Changing combine, free agency and draft schedule would force teams to adapt or die

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – Listen to enough football minds at the NFL scouting combine and you notice a serious disconnect between the league office and the 32 teams. 

"The first question I would have is simply, why?" said Bill Polian, who spent 23 years in the NFL as a team president or general manager. "I'd like to know the reason for it." 

Polian and others like him would like justification as to why the NFL would put further stress on coaches, players, scouts and executives by ramping up the offseason schedule.

Or, to put it another way, is all of this worth potentially hurting the product?

This past week, the NFL floated ideas and all of them are aimed at highlighting events such as the scouting combine, the draft and the start of free agency. In addition, the league has talked about having a coordinated day for when all 32 teams will start training camp.

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The combine would be moved to March, the start of free agency would be in April and the draft would be in May. Currently, the combine is held in late February, free agency starts on March 12 (this year) and the draft is held in late April.

Training camps generally start anywhere from July 20 to August 1, with teams staggering the dates depending on when their first preseason game is scheduled or how deep they went into the playoffs.

Predictably, the idea of change was met with resistance, but also with a mentality that resistance is futile.

"Bottom line, among football people like myself, no one is going to like it because we're creatures of routine," former Kansas City and New England executive Scott Pioli said. "If it changes, we'll adjust. That's probably never going to be a decision that's made by football people."

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The reason for the changes may be somewhat inevitable. Polian said that the push to an 18-game schedule by the league may necessitate some change. In addition, the league may be angling to create more dedicated programming for the struggling NFL Network by moving events like the combine and draft away from times when ESPN would want to show them.

But the idea of having the start of free agency and the draft so close together creates tremendous stress on teams.

"Ideally, I've always said that you need to have two months between the start of free agency and the draft," former NFL team executive Pat Kirwan said. "What people don't understand is that there are 450 or so players available at the beginning of free agency, but after two weeks there might be 500 as teams sign players and then cut others to make room. That's where your bargain players come up, guys who might be able to really help you in specific roles.

"If you have free agency starting while teams are also preparing for the draft, that's two completely different processes. Some veteran gets cut and you like him, but your GM is on a plane and your head coach is driving to Missouri for a Pro Day and you don't have a way of really focusing on a veteran who might help you a whole lot more than a draft pick."

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There are potentially some advantages right now to delaying the start of free agency. Up until this year, free agency had generally started closer to March 1. With the slight delay this year, many free agent players are getting antsy about when they will be getting new contracts with a signing bonus that can, in some cases, tide them over between now and the start of the season when they start to get paid again. 

"If you start free agency later, like in April, you're going to have more players borrowing money to get through the offseason, that always happens," former NFL quarterback Jim Miller said. "It's sad, but that's the truth. It's going to make guys more desperate."

But even the slight potential gain in leverage would be mitigated by the lost time you would have in preparing players.

"The way it is right now, you draft a player and it takes two or three weeks to take him from draft shape to football shape," Polian said, referring to how players lose weight and train differently to maximize the various tests they do at the combine and on Pro Days. "You used to be able to do that in early May and have them ready for some on-field training the rest of the offseason."

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The bottom line is that there is going to be more pressure than ever on NFL personnel to do everything in a much more rushed fashion.

Pioli smiled at that notion.

"Some will be stressed and drop out and others will rise to the top," Pioli said.

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