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All that's certain is uncertainty


INDIANAPOLIS – Around the NFL these days, all most people seem to know for sure is that not much is known at all.

Not about the immediate future, anyway.

That&39;s what happens when a league holds what essentially is its biggest off-season convention/meeting – as well as the unofficial starting point of the following season – against a backdrop of a potential work stoppage.

How will the uncertainty surrounding the league&39;s Collective Bargaining Agreement change teams&39; strategy and planning?

What will the off-season bring? How will teams handle player moves?

With team officials restricted in what they can say about the issue, general managers and coaches have chosen their words carefully this week when such topics arise, but this is the one thing certain as the league enters a critical time:

Not much is certain at all.

"We don't know," Cardinals General Manager Rod Graves said during the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, which continues through Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis. "It's hard to speculate and I'm not going to attempt to do it. The model that we have to have is just be prepared. Once things are on track, once we get the word about the direction we're going, we're going to be prepared either way."

General managers and coaches around the league this week echoed that sentiment, with Raiders coach Hue Jackson saying that while teams may not know what the off-season will bring, the only way to approach it is to have plans for as many scenarios as possible.

"One thing I've learned in this profession is you can't worry about something that you know nothing about," Jackson said. "My biggest goal is making sure that the next step for our team is in place which is getting ready for our offseason program, and if somebody tells us we can't, then we can't, and then we go to Plan B. I think the most important thing is to keep going through the process."

Most coaches and general managers downplayed the impact of a potential lockout, but Michael Lombardi of the NFL Network said in a league full of planners and round-the-clock, year-round schedules, any disruption is significant.

"You have to have a lot of scenarios in place," Lombardi said. "You've got to have, if it goes a month, if it goes two months, if it goes three months and I think you have to build your team around that. The difficult thing this year is going to be, this might be the first time, and let's hope not, that the draft is before free agency. Which to me, the two things always coincide.

"Free agency is a little bit like signing a junior college kid in college. You fill a need, you move forward to the draft and that gets your rookie class. But the reality of it is is this will be very difficult. So I think you have to have a lot of scenarios in place and how you implement those scenarios."

Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars&39; coach from 1995-2002 and currently the coach of the New York Giants, said a lack of ability to speak with players during a work stoppage represents perhaps the most significant issue.

"That would be, or will be, something that none of us in this profession really want," Coughlin said. "Everything we do is always a hands-on approach. You have the constant flow of information back and forth, so that part of it will be the difficult part of it."

As Lombardi noted, a significant immediate difference is the change in the league&39;s calendar. Whereas free agency usually occurs before the late April NFL Draft, if a labor agreement is not reached before then, free agency would occur after the draft.

"I think it alters your strategy but you have to be prepared for any scenario that comes up right now because there's a lot of unknowns," San Francisco 49ers General Manager Trent Baalke said. "That&39;s exactly where we&39;re at, prepared for whatever scenarios take place."

Said Coughlin, "I'd say you'd probably have to flip it. You know exactly what your needs are. Maybe it takes two people. You would have the draft first."

Coughlin spoke for most around the league this week when asked what he looks forward to the most this offseason.

"I would hope a new collective bargaining agreement," Coughlin said.

AROUND THE AFC SOUTH: The Texans made a significant move toward improving a struggling defense with the hiring of former Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator early in the off-season. Texans Head Coach Gary Kubiak said during the combine that Phillips will have significant input into defensive personnel decisions, but stopped short of saying the Texans will definitely focus on defense in the draft. "I think you are always talking about taking the best players for your football team," Kubiak said. "You and I both know, we had big problems on that side

of the ball last year. We made a big commitment to Wade to come in and get our defense going very quickly. We have a lot of improvements to make in that area. We will have to evaluate the draft. That won't change, but obviously that's a big part of our football team that needs to be corrected." . . . Bill Polian will have a new title in Indianapolis. After 13 seasons as the team&39;s president, he now will be vice chairman. It&39;s part of an ongoing process of having his son, Chris, take over the Colts&39; football operations, but for now Colts Owner Jim Irsay said Bill Polian&39;s role in the organization won&39;t change significantly. . .  . Titans coach Mike Munchak on newly-hired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who held the same job with the Jaguars in 1997 and 1998: "What I liked about him is he's been in the league for 20 years and he's been a part of a lot of systems. When I was a player back in Houston he was a part of the Run 'N Shoot offense back in the late-&39;80s, early &39;90s and we did well in that offense, and he just recently won a Super Bowl with the Giants in their type offense which is probably more similar to what we do. He has the versatility, depending on what happens at the quarterback spot, to put him in the right positions so we don't put too much on the quarterback."

AROUND THE COMBINE – As the NFL Draft approaches, one area drawing praise as an area of strength is the offensive tackle position. There may not be a consensus Top 10 player at the position, but Tyron Smith of Southern California, Anthony Costanzo of Boston College, Gabe Carimi of Wisconsin, Nate Solder of Colorado and Derek Sherrod of Mississippi State are considered potential first-round selections. "I think the tackle group is better," Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert said. "It's actually been good the last couple years, it all relates to the spread offenses in college football, because these guys are good pass protectors from their freshman year on as they develop." . . . The 2011 rookie class also is considered strong on the defensive line, with Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley and Clemson defensive end Da&39;Quan Bowers considered by some the top two players available. "This is the second year that I think we&39;ve had a very good defensive line draft," Atlanta Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimtroff said. "The defensive tackles and defensive ends. I think it&39;s great for the league because for the longest time we had a dearth of d-line." Said Tampa Bay General Manager Mark Dominik, "It's another good draft class, one of the best you've seen of guys who can put their hand down and get to the quarterback."

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