Tommy Stevens tug-of-war exposes NFL’s dirty little draft secret

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On April 21, the NFL reminded all coaches, General Managers, and player personnel directors of the bright-line rules regarding communications with prospects before and during the draft. On April 25, those rules once again were blatantly violated, probably by every single team.

The evidence of that fact comes from the nonchalance with with Saints coach Sean Payton shared the details of the in-draft bidding war for Mississippi State quarterback Tommy Stevens. In comments to Jeff Duncan of TheAthletic.com, Payton acknowledged that he eventually traded back into round seven to disrupt an agreement that the Panthers had reached with Stevens and his agent on a contract to be signed after the draft.

The rules in this regard are clear, and they were reiterated in the April 21 memo from the league’s player personnel department. Once the draft begins, teams that aren’t on the clock can speak to representatives of players who were not yet drafted, but those conversations must focus only on non-financial matters.

The memo (a copy of which PFT has obtained) contains this message, which is the only passage in the three-page document that appears in bold print, with both underlining and yellow highlighting: “Although a club may inform a player or his agent that the club would be interested in the player’s services if the player is not drafted, no oral or written agreement can be made regarding a player’s future employment.”

Payton’s account of the events that led to the Saints eventually trading back into round seven and drafting Stevens shows that both the Saints and Panthers violated the rules by discussing financial matters and making financial offers to Stevens while the draft was still unfolding. The Panthers committed the more egregious violation by entering into an agreement with Stevens while the draft was still happening.

“[The Panthers] felt like they had him signed, sealed and delivered,” Saints assistant G.M. Jeff Ireland said Monday, while appearing on the team’s official website’s podcast (via Duncan). “[The] agent wasn’t really talking to us, so we just decided we’d just go take him from them. . . . There’s a little bit of competitive juices flying between me and Sean about, ‘We want this player. We’re not going to let anybody take him from us.'”

The league office declined comment on the matter, but one league source predicted that the Saints and Panthers will be sanctioned for this violation.

If that happens, it will become the latest example of inconsistent application of the rules by the league. This time, however, the NFL emphasized the rule, possibly due to the fact that the stay-at-home nature of the draft would make the land rush for undrafted free agents even more challenging than usual. Even if all teams violated this rule in the past, the league wanted everyone to respect the rule during the 2020 draft.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that every team ignored the rule during this draft, too. The problem for the Saints and the Panthers, however, is that the Stevens example is the only one that has come to light. And if the Saints and Panthers do indeed get in trouble over this, here’s hoping that the league is willing to fully and fairly investigate the other 30 teams. Chances are that most if not all of them did the same thing.

39 responses to “Tommy Stevens tug-of-war exposes NFL’s dirty little draft secret

  1. only an issue because payton and saints have the stones to thumb their nose at godell. would be swept under the rug if it wasn’t saints or pats.

  2. Like the restrictions on free agent discussions before the “legal tampering” window, oral discussions and agreements simply can’t be policed, try as the NFL might…

  3. Sean knows what plausible deniability means and how to exercise his rights.

  4. The entire undrafted player signing process is mind-boggling. Why doesn’t the league extend the draft to 10 players? I can only think they’re avoiding it for contractual reasons.

  5. If they wanted the problem fixed then the NFL and NFLPA should sanction the agents involved as well. They are less likely to do a shady deal if their own career/income is on the line due to a potential suspension/ban and players are less likely to hire a guy that suddenly can’t negotiate a deal

  6. What are we talking about here, 7th round picks? Lol.

    There are some “facts” that would be worthy here. For example, what if this conversation happened weeks ago with the agent in the event the player went undrafted? Is that ok? It’s unclear.

    You talk about financial terms but is one undrafted free agent deal much different from another? Are they going to have much leverage on such things? I mean, they’re all signing for relatively the same compared to what a drafted player gets. Why would the league get bent out of shape over this? If anything, this is the agent leveraging the Saints to spend a pick on him. Me thinks the financial benefit is always better getting drafted.

  7. Don’t make excuses for the Saints or Patriots bad behavior. Just because they do it & get caught doesn’t mean everyone else is cheating. If everyone else is cheating then maybe the other teams are intelligent enough to not talk about it.

  8. All this for a guy who won’t even be in the league in a few years

  9. The point that Payton seems to not care even a little bit about is how the player told him he wanted to play somewhere else, and the Saints took his rights away with a 7th round pick. Its bad enough that young men at the top of the draft who have high earning potential have no control over their careers, but at the bottom of the draft where the difference in location can mean the difference between having a career in the league or not having one at all, Payton used this young man in a way to one up a rival.

