As the offseason goes, the busiest week is upon us.
The new league year begins at 4:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 16. That’s when trades officially can happen. It’s when every team needs to be in compliance with the 2022 salary cap of $208.2 million, based on the 51 highest-paid players on the roster. It’s when players whose contracts with their current teams have expired may sign new contracts with new teams.
It all gets started, officially, at 12:00 p.m. ET on Monday, when negotiations may commence between players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents (i.e., four or more years of experience with an expiring contract) and new teams. New teams can’t talk directly to the player (it happens sometimes, and the league rarely does anything about it — except when it does), unless those players represent themselves.
The discussions already have begun, with the Scouting Combine being the hotbed for it, since all teams and most agents are in town at the same time. Agents and teams have a general idea as to who the targets will be, even if teams have become a bit more discreet when it comes to actively exchanging numbers before the window opens. It’s tampering, but there’s nothing the league can do about it, because it’s so widespread.
The league simply doesn’t have the investigation and enforcement apparatus to do it properly. So it doesn’t do it at all, unless it’s blatant. And it needs to be very blatant, apparently, to spark action at this point. Two years ago, for example, Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians spoke openly at the Combine about interest in Tom Brady, who at the time technically remained under contract with the Patriots. After Brady signed with Tampa, the Bucs tried to create an alternative narrative in which there was no tampering, even though there was. Nothing came of it.
Last year, the Packers made some noise regarding a belief that the 49ers and Broncos tampered with Aaron Rodgers. Nothing came of it.
No team has been publicly whacked for tampering since 2016, when the league slammed the Chiefs for speaking directly to receiver Jeremy Maclin in 2015 during the negotiating window. It was unfair because the Chiefs were far from the only team doing it.
Maybe that’s why no one has gotten punished since then. If the rules aren’t going to be enforced fairly, they shouldn’t be enforced at all. Or maybe the rules should change to reflect the widespread behavior in which teams routinely engage.