ST. LOUIS -- For years, the running joke was that tampering season opened in late February at the NFL Scouting Combine. Perhaps realizing what an uphill battle it was to prevent teams and agents from talking before the start of free agency, the NFL has made tampering legal this year.
Well, for three days anyway. The official start of the free agency/trading period isn't until 3 p.m. St. Louis time Tuesday. But under a new league rule, teams can talk to agents of opposing teams' free agents starting at 11 p.m. on Friday night.
Under the new guidelines, teams can talk only to the player's agent, not the player himself. And players can't be brought in for visits over this three-day period -- actually 31/2 days. No contracts can be signed. But negotiating can take place, and the parties can agree to terms on a deal.
A similar system was in place in the summer of 2011 following the lockout and just before the start of camp. But teams were so busy getting back to the business of football, and trying to digest the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, that the "legal tampering" period didn't seem like a big deal.
This time around, teams have had months to prepare for it. It will be a working weekend at Rams Park and around the NFL.
"For 72 hours, however long it is, you can run through scenarios and figure out maybe you're not in the game for this player," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "Now you need to move to the next player. Whereas in the old way of doing it, that's all happening simultaneously.
"I'm sure (the three-day period) helps the players. They can sit down and say, 'OK, I've got these four teams, and these two are meeting the money. Do I want to take a visit?' I think it helps everybody."
Nonetheless, there still is uncertainty involved. Do the Rams, for instance, come right out with their best offer? Or do you only show so many of your cards right away? Suffice it to say, the Rams won't be waiting until Monday morning to start making phone calls to agents expressing interest in Player X or Player Y. Many of the deals, at least for the top tier of free agents, could be all but done by then.
"I think you have to treat it as the start of free agency is Saturday," said Kevin Demoff, Rams executive vice president for football operations. "There'll be some twists and turns along the way. It may have value if you want to change your mind on Sunday and Monday, and allocate more resources in a different place. But ultimately I don't really think it'll change very much."
The new system will give teams a better sense of the market for a particular player. And give teams just a little more time to analyze, as opposed to the gold-rush approach to free agency in prior years. For both the player and team, it's the difference between having a couple of days to think something over, rather than a couple of hours.
"Yeah, I think that does help," Demoff said. "You'll have a better picture. The hardest thing about the first day of free agency for everybody is there's an asymmetry of information. There will be more information, but that could drive the players' price up. It will be fascinating to see how people handle it.
"At the end of the day, every team has a target that they want but they've got to figure out how to get it done. And every player probably has a place they'd prefer to play. ... Like any year in free agency, this is gonna be about what's the best fit for the player. What's the appropriate compensation? And what's the relationship between the club and the agent in how you get things done? That formula never changes."
With the release of offensive tackle Wayne Hunter and Steven Jackson's decision to void the final year of his contract, the Rams enter free agency about $10 million under the salary cap. They could free up additional money by either restructuring Quintin Mikell's contract or releasing him. But for now, they don't have to do anything with Mikell.
Snead said the Rams remain most interested in the younger, "second-contract" players. Players who are hitting free agency for the first time as their original draft contracts expire.
"I think when you invest large money, you would like to say, he we're gonna invest in that player," Snead said. "We'd like to get three to five years out of a free agent, depending on length of contract."
Interestingly, Snead said the team isn't averse to adding an older veteran or two this year, in what represents a slight change in philosophy.
"I think we're a team that could easily fit in a veteran," Snead said. "Because we moved the needle. We went from 2-14 to 7-8-1. We'd like to hurdle that (7-8-1). A good veteran could come in and do that for us."
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