Three years ago, the NFL made a change that the league thought would make the free agency period more exciting. With entertainment and spectacle always the goal for the NFL, it added a three-day "legal tampering" period before the beginning of free agency with the hope that it would lead to more action on the first day players were available to sign.
And while the new rule has had some kinks to work out, the NFL was absolutely correct.
On the first day of free agency last year, Ndamukong Suh, Jeremy Maclin and Byron Maxwell were just a few of the big name free agents who immediately found a home thanks to the tampering period.
What is tampering?
In the NFL, it is illegal to contact or speak about acquiring another team's players. While it's clear who will make up the large majority of the free agency class, all of those players are still technically under contract until the new league year begins on Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET.
For years that meant no team could contact an impending free agent until their contract officially expired, and that led to a delay between the beginning of free agency and signings actually occurring. The courtship process and the negotiations that follow can take some time, so the NFL decided to allow teams to reach out to players in the days preceding free agency.
When is the legal tampering period?
It officially begins on Monday at 12 p.m. ET, cutting the period from three days to two for the first time.
What are the restrictions?
The NFL loosened restrictions a bit and now allow "all aspects of an NFL player contract" to be discussed, after previous years of not allowing teams to make any official offer or come to an agreement. In 2016, agreements are still not to be made until the free agency period begins and if that sounds impossible to police ... you're right, it is.
One of the other restrictions is that players cannot visit or make contact with a team other than their own. Agents are the ones who can enter into negotiations with teams on the open market during the legal tampering period. For Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle Russell Okung, who acts as his own agent, that means he'll miss out on the early negotiations, as his case doesn't mean he gets a loophole to talk to teams.
What happens if a team breaks the rules?
The rules are lax enough now, that the only rule that can really be broken is that a contract is agreed upon prematurely. The problem is that its extremely difficult to prove that an agreement was actually reached and that it wasn't just negotiations meeting in the middle and making a contract ready to be quickly signed at the beginning of free agency.
In 2015, there were reports of contract agreements for Suh, Maclin, Maxwell and Pernell McPhee being reached before free agency actually began, and the NFL voiced its disapproval with an email reminding the team of the restrictions. It launched investigations into the premature deals and told teams to hold on to phone records, but ultimately didn't dole out any punishments.
It's doubtful that the NFL flexing its muscles with emails last year scared teams away from pushing the envelope again in 2016. The NFL warned again in a memo that breaking the rules could be considered conduct detrimental to the league and result in punishments like fines and/or lost draft picks. But don't be surprised if you see reports of agreed upon contracts before 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday.