Why is NFL free agency before the draft? How the offseason schedule impacts roster-building decisions, big-money deals, more

The San Francisco 49ers entered this offseason with a clear roster deficiency: the cornerback position. So after years of nibbling at it in free agency, the 49ers did what many NFL teams feel compelled to do. They took a big swing at a veteran player with a limited résumé, signing free-agent Charvarius Ward to a three-year, $42 million deal that fully guaranteed him $18.1 million at signing.

Ward has four career interceptions and no Pro Bowl invites over four seasons, but in signing him, the 49ers had likely reordered their priorities for the 2022 draft. They do not have a first-round selection, but what if they get to their spot in the second round (No. 61) or third (No. 93) and their top-rated player is a cornerback -- one who would be younger, cheaper and potentially more effective over time?

For all their public discussion about drafting the best player available, many NFL teams would pass on the cornerback and look to balance their team building with another position, all the while ruing the unfortunate coincidence. It's a guessing game that has frustrated Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan for years, and one that has left him wishing that the NFL -- like the NBA and the NHL -- would hold its draft before free agency.

"It would make too much sense," Shanahan said recently. "In the draft, you'd love to take the best player. You'd always love to do that. It would be the neatest thing if you could just study the heck out of everybody in the draft, which we all do, and then whoever comes to your spot, just take that [player]. And then you could just look at your board when it's all said and done, and be like, 'Wow, we don't have that position, let's go pay for it [in free agency].'"

How would the NFL change if teams could stock their rosters with young, cheap, promising players before deciding how to spend their remaining cap space on available veterans? Who would benefit and who would get dinged?

Shanahan has spoken privately about the offseason structure for years, said Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who spent three years working with Shanahan in the 49ers' front office. "I get it," Adofo-Mensah said. "You're trying to plan both things in advance, but ... you don't know ultimately what you're going to be able to address in the draft."

The NFL, however, has no real incentive to move up the draft and cut short some of the massive buildup and attention it generates. Nor does it want free agency to drop down to May (or later) and cut into OTAs and minicamps. I asked nearly a dozen coaches and general managers about it this spring and most admitted they were so locked into the existing structure that they hadn't considered an alternative possibility.

"I've never thought about that," said Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera, who has final say over the team's personnel moves. "But I think it would be interesting."

"Haven't thought about that question too much," said Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, "but it would definitely change how you thought about [the offseason]."

"If they ever did that," Las Vegas Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said, "that would flip some things around for you. But I've never really considered it much because I don't know that they'll ever do it."

"I don't want to really think about what it could be like," Adofo-Mensah said, "because this is what it is."

How did this structure get implemented in the first place -- and why? As it turns out, the "how" is much clearer than the "why."

It started with Plan B

The start of the NFL's modern financial structure is usually traced to 1993, when owners and the NFL Players Association agreed on a system that would allow unrestricted free agency in exchange for a hard salary cap for each team. But from 1989 to 1992, they had tested an idea known as "Plan B," where teams were allowed to protect 37 players who had been on their rosters the previous season. The remainder were "exposed" and available to sign elsewhere as free agents.

Teams naturally protected their best players, leaving mostly backups and aging veterans to enter the market. The arrangement came during a chaotic time in the NFL. There had been two work stoppages in the previous decade (1982 and 1987) and a series of players had filed antitrust lawsuits against the league to secure a free-agent market.

At the start of Plan B, longtime agent Donald Yee said there was an "urgency to get started." The signing period started in February and lasted two months, and no one thought the pool of available players would be impactful enough to change the balance of power among teams.

"Players who were eligible for free agency wanted to start talking to teams right away," Yee said. "That was kind of the thinking among players. And the general managers wanted a proper amount of time to prepare for the draft. A lot of the recruiting of players by agents back then didn't even start until December and January at the college all-star games. You had agents recruiting and front offices concerned about having limited manpower to do all of their draft preparations. Really, that's partly how it came about. They were saying, 'we've got to have some order here as to how these things happen instead of everything happening at one time.'"

Yee was deeply involved in the development of the structure, having pursued the antitrust lawsuits for several players, and later working to test the boundaries of the new collective bargaining agreement by negotiating a fully-guaranteed contract for quarterback Rick Mirer. He currently represents Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, among others. These days, he recalls no deep discussions about the order of Plan B free agency and the draft, in part because of the presumed mild nature of Plan B and in part because of the power of routine.

General managers and personnel executives were accustomed to spending the early months of spring preparing for a mid-April draft. Yee recalled that "they felt as if the NFL would have had the draft first, the clubs would have complained that they didn't have the time to evaluate the large number of prospects that were coming out."

In 1992, a federal court ruled that Plan B was a violation of antitrust laws. When the sides converted the system in 1993 to what we now know as free agency, the early spring format remained in place. At the time, owners were more focused on securing the salary cap than thinking through the potential advantages or disadvantages of slotting free agency after the draft.

Indeed, there were few if any contemporary executives and agents anticipating the frenzy that free agency would become.

"That's the part that played out organically," Yee said. "We didn't know how anyone would react. All 32 teams were left to their own devices, and it just so happened that everyone was champing at the bit to get going."

What if the draft and free agency were swapped?

A veteran contract negotiator I spoke with this spring had no doubt how a swap in order would play out. If teams were allowed to draft before the free-agent market opened, this negotiator said, there would be fewer bidders on available free agents because there would be less need. Basic economics suggests that a lower volume of interest would lead to less money per deal, giving teams more leverage and salary-cap space to re-sign their pending free agents before the market opened.

The reverse structure would be more easily absorbed now by NFL teams, whose expanded scouting staffs and systems leave them ready to draft much sooner.

"In some ways, a week after the college season, I wouldn't mind getting the medicals done and just drafting," Gutekunst said. "That might help us a lot. That's an interesting question. Certainly, there are times you'd like to fill some holes before you hit the draft. ... [But] I don't know if the union would be all fired up about doing that after the draft."

It's also possible, Rivera said, that teams would shed more veterans if they were able to draft a long-term replacement for an aging veteran before the market opened. A flooded market, generally speaking, would depress individual contract values.

"If you ever did anything like that," Rivera said, "I think it would make more high-priced guys available. Because what's going to happen is that those teams with guys sitting there with big contracts, all of a sudden there is a guy they think might be able to replace that player. That's what might happen."

Others are not so sure. While it makes more sense from a team-building perspective, Shanahan said, it could also benefit players who would be a final option for filling a roster hole. Teams would no longer have the leverage of using the draft if a negotiation does not work out.

"You are going to overpay," Shanahan said. "That's what free agency is. You have to overpay to get those, but it kind of defeats the purpose of the draft right after it. If it goes the other way around, you do the draft, you get all those guys and then you overpay because you have to overpay, because you know where you're at."

Yee, for one, has seen decades of NFL and NFLPA negotiations that lead to unexpected outcomes and unintended consequences. He cautioned against projecting a massive change if the structure ever changed.

"It wouldn't affect what we see that much," Yee said. "I just really don't think it would. The draft is limited to seven rounds. The amount of impact guys you're going to get is fairly minimal. You're still going to need veteran free agents."