INDIANAPOLIS – Tampering in the NFL was as omnipresent as ever at the scouting combine. There was just one important difference: When it came to naming prices, there was far more hedging than usual.
With free agency set to begin March 13 rather than the years when it started closer to March 1, many teams were much more reluctant to show their hands this year. As one agent put it: "Everybody is hinting at big numbers, but they're just not saying them straight out. It used to be you could draw up the parameters of a deal, like when the Redskins did the [Albert] Haynesworth deal [in 2009]. This year, it's a lot more cloak-and-dagger."
Teams are afraid that if they overplay their hand now, it could lead to a flurry of clubs slapping franchise tags on players prior to the 4 p.m. ET March 5 deadline. For instance, there is little or no information on possible numbers for the likes of wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks or cornerback Brandon Carr even though they are considered among the top 10 free agents who could be available.
That's because none of them could be available.
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In Jackson's case, the San Diego Chargers haven't given agents Neil Schwartz and Jonathan Feinsod any sense of what they will do, continuing a battle of wills that started before the 2010 season. There have been leaks within the building that Jackson will be set free. But general manager A.J. Smith was quoted last week as saying the team was still considering the franchise tag, even though it would require the Chargers to pay $13.7 million for one year.
In addition, when the Chargers met with Schwartz and Feinsod last week, John Spanos sat in with Ed McGuire, the team's lead negotiator. Smith did not attend the meeting.
Technically, Spanos is the Chargers' director of college scouting. In reality, he's the son of owner Dean Spanos and a guy who has influence on what might happen with Jackson. While the meeting oscillated between cordial and terse, there was nothing close to a meeting of the minds.
And that has other teams thinking Jackson won't make it to free agency.
"I know there are seven or eight teams lined up for Jackson, but I think [Smith] is going to tag him," said an AFC team executive whose team is interested in Jackson. "That would be a total A.J. move, plus I think he's going to have a hard time with the fan base if they let [Jackson] go.
"Think about that team: They failed to make the playoffs the past two years even though they should have run away with the division. The fans have no faith in A.J. or [coach] Norv [Turner]. [Dean] Spanos is taking heat, [quarterback] Philip Rivers is taking heat and now they're going to let their best receiver go? I don't see it.
"I told those guys [Schwartz and Feinsod] that we'll be calling them if he gets free, but I'm not wasting my time with the whole presentation until I know I have a chance."
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That theme has been repeated with different players. Even as agents scurried around Indianapolis from one meeting to another with different teams, little if anything seemed to be set in stone.
In the past, plans were mapped out so well that the coming weekend (when free agency would have started in the past) was more of a parade. Two years ago, Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz was so confident in his team's ability to sign defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch that Schwartz flew to Vanden Bosch's home to meet him as the clock hit midnight. Likewise, in 2008, San Francisco was long rumored to be working on a deal with defensive end Justin Smith before the start of free agency. Shortly after midnight, there were rumors that the deal was already signed. Smith did end up taking a tour of San Francisco, but signed a six-year, $45 million contract at the end of the first day.
All of which leads to the annual cry for a change in the rules. Numerous executives and agents have repeatedly called for a period before the start of free agency in which teams could talk to players freely without the fear of tampering.
"Just even the playing field," one agent said. "You have certain teams that will never tamper, like Green Bay. They follow the rules all the time because [general manager] Ted [Thompson] is so by the book. If he could have some time to talk, he could probably get something for [free agent quarterback] Matt Flynn [in a trade]."
Instead, the Packers are expected to let Flynn go as a free agent, likely to some team that will have a deal in place (or at least the idea of a deal in place) long before the start of free agency.
It just hasn't happened yet.
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