The NFL Combine officially starts today but unofficially it started yesterday when team reps and GM’s ascended on the Super Bowl host city of Indianapolis. In years past, the Combine was more than just a playground for intense showmanship from college prospects hoping to increase their draft stock. It was a behind the scenes, “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more ” free agent tampering period.
Agents would walk by GM’s at a restaurant and drop a note on the floor or like a couple of sly gambling cheaters signal each other from table to table. This year, it appears that the CIA approach to stealth is out the window. Already it is being reported that members of the K.C. Chiefs have talked to the agent for QB Peyton Manning, a couple of impending free agents have publicly stated that teams have called to inquire about them.
The stomping ground for college athletes takes center ring in this circus but the real work is being done in the halls of the stadium, in the bathrooms, and in hotel rooms across the area. How else can a player that plays in California suddenly become the first player signed to a contract at 12:01 AM for a team that plays on the east coast? Those deals are already done long before free agency begins and they start at the NFL Combine.
This year, it will not be any different. At least five teams will be talking with Manning’s agent in some way shape or form. They will be talking with the rep for Mario Manningham and Mario Williams as well. But what exactly is discussed? Obviously offers can’t really be made and truth be told nothing would keep the agent from taking that offer and spending the next three week trying to work on a better deal. Teams won’t show their financial hand this early.
Instead, agents will give team GM’s a starting figure and GM’s will let the agents know to what degree they are interested. For example, a former NFL team executive once told me that he and a player agent exchanged simple information that really had more to do with mutual interest than money. He said that the approach from the agent was, “my client is very interested in playing for your team”. The reply was, “He is on the top of our list of players we want to add”. ”My player is looking at a number somewhere in this area…fill in the blank”. ”We have a lot of work to do, keep in touch”.
Those type of exchanges will continue and it’s not out of the question that handshake deals will be made without financial terms being finalized until the days leading up to the start of the actual free agent signing period. This years start will not keep anyone awake until the wee hours of the morning. It begins on March 13th and 4:00 PM eastern time.
The NFL doesn’t think highly of tampering but they also are aware as everyone else is that it’s being done and truth be told there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. Proof is nothing more than words floating in the air and that is a hard sell. On the other side of the coin, you can expect a lot of conversations about trades. Something that the teams can do, just not officially make yet until the new season begins. Foundations may be laid for both player trades and draft pick trades.
The one benefit to all this is that it kicks off the season of rumors. It’s the jump start to free agency and reminds us all that the NFL truly is a year long sport. And of course there is the college players running 40 yard dashes, taking “Wunderlick” tests, being poked, prodded, measured, and timed. You know, the whole reason that any team goes to the NFL Combine. “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more.”