What you need to know about legal free-agent tampering

The next three days will be a very interesting time in the NFL. As of midnight Eastern Time on March 9, NFL teams were allowed to enter into discussions about (but not directly with) potential free agents. However, no potential free agents still tied to teams until the end of the league year can be signed to new teams until 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, March 12. Basically, you can talk up the pretty girl at the dance all you want right now (or her dad, in this metaphorical instance), but you can't tango until Tuesday.

The NFL, as is its wont, has all kinds of rules regarding this strange period of time:

Clubs are permitted to contact, and enter into negotiations with, the certified agents of players who will become Unrestricted Free Agents upon the expiration of their 2012 Player Contracts at 4:00 p.m. ET on March 12. However, a contract cannot be executed with a new club until 4:00 p.m. ET on March 12.

During this negotiation period, a prospective Unrestricted Free Agent cannot visit a club (other than the player’s current club) at its permanent facility or at any other location, and no direct contact is permitted between the player and any employee or representative of a club (other than the player’s current club). If a player is self-represented, clubs are prohibited from discussions with the player during the negotiating period.

Clubs (other than the player’s current club) may not discuss or make any travel arrangements with prospective Unrestricted Free Agent players, their certified agents, or anyone else associated with