a lockout occurs during the spring of 2011, there would be no minicamps, no passing camps, no organized team activities. That would hurt a lot of second-year players -- especially quarterbacks such as Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. Their teams will expect them to produce in 2011 regardless. Can those young passers, who typically benefit from the spring, perform despite an abbreviated offseason?

Of course, nobody knows for sure. But that's what makes the draft in general so much fun -- and this one in particular so tricky.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.