While rankings and mock selections are always fun and create a buzz between the Super Bowl and the National Football League's annual draft in late April, the determining factor for how incoming players get selected almost always boils down to one thing:
This year that may more true than ever and directly impact the University of Alabama's three early entries, defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Mark Ingram, who are all expected to be first-round selections. While the ongoing labor situation didn't seem to deter a record 56 underclassmen from making the jump, it could actually help the former Crimson Tide players.
Here's the short version explaining why:
The current labor agreement is set to expire on March 4, but should there be no resolution it doesn't automatically mean an immediate strike or lockout, rather that either side can do so at any time. Negotiations could continue past the deadline, but it's generally believed that the closer the players get to missing paychecks the less bargaining power they have.
Because owners want players to have a smaller share of league revenues, it isn't going to likely end any time soon, thus offseason workouts, training camps and maybe even the preseason are in jeopardy of being cancelled.
Regardless, the draft will go on.
The most likely scenario is that if there's no agreement in place teams will be able to trade draft picks, but not players. Undrafted players would remain in limbo, unable to sign with teams until the labor situation is resolved, so no signing spree the second the draft ends.
But here's where it could really change the draft: There's no free agency during a lockout. As Sports Illustrated's Peter King recently pointed out there's a chance that the 2011 offseason could have no free agency at all, with everyone frozen in place, especially if things drag on into August and there's a sudden last-minute rush to start the season.
Teams usually use free agency (which last year started on March 5) to fill immediate and crucial needs, and then draft for specific areas and down the road. This draft could be the complete opposite, with teams forced to make decisions in April not knowing if and when they may get to add anyone else.
Consequently, in that scenario there would be a priority on selecting players who are ready to step in and contribute immediately, and from programs that prepare them like Alabama.
Here's where things stand for Alabama's projected first-round selections, a month before the NFL Scouting Combine, Feb. 23-March 1 in Indianapolis.
Marcell Dareus: Most teams consider Dareus a defensive tackle, but he could be taken as a defensive end who can collapse the pocket.
Teams with an obvious need include (in order of selection): Denver, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, San Francisco, Tennessee, Houston, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis and New Orleans.
Dareus will need a monster combine/individual workout for Denver to consider him at No. 2 overall, but keep an eye on Carolina. If the Panthers decide that Nick Fairley, Da'Quan Bowers or no one else is worthy of No. 1 money, don't be surprised if they trade down and try to fill both top needs, defensive line and wide receiver. Buffalo needs an anchor for its 3-4 defense, but will have to decide if there's a worthy quarterback at No. 3 and take a tackle later to protect him.
Cleveland, in the midst of a major overhaul under a new coaching staff, could go in numerous directions and San Francisco also needs an answer at quarterback. Although he probably wouldn't drop to Houston at No. 11, how about Dareus lining up next to Mario Williams and in front of DeMeco Ryans?
Julio Jones: There isn't a coach in the league who wouldn't want a wide receiver who blocks as well as Jones and with a good showing at the combine could potentially be top-10 pick. Georgia's A.J. Green is more flashy and stretches the field, but Jones is the better all-around player.
Teams to watch include Cleveland, Washington, St. Louis, New England, San Diego, Baltimore and the New York Jets.
At No. 6, the Browns need play-makers, but the defensive front seven is a mess so a receiver might be viewed as a too much of luxury, especially that early in the draft. Washington desperately needs receivers, but also a quarterback and defensive-line help. St. Louis will be hoping Jones drops to No. 14 to pair with Sam Bradford. Otherwise, look for a team to make a move.
Mark Ingram: Unless someone steps up in a major way during the evaluation period there's a decent chance that Ingram will be the only running back selected in the first round.
Teams that have an obvious need include Denver, Cincinnati, Miami, New England, Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Green Bay.
Denver and Cincinnati have more pressing needs while Ronnie Brown expected to not be re-signed by Miami and Ricky Williams is also a free agent. How fitting would it be for Ingram to play for one of the teams his father did (1993-94) as a wide receiver?
New England, which has six selections in the first three rounds including No. 17 and 28 in the first round, is an intriguing possibility (for all three players). However, the Patriots also need help on the left side of the offensive line, at outside linebacker and could use a pass-rusher. It won't surprise anyone if New England is very active on draft day, again.
Note: James Carpenter's draft position will be directly influenced by whether teams consider him a guard who can fill in at tackle if necessary, or tackle. If he's drafted as a guard, which is the way it's looking, he'll probably be a second-day selection.
Teams that figure to be looking for offensive-line help in the third/fourth rounds include Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Miami, New England, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Washington and the New York Jets. In other words, half the league.