In the past, the NFL combine in Indianapolis virtually has been an open invitation for tampering, an opportunity for league general managers and agents to not-so-surreptitiously (and unofficially) discuss mutual interests.
With the city so compact, and all of the major hotels and restaurants within walking distance of one another, it was convenient for teams and agents to get together in advance of the start of the free-agent signing period. The groundwork for numerous free-agent deals was hammered out over filet mignons at St. Elmo Steak House or over late-night beers at Ike and Jonesy's. If the league police cared, they certainly looked the other way.
But with the unrestricted free-agent pool being so diminished this spring -- more than 200 players who otherwise would have qualified for unrestricted free agency in past years will be only restricted free agents in 2010, because of the rules that govern an uncapped year -- will there be as much tampering? The consensus: Probably not, although some degree of illegal contact is certain to occur.
The combine runs from Feb. 24 until March 2. The free-agent signing period doesn't commence until March 5, the same day on which the league moratorium on trades expires. Teams technically are forbidden until then from entering into detailed discussions involving players under contract to other clubs.
"But that doesn't mean some tampering won't go on," said a player agent who represents a veteran hoping to change addresses this spring. "You've got all these team officials and the agents, and you've got them entrenched in the same city for a week, it's almost like it can't be helped. It could start off as something as innocuous as 'Hey, how's the weather?' But it's going to eventually evolve into player-talk. It's natural [that] you'll see it."
The only caveat is that, with the pool of unrestricted free agents so blunted, there might not be as much to discuss.
But noted one NFL general manager: "Teams still have holes to fill."
Some feel that, because of the quirky free-agent situation this year, there could be more discussion of trades at the combine. That might or might not be the case. But there is no doubt, given the current labor situation, that the draft takes on even more importance.
And there's no doubt, either, of this fact of NFL life: The eavesdropping flies on the walls of some of Indianapolis' finest eateries will have some tampering they can buzz about next week.