  10. “And if the Saints and Panthers do indeed get in trouble over this, here’s hoping that the league is willing to fully and fairly investigate the other 30 teams. Chances are that most if not all of them did the same thing.”

    And that’s exactly why nothing will happen here, and especially not now. The last thing the NFL wants is to perform an investigation that will reveal that all teams routinely flout the rules. And right now, when everybody is on edge and just wants to cling to the hope that we will see football again in a few months, there is zero chance the League wants to open this can of worms.

  11. andymannfl says:
    May 2, 2020 at 1:44 pm
    What are we talking about here, 7th round picks? Lol.

    Jesse Sopolu Round 11 #289
    Clyde Simmons Round 9 #233
    Dexter Manely Round 5 #219
    Joe Horn Round 5 #135
    Wilbert Montgomery Round 6 #154
    Joe Klecko Round 6 #144
    Seth Joyner Round 8 #208
    Bo Jackson Round 7 #183
    Harold Carmichael Rouind 7 #161
    Tom Brady Round 6 #199
    Bart Starr Round 17 #199
    Roger Staubach Round 10 #129
    Deacon Jones Round 14 #186
    Richard Dent Round 8 # 203
    Raymond Berry Round 20 #232
    Shannon Sharpe Round 7 #192
    ….and many, many other greats

    Yeah….No good players in the late rounds LOL

  12. mccontrary says: “The entire undrafted player signing process is mind-boggling. Why doesn’t the league extend the draft to 10 players? I can only think they’re avoiding it for contractual reasons.”
    ———————–

    It’s actually better for undrafted players to go undrafted then extend the rounds.

    They can basically pick and choose the team that fits them or the best chance of making the roster. For example, instead of being drafted and stuck behind 7-8 WRs on the depth chart, the rookie can choose a team with 5-6 WRs and hopefully make it on special teams first.

  13. Teams do this all the time just before the draft. A team will tell a player if you’re not drafted by any team, I will sign you to a contract. You can call it a free agent or make good contract. That’s done all the time in the NFL. If you talk money before or during the draft, then that is a violation. It’s very plan and very simple to understand.

    The question is did the Panthers talk money with Stevens, or his agent before, or during the draft? Did the Saints talk money with Stevens, or his agent? If either, or both did, it’s a violation. Could it be the Saints got wind of Stevens situation and jump back in the draft to prevent the Panthers from signing Stevens because the Saints wanted Stevens? Those are the possibilities.

  14. If this is that large of a concern, add a round or two to the draft, and there will be fewer desirable players left. There would still be unsigned players drafted, as most teams sign 10-20 of them after the draft. But, if you are taking about someone who just missed the 9th or 10th round instead of just missing the 7th round, you are dealing with a different talent level.

    But, to this situation, while the teams are not allowed to discuss finances, is there anything that prevents the player or agent from throwing out numbers? The teams may theoretically not be allowed to discuss it further, but the player or agent can ask what they want.

  15. And if the Patriots had been accused of this it’d be a $1m team fine and Belichick suspended & fined. Most of you and the media would be cheering, even demanding the team be kicked out, even after evidence was found to have been manipulated and the Pats had been smeared.

  16. “both the Saints and Panthers violated the rules by discussing financial matters and making financial offers to Stevens while the draft was still unfolding.”
    ———————–

    Panthers DID NOT violate any rules. You ARE ALLOWED to discuss pre-draft about signing potential UDFAs and give financial details. There is ZERO evidence that Panthers talked to Stevens DURING the draft, which is the rule.

  17. I’m sure all teams break rules like this, but not all coaches are dumb enough to discuss it with the media. Punish the Saints and Panthers. That’s it. No investigations needed into other teams.

    I work as a teacher. If a kid gets caught cheating on a test they get punished. If you don’t punish them they will continue to cheat. I don’t start searching every other kid because of one kids actions though. If someone happens to cheat and get away with it, then it’s my fault for not catching them. You take risks when you cheat. If there are no consequences, then why even have rules? Same thing with our country and its immigration policies.

  18. Every team in every league ignores tampering rules. It’s obvious when seconds after a free agency period begins, there are a bunch of long term, big money deals for the coveted free agents that have been worked on for days (possibly weeks). All teams have to do is be smart and not tell any reporters.

  19. Oh no, not league sanctions, anything but that! LOL

    The Saints have absolutely nothing to lose when it comes to “league sanctions” since the league screws them over at every turn anyway. So who even cares.

  20. Depends on the definition of “agreement”. And rules were made to be broken.

  21. This will be a great story if the Saints end up keeping Brees, Winston, and Stevens on the roster, and release mediocre special teams player with the absurd contract Taysom Hill.

