The current NFL labor situation looks to turn the 2011 free agency process on its ear barring a minor last-minute miracle. Fourteen teams still enacted the franchise tag available to them under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, however, to keep their most prized impending free agents in town for another year.
If teams cannot sign other free agents to fill dire needs before the draft, they'll be looking at the event slightly differently. Even though every general manager will say they will take the "best player available" on their board no matter what happens in free agency, needs always seem to creep into decisions of whom to take--consciously or subconsciously.
Each of the 14 franchise player designations, therefore, has an impact in the way the team drafts, and the way the draft plays out.
Baltimore DL Haloti Ngata
The Ravens aren't likely to let Ngata go anytime soon because his athleticism/size/relentless combination is simply too difficult to replace. Picking at 26, they weren't going to land top 3-4 end Marcell Dareus -- and Cameron Heyward (Ohio State) and others available late in the first weren't going to fill Ngata's huge shoes. Hampton's Kenrick Ellis (formerly of South Carolina before his dismissal for failing multiple drug tests) will be viewed as a second-tier version of Ngata because of his 6-5, 336-pound frame and agility, but would have been a reach in the late first.
Carolina C Ryan Kalil
Kalil's importance to the offensive line, and maybe to any new quarterback they draft to compete with Jimmy Clausen, made it imperative to keep him in Charlotte. This year's draft class is not deep in centers, and with the exception of Pittsburgh's Maurkice Pouncey aside, you don't want to leave your young quarterbacks taking snaps from a young center if you can help it.
Cleveland K Phil Dawson
It seems as though teams are taking advantage of the relatively low franchise numbers for specialists to lock up above-average--but not exceptional--kickers. Dawson's career 83.2 percent field goal attempt mark and kickoff ability were good enough to lock him up for the 2011 season. Nebraska kicker/punter Alex Henery is strong-legged and accurate enough to earn a high draft spot, but there may be enough teams interested in his services to push him up boards.
Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning
Manning wasn't going anywhere. A long-term contract is very likely to be worked out as soon as possible. The team may bring in another young quarterback from the later rounds (Texas Tech's Taylor Potts, Idaho's Nathan Enderle) to compete for a back-up role, however.
Jacksonville TE Marcedes Lewis
Lewis had a great 2010 season, catching 58 balls for 700 yards. His 10 receiving touchdowns led the Jaguars and tied for the most among league tight ends. There are some intriguing mid-round receiving tight ends in this year's Combine, like Nevada's Virgil Green and Florida Atlantic's Rob Housler, but none quite as tall or explosive--and certainly not as proven.
Kansas City OLB Tamba Hali
Hali blossomed into a true sackmaster in his free agent season, bringing down the quarterback 14.5 times in 2010. His prowess on the outside would have been difficult to replace, and the proliferation of 3-4 scheme in the NFL would have made him a valued commodity on the free agent market. The Chiefs probably could have picked up Georgia end/linebacker Justin Houston to put into a pass rush role in the scheme at the 21st pick, a similar prospect with excellent upside, but keeping Hali allows them to find a strong-side 'backer or offensive lineman in that spot.
Miami NT Paul Soliai
The value of a strong 3-4 nose tackle has been proven by the increased usage of franchise tags at the position. Last year, San Francisco kept Aubrayo Franklin and Green Bay kept Ryan Pickett in tow by tagging them last season. Soliai's becoming the lynchpin of the Dolphins' run defense, and although this year's defensive line class is strong, the 3-4 nose tackle prospects will be heavily coveted. Miami should still address depth at the position.
Minnesota OLB Chad Greenway
One of the most productive linebackers in the country (144 tackles, fourth among league LBs), Greenway is a team leader and reliable defender. Fellow starter Ben Leber is also scheduled to be free agent, and the team could not afford to lose both -- especially in a draft where elite 4-3 linebacker prospects are severely lacking.
New England OG Logan Mankins
The acrimony between Mankins and the Patriots did not prevent the Patriots from keeping their best lineman, and former first round pick, in Foxboro. There are some intriguing interior offensive line prospects in this draft, which is the reason the team could still look to upgrade Dan Connolly at right guard.
New York Jets ILB David Harris
Harris has made himself an invaluable part of Rex Ryan's defense the past couple of years. North Carolina's Quan Sturdivant is a similar prospect to Harris, but multiple teams looking to emulate the success of the Jets' third-ranked defense will be searching out the next Harris.
Oakland DE/OLB Kamerion Wimbley
The Cleveland cast-off had his best sack total since his rookie year (nine) for the Raiders as a 16-game starter last season, so Oakland decided to keep him around. They certainly would have preferred to use the tag on Nnamdi Asomugha, but the language of his previous contract prevented it. In a draft full of long pass rushers, Oakland may have been able to find one--but they sent their first round pick to New England for DE Richard Seymour (whom they just signed to a two-year, $30 million deal) during the 2009 season.
Philadelphia QB Michael Vick
This one's pretty simple. The Eagles aren't in any position to select Auburn's Cam Newton, the only player in this draft with even a chance to be as explosive a weapon at quarterback as Vick. Back-up Kevin Kolb could be the next A.J. Feeley, a Eagles draft pick who gets cache without much performance.
Pittsburgh OLB Lamarr Woodley
During the draft, you'll hear a lot of talk about Justin Houston and Sam Acho (Texas) potentially becoming Woodley-type players because of their similar build and strength. With the Steelers owning the penultimate pick in the second round, however, it's not clear they would have been in position to grab one of those two players to replace the veteran. And even though there will be a number of highly sought-after end-linebacker conversion players, the Steelers are very specific in the type player they want at the second level.
San Diego WR Vincent Jackson
Jackson's size and speed are difficult to duplicate in any draft class (6-5, 241, 4.46). Despite Jackson's issues with San Diego management, his talent was too strong to let go without compensation. Southern Miss' DeAndre Brown and South Carolina's Tori Gurley have similar size to Jackson, but their long strides (as well as Brown's leg injuries) don't give them comparable speed.
--Contributed by NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Chad Reuter