I had been wondering if there was any chance that free agency and/or trades could occur even if there is a lockout, or before a new collective bargaining agreement was reached. The answer was, "no." That is, up until a report by Sports Illustrated's Peter King, who presents one scenario in which free agency and trades could take place before the draft, even if the players choose to decertify the union and a new CBA has not been reached.
According to King:
Should the negotiations here stall, and the players choose to decertify as a union, ownership would almost certainly declare their intentions to lock out the players. Then the players likely would move to get relief from U.S. District Judge David S. Doty in the form of an injunction. It's not certain what Doty would do, of course, but he has made some significant pro-player decisions while overseeing NFL labor. If Doty granted injunctive relief, he could likely rule that the league's last work rules were still applicable, or he could simply allow the NFL to institute a set of rules of its choosing. But it's a virtual certainty the NFL would appeal the injunction.
If the injunction survived the appeal process, the 2011 league year would start and the rules would include free agency and the ability to trade players. One longtime Doty observer noted Thursday that an injunction could take up to a month to be issued under usual circumstances, and then the decision on whether the appeal would be allowed another week or two. A Friday decertification, then, could lead to the league restarting business, as forced by the court, by late April, around the time of the April 28-20 NFL Draft.
So the league year could begin before a new CBA happens. Free agency would begin. Trades could happen, possibly even in time for the three-day draft.
I don't think a sudden agreement is going to be reached in one more today, and according to Adam Schefter, the NFLPA is ready to decertify. If they do, King's scenario is worth following because it could create an even more hectic situation with teams' draft boards changing rapidly if they are suddenly able to make free agent acquisitions days before the draft.