Cleveland Browns legal tampering with free agents will soon begin
With the NFL league year set to begin on Wednesday, the Cleveland Browns will have the opportunity to start free agency on Monday.
The NFL “legal tampering” period is scheduled for 12 p.m. EST on March 16, during which time the Cleveland Browns can talk to the agents of players scheduled to become free agents. This is a crucial time for agents to gauge whether there is interest in their clients from other teams, and they are also allowed to discuss financial terms on a potential deal. The official free agent signings will start at 4 p.m. on Wednesday March 18.
The Browns are not going to spend money like drunken sailors like they did last year, but they will likely be in the market for a few key players, including at least one offensive tackle. That has to be a high priority in order to protect the investment in quarterback Baker Mayfield. The Browns need to only look at the situation in Washington, in which quarterback Alex Smith wound up with a career threatening broken leg.
Up to this point the Browns and other NFL teams have not been permitted to talk dollars with the agents of impending free agents, because of its strong anti-tampering policy. NFL teams are absolutely not allowed to discuss impending free agency with the player or his agent. The intention is to afford the player’s current team every opportunity to reach an agreement on a new contract. During the two-day legal tampering period, other teams are still not allowed to contact the player directly, but they are allowed to talk to the agent of the player.
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Even during the legal tampering period, it is still possible to screw it up. For example, in 2016 the Kansas City Chiefs were guilty of contacting Jeremy Maclin directly, rather than limiting discussions to his agent. That led to $200K in fines for the team, as well as $25K for general manager John Dorsey and $75K for head coach Andy Reid. Though the fines were bad enough, Kansas City forfeited a 2016 third round draft pick and a 2017 sixth round pick.
This year because of the Coronavirus, more of the negotiating will be done by phone and by internet. That is probably a time saver anyway. Nothing bad will happen if face-to-face meetings are reduced.
There are some rumors that the beginning of the NFL year will be delayed. That does not make a lot of sense however. The teams and agents will want more time, not less, to get deals done, so the earlier the better, especially since most of it can be done online or over the phone. It is not clear to this fan what would be gained by delaying the start of the free agent signing period. However, it might make sense to delay a few league meetings, and especially the draft, which entails a huge crowd from all over the country.
Last year, although Sheldon Richardson was probably worth signing, the Browns forfeited the opportunity to receive late round compensatory draft picks because they signed mid-level players, such as guard Eric Kush, linebacker Adarius Taylor, tackle Kendall Lamm and tight end Demetrius Harris.
The rule is that if the team loses more free agents than it gains, the league awards compensatory draft picks in the mid to late rounds. Had the Browns not signed any of these five free agents, they would have two additional picks in the 2020 draft because of the departure of Tyrod Taylor and Breshad Perriman. If they had signed only Richardson, they would still have had one additional pick in the sixth round.
This year the Browns have several major players reaching free agency, including Joe Schobert, Damarious Randall, Rashard Higgins, Eric Murray, and Juston Burris (Christian Kirksey and T.J. Carrie do not count because the Browns cut them). That makes five players who could potentially generate compensatory picks, but the team limit is four. There is also a league limit on the number of picks that can be created. It is more realistic to try for three compensatory picks, which is possible if the Browns sign three or fewer contracts with 2020 free agents.