As you’re reading this, phones are lighting up in NFL front offices across the country.
The “legal tampering period” will wrap up today at 1 p.m., when the league year begins. Experts’ mock drafts are one thing, but free agency will have a greater effect on the draft than any pro day or scouting combine, so Bay Area fans should pay attention.
Follow the quarterback market. The 49ers and Raiders are locked in at the position, but where free-agent quarterbacks land will affect what players are on the board when Niners and Raiders are on the clock.
The Browns, Broncos, Jets and Giants will be teams to watch because they sit in front of the 49ers and Raiders, and all four of those teams are reportedly interested in chasing a quarterback. Even if one of these needy teams decides to go a different direction in the first round, inevitably they will look at QB in the later rounds, letting better prospects fall.
Ideally, each team picking before Santa Clara and Oakland whiffs on a quarterback in free agency and will resort to using early picks in the draft to find a new signal caller. Former Washington QB Kirk Cousins has reportedly agreed to a fully guaranteed contract with the Minnesota Vikings.
Niners general manager John Lynch has shown the ability to make aggressive moves on draft day. Depending on the holes the 49ers fill in free agency, trading down with a team interested in taking a quarterback could be an option for San Francisco.
After trading Tyrod Taylor and Cordy Glenn, the Buffalo Bills will be a team to pay attention to. They have six picks in the first three rounds including 12 and 22 overall. With Buffalo’s arsenal of picks, Lynch should be able to get good value if he feels they should trade back.
This draft class is riddled with talented defensive backs who will be around in the latter end of the first round, but edge rushers — something Lynch values — will be a more scarce commodity. It would be a surprise if top edge rusher Bradley Chubb from North Carolina State is still on the board at nine, but Texas San Antonio rusher Marcus Davenport and Boston College Harold Landry — a player the 49ers have been linked to since the combine should be available when the 49ers are on the clock.
Trading back could be an option for the Raiders, too, but there will be pressure on general manager Reggie McKenzie to nail his picks in this draft after failing to deliver with picks like Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu.
Passing on an impact defensive player like Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith or Florida State defensive back Derwin James would be a gamble. Smith or James would be an immediate upgrade to a defense that ranked No. 23 in yards allowed last season.
For the first time since 2014, the Raiders and 49ers will play a regular season game against each other this year; but before they square off, they will compete against each other for free agents.
They’ve been linked to the same players early — like Vontae Davis and Trumaine Johnson. Even with the 49ers signing former foe Richard Sherman, they are still expected to upgrade their secondary. With teams like Kansas City and Denver loading up on offense this offseason, the Raiders simply need to be active in the defensive back market.
Both teams are expected to show interest in wide recievers. The wide receiver market is shrinking quickly with Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins, Donte Moncrief and Paul Richardson reportedly finding homes.
The recently released Jordy Nelson could be a name of interest for the 49ers. Because of his age and recent injury history, he will probably look for a short, prove-it deal before one last payday next offseason.
If either team misses on a WR in free agency, there are a bevy of talented prospects who are expected to be available on the second day of the draft. Washington’s Dante Pettis, Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown and Miami’s Braxton Berrios were highly productive at the college level and would fit nicely in Santa Clara or Oakland.
How teams navigate free agency should expose their strategy for the draft, which is just 44 days away.