Tampering in the NFL is a lot like gambling in Rick’s Cafe. It happens regularly, particularly at events such as the NFL scouting combine, but much like “Casablanca’s” Captain Renault, the league usually just looks the other way.
It did, at least, until October when the NFL’s competition committee finally agreed to drop its pretense over the matter and adopted a new rule that all but makes tampering legal – at least for a few days.
Three days ahead of the official start of the free-agency signing period Tuesday, teams can begin negotiating Saturday with players from other teams who are scheduled to become free agents.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik isn’t quite sure what the results will be.
“We’ve never had this before, where we can just talk and get a feel for things, so it’s hard to know,’’ Dominik said. “But I do like the fact we’re allowed to talk.’’
Talk is about all the rule allows. Though teams can negotiate and even finalize deals for free agents from other clubs during the three-day period, they cannot have any contact with the player himself. So, contracts cannot be signed and submitted to the league during that time.
That has some league executives and player agents thinking the rule will have little or no effect on free agency, though some believe it will expedite the process of getting players situated with new teams.
“I think it’s an awesome thing, because it’s going to help speed things up for some of these guys,’’ said Hadley Engelhard, an Atlanta-based agent whose client list includes Bucs receiver Mike Williams.
“I think for the elite free agents, especially, what’s going to happen is they’re going to be able to find out exactly what the market is for them without having to take any trips. And once you’ve got that established and you know what you can expect from other teams, you can either agree to terms with someone or go back to your existing team and find out if they want to match the offer.’’
The Bucs hope to get that treatment from some of their free agents.
Dominik has expressed a desire to retain defensive end Michael Bennett, defensive tackle Roy Miller and cornerback E.J. Biggers, but only at the price the Bucs believe they are worth. The likelihood, then, is that all three will use the three-day negotiating period to determine their value on the open market. Some, or all, could agree to terms with another team as a result.
The Bucs plan to use the three days to do the same as they look for potential replacements for those three, as well as upgrades at cornerback, tight end, slot receiver, safety, right tackle and possibly backup quarterback.
The Bucs could kick the tires on cornerbacks such as Sean Smith (Miami), Derek Cox (Jacksonville) or Greg Toler (Arizona); tight ends such as Jared Cook (Tennessee), Brandon Myers (Oakland) or Delanie Walker (San Francisco), and slot receivers such as Wes Welker (New England) and Danny Amendola (St. Louis).
No matter the targets, the negotiating period allows the Bucs and other teams to get a lot of work done before the actual signing period begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday. It should erase, at least in part, the temptation to tamper.
“Everybody will be interested to see how it works out and what the results are,’’ said former Colts president Bill Polian, who was part of the committee that forged the new negotiating rule.
“I wouldn’t say everyone was enthusiastic about it. We all had some reservations. But on balance I think it's fair to say we felt it was something that would at least bring some organization to what had been a very chaotic process.’’