    Alas, Stevens will likely be cut and end up on the Panthers practice squad.

  22. Is bargaining with a late round draft pick/undrafted FA as big of a deal as one team giving a playbook to a tight end that is still on another team? I’m asking for a friend.

  23. mdd913 says:
    May 2, 2020 at 4:11 pm
    Oh no, not league sanctions, anything but that! LOL

    The Saints have absolutely nothing to lose when it comes to “league sanctions” since the league screws them over at every turn anyway. So who even cares.

    The Saints just have bad karma. Did you know that mere seconds before the “Miracle in Minnesota”, Sean Payton was giving the “choke” sign to the Minnesota sideline? Then seconds later, instant karma hit.

  24. OH NO, the “league” will “sanction” the Saints again, what will we get this time a firing squad? It is VERY clear that the goon squad in NYC hates the Saints, just so you know…..it goes both ways. Thanks NFL, hope all of you front office guys take a HUGE pay cut in the coming months, you are not worth every penny you make.

  25. The Saints didn’t win the NFC or go deep into the playoffs because the teams that they played…played better than the Saints.

    You can blame the NFL, but that is just pathetic.

    Man up. Your team lost.

  26. Coach Sean Payton is DONE. Yes, he’s DONE! This is not funny. The guy is playing around as a goof and wasting the Saints’ Super Bowl window. XLIV was not won because of CSP, it was one IN SPITE OF him!

    ⚜️

  27. Payton can’t seem to do anything – win, lose, or anything else – without coming off like a self-centered jerk. He always seems to find a way to look like the creep.

  28. whywerule says:
    May 2, 2020 at 4:28 pm
    This will be a great story if the Saints end up keeping Brees, Winston, and Stevens on the roster, and release mediocre special teams player with the absurd contract Taysom Hill.

    Alas, Stevens will likely be cut and end up on the Panthers practice squad.

    ———–

    Well, you’re the special teams expert, you tell us…name one other special teams player that blocked a punt, picked up a first down on a fake punt with both a run up the middle and by throwing the ball, made a coverage tackle inside the 20, and returned a kickoff for 40 yards in the same career, let some the same season. We’ll wait.

  29. Well, you’re the special teams expert, you tell us…name one other special teams player that blocked a punt, picked up a first down on a fake punt with both a run up the middle and by throwing the ball, made a coverage tackle inside the 20, and returned a kickoff for 40 yards in the same career, let some the same season. We’ll wait.

    —————————-

    After that find a special teams expert making 10 million a year.

  30. Patrick H says:

    Its bad enough that young men at the top of the draft who have high earning potential have no control over their careers.

    I tell myself this every year. It’s so awful they were forced into playing football, turning pro and then having hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe multiple millions paid to them for it. I feel for them.

  31. superbowlliichamps says:
    May 2, 2020 at 7:58 pm
    Well, you’re the special teams expert, you tell us…name one other special teams player that blocked a punt, picked up a first down on a fake punt with both a run up the middle and by throwing the ball, made a coverage tackle inside the 20, and returned a kickoff for 40 yards in the same career, let some the same season. We’ll wait.

    —————————-

    After that find a special teams expert making 10 million a year.

    ———-

    8 mil, plus whatever escalators he needs to fulfill. Top 5 TEs = Hunter Henry at 10.6 mil a year…Hooper 10.5, Kelce 9.4, Rudolph 9,Ertz 8.5…all have less TDs than the Mormon Missle, and with many more snaps. Jimmy Graham is getting paid 8 mil.

    I do enjoy that this bothers you, though! Luckily, we don’t need your buy-in. Don’t worry too much about us…we’re gonna be okay. You really should be worrying about that trash franchise of yours…or maybe keep busy and start practicing your battery throwing…xmas is right around the corner.

  32. That’s what you do when you’re caught breaking the rules, just point a finger and say “but everybody else did it too.”
    Good luck with that if you ever have to go to court.

  33. It’s not dirty, or a secret. And no one cares, not even the league. The memo is pure CYA so if the press ever gets hold of story, you know like this one, they have plausible deniability against claims that teams don’t know the rules.

    But again the main point would be that no one cares about this but you.

  34. twinfan24 says:
    May 2, 2020 at 2:27 pm
    If this is that large of a concern, add a round or two to the draft

    The draft used to be many more rounds (I think 15, may be more). The draft is as short as it because the players wanted less rounds and negotiated it into the CBA. Because, crazy as this may sound, players actually like being able to decide for themselves where they play.

    So the league can’t just “add a round or two”. It would have to be negotiated, and the NFLPA would fight it.

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