Cardinals linebacker-to-be Sam Acho takes part in the 2011 Scouting Combine.
INDIANAPOLIS – The difference this time is that the Scouting combine will be more of a beginning than an end.
Last year the Cardinals and the rest of the NFL descended on Indiana as usual knowing that just on the other side of the week of workouts was a looming work stoppage. This time, it's free agency coming and a regular offseason of preparation.
"We're approaching normalcy now," general manager Rod Graves said.
Workouts officially begin Friday but player interviews start Wednesday as the annual judging of potential draft picks reaches an apex. Most years, free agency was also a major topic because the signing period started only a few days later.
That's changed with the new collective bargaining agreement. Free agency will remain a main subject because it is close, but with it beginning March 13 now – two weeks after the combine's close – there is still much to find out. In the Cards' own case, free-agent-to-be defensive end Calais Campbell will be extended the franchise tag any time before March 5, but the Cards would like to sign him to a long-term contract before then and avoid the tag.
That's a scenario that will play out across the league, with players like Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Ravens running back Ray Rice candidates to get deals – deals that usually need a deadline (like March 5) to force action.
It means free agent talk will remain vague over the next few days as many head coaches and general managers come to speak to the media (Graves and Cards' coach Ken Whisenhunt are schedule to speak Thursday morning Arizona time.) The combine has always run the parallel storylines of both draft talk and free agent talk.
The draft talk will still be there. It's a chance to hear quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (although neither will likely work out, instead waiting for their respective pro days.) Luck's answers in the stadium he will probably play within – Lucas Oil Stadium – will be scrutinized, especially since the Peyton Manning /Colts situation with the Colts has yet to be resolved with the nation's NFL media arriving for a second time in a month.
The Cardinals have already been in the offseason process, setting up a free-agent plan and beginning the draft breakdowns. The combine has always been more about the player interaction/interviews and medical checks than 40 times and shuttle runs, a chance for those besides the scouts to actually talk to potential draftees.
Everyone on both sides of the equation should feel a little more comfortable.
"Last year, nobody knew what would be happening," Whisenhunt said. "This year, you don't have to deal with it. You know the offseason is coming, you know what it looks like, and you know the focus is on looking on college players and not the potential of not having a season."
The focus will grow soon enough. The Cards' draft will be directly impacted by their signings in free agency, both of their own players and others. Campbell may be a lock to return one way or the other but guys like defensive back Richard Marshall – also scheduled to be a free agent – could influence a lot if he hits the open market. The Cards also must figure out the situation with tackle Levi Brown, who will either need to be released or restructured thanks to his massive salary cap number.
Those are all the stresses of "normalcy" though, and something the Cards welcome much more than the alternative.
"Last year, when we came to Indy, we didn't know how much dependency we'd have on the draft," Graves said. "There was a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. Everyone is in a much better state of mind."