After several years of allowing teams to negotiate with agents during a brief window before the launch of free agency, the NFL is finally moving closer toward getting it right.
In prior years, a nonsensical “look-but–don’t-touch” approach applied, allowing positions to be exchanged but not allowing any actual offers to be made or tentative agreements to be reached — ignoring the possibility that in the exchange of positions the two sides may eventually realize that an overlap exists.
This year, in addition to shortening the window from three days to two (it opens Monday at 12:00 p.m. ET), the NFL has expanded the permissible activities that may occur during the negotiating period.
“During the two-day negotiating period, all clubs may negotiate all aspects of an NFL Player Contract with the certified agent of any prospective UFA,” explains the March 2 memo to all teams, a copy of which PFT has obtained. “However, a new club may not execute an NFL Player Contract with a prospective UFA until 4:00 p.m., New York time, on March 9, when the player’s 2015 contract expires.”
The memo then explains that “the only valid, binding and enforceable employment agreement between an NFL player and an NFL club is an NFL Player Contract that has been fully executed by the parties in compliance with all applicable League rules and the CBA,” and that any discussions regarding possible employment or terms of employment “are non-binding and are unenforceable by the player or the club.”
The memo next lists specific things that cannot be done. Teams cannot execute an NFL contract, execute an agreement in principle or other similar document, announce that an agreement in principle or other similar agreement has been reached, or reach agreement on any undisclosed terms. Also, teams cannot make travel arrangements with a prospective free agent before the launch of free agency, at 4:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
Violation of the principles set forth in the memo “may be considered conduct detrimental to the League, as well as a violation of the League’s Anti-Tampering Policy.” The memo warns that, if an investigation is required, the league would seek all relevant documents from the team under suspicion, including email and phone communications, along with a review of documents regarding travel arrangements for the player.
Last year, news leaked one day into the then-three-day period that the Dolphins had struck a deal with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The floodgates then were open, with multiple reports of tentative deals surfacing. The league investigated the Dolphins, but no action was taken.
Even though the new approach is more practical than the procedures from past years, there’s still a gap in logic between what the rules say and how things work. Deals will be negotiated to completion during the two-day window, and agents who hope to continue to be trusted by NFL teams will ensure that the tentative deals are honored, even though the deals technically aren’t done until they’re done.