Bad news for armchair GMs: no free agency in 2011?

Mark Clayton sure looked good in a Rams uni. Mark Clayton would love to return to the Rams. He may not have a choice without free agency in 2011.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom being reported on the NFL labor talks, as many cognoscenti in the media predict that there won’t be any urgency until Training Camp, and no agreement until Labor Day. And if that happens, you can forget about the Rams making any improvements to their roster via free agency, unless you count re-signing their own players.

With the collective bargaining agreement expiring March 3, Babin and other would-be free agents face the very real possibility that they get ordered back to their old teams at the bargain basement price of 120 percent of their last salary. Play another season, risk serious injury. And wait.

Yahoo Sports: No labor deal puts NFL free agency at risk in 2011

For armchair GMs like me — hell, like all of us who wonder “what if Sam Bradford had Vincent Jackson or Sidney Rice to throw to” — this is a calamitous threat to our enjoyment of the offseason. At this point in the labor talks, losing free agency isn’t a given, but veteran scribes like Sports Illustrated’s Peter King are preparing us for disappointment, going out of his way in his Valentine’s Day article to inject poison in our hearts.

The March 3 deadline is fairly meaningless, when you think about it. What happens in March that’s vital to the regular season? Think of that word — vital. Nothing. Is free agency vital to a season? No.

Peter King, MMQB

The only good news you can possibly wring out of this news is that under these circumstances, the Rams are a lot better off than a lot of teams, especially in their division.

ESPN’s Mike Sando compiled a list of teams ranked by the number of unrestricted free agents on their roster — i.e. the number of spots that must be addressed and potentially improved. The Rams rate healthily near the bottom of the list with only 14 roster spots occupied by pending free agents, few of them in critical positions. Here’s how the rest of the NFC West stacks up:

San Francisco gets re-runs of the “Alex Smith or Troy Smith” debate. Both are free agents, but arguably neither is wanted by the team under new coach Jim Harbaugh. And for his part, Alex Smith wants nothing to do with the 49ers organization. Sorry ’bout it, Alex, you’re stuck and both you and Troy may be fighting off Christian Ponder in training camp…

Seattle’s roster chaos goes unsolved. At times it’s unclear whether the Seahawks under Pete Carroll have a plan or are simply playing Jenga with their roster, pulling out as many pieces as they can and placing new ones on top of an increasingly tottering structure. And after a blizzard of quick fixes and short-term patches, Carroll still has 25 open roster spots occupied by pending FAs. However, as local observers can testify, no team in the division was more dependent on free agency this offseason than the ‘Hawks.

Five of Arizona’s aging offensive linemen get re-upped instead of replaced. In the case of Alan Faneca, who put a career backslide in neutral with a decent year, that might not be so bad. But the rest of Arizona’s O-line is pretty execrable, especially left tackle Levi Brown, who has been called one of the very worst players in the division. Additionally, the lack of free agency also shuts down trade opportunities for those Cardinal fans lusting after Kevin Kolb. Without a ready starter at QB in the Sam Bradford mold in this year’s draft, expect another year of misery in the desert.

Meanwhile, as RamsGab points out, the Rams would welcome back Mark Clayton, Na’il Diggs and Clifton Ryan. Clayton in particular was likely to be a player the Rams sought to retain, given his immediate chemistry with Bradford, his lightning-quick absorption of the playbook, and ultrapositive impact on the clubhouse. You can also add third-down blocking back Ken Darby, TE Daniel Fells and G/T Adam Goldberg to that list, though in each case the Rams might have used free agency to aggressively seek improvement, or at least competition. (Laurent Robinson would also report to One Rams Way, is doubtful to last long.) 

(Note: VanRam at TurfShowTimes notes a correction on Na’il Diggs — he is signed through 2011.) 

One severe downside to the lack of free agency, though, is that it robs Billy Devaney of one of his most creative outlets for roster improvement — harvesting gems like Danario Alexander from the ranks of undrafted free agents.   

While the situation may be less than ideal, I’d still prefer to go back to war with the players that would be returning to the Rams than stand in the shoes of any of our division foes.