Lockout has big impact on draft strategy

Barring a courtroom miracle, the NFL is set to head into the April 28-30 draft without player trades or free agency.

A generation of fans, coaches and general managers hasn't experienced such an event. The fate of the NFL and the players is in the hands of a U.S. district judge in St. Paul, Minn., and until Susan Nelson sorts out the mess, there is no free agency, no trades and effectively no 2012 draft. The last time there was no free agency was 1987.

Reality is setting in for teams as coaches, scouts and GMs traverse the country getting the final information from player workouts.

"I was in the league in 1984 and that's what you dealt with all the time," Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "There wasn't any free agency. You had the draft, and that's what you built your team with. Trades were rare. I think it's going to be different for everybody that's involved."

The internal debates on teams will be whether to take the best player available or draft for need. The difference from the 1980s is free agency and trades will be available at some point, and unlike the pre-free-agency days, teams don't have complete control over the players on their rosters. There may not be enough draft choices to fill holes created if teams lose too many players at a certain position.

"It'll be quite different," Shanahan said. "You may have some holes on your football team and you try to fill those voids with free agency and then the draft. You may look at a particular position more so than what's going to happen today. I think most people will do that. Since they can't fill any voids, they'll take the best player available."

With quarterback Donovan McNabb expected to be traded or released once the labor issue is settled, don't expect Shanahan to reach for a young replacement unless it's the perfect fit. Though the temptation may be there to get a quarterback with the 10th pick in the draft, the Redskins may opt to draft a position player in the first round -- most likely on defense -- and then consider some of the quarterbacks available in the second round.

As many as 10 teams have varied needs for quarterbacks. Because of that, there is a good chance seven quarterbacks could be drafted in the first two rounds, an NFL record. The debate will be whether to reach for them in the first round or hope to get the right fit in the second round.

There is a decent chance the Carolina Panthers take Cam Newton with the first pick and the Buffalo Bills take Blaine Gabbert with the third. That leaves Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Ryan Mallett, Ricky Stanzi and Colin Kaepernick for the rest of the teams.

Three teams in the NFC West -- Seattle, Arizona and San Francisco -- along with the Minnesota Vikings face the toughest decisions involving a quarterback in this draft. You don't get a sense of quarterback panic in San Francisco and Arizona because the 49ers and Cardinals have high enough picks in the second round that they won't be shut out.

"It's definitely uncharted waters," new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "The quarterback position is very important. He handles the ball on every play. But you're not going to overdo that. You have to take the best players available."

One of the problems with this quarterback class is that many will need time to develop and may not offer an instant impact in 2011. The other problem is that they can't be coached until the labor problems are settled.

"I don't think there is a formula," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said of how to balance this year's group of quarterbacks versus waiting for a veteran. "I know the most success we had with the Redskins under Joe Gibbs was when Mark Rypien and Stan Humphries sat for a couple of years.''

The Seahawks failed to re-sign Matt Hasselbeck before the start of free agency and have only Charlie Whitehurst on the roster at quarterback. With the 25th pick, they face another issue. If they don't draft a Locker or Ponder, none of the top seven quarterbacks may be around when they make the 57th pick.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, though, isn't locking himself into looking only at quarterbacks.

"No, I don't think we are going to strap ourselves into one position," Carroll said. "We did that last year at left tackle. There are some good quarterbacks in this draft. It's an interesting group."

Coaches from the 1980s or before, when free agency wasn't around, will have a slight edge because they've had the experience of having the draft before free agency. Plus, they've experienced a different offseason from the extended OTAs.

"It's quite interesting to me," Shanahan said. "The offseason was all football. You never thought about free agency. You were always pointing to the draft. And then you had the draft, and then your football team was ready. People forget free agency hasn't been here all that long."

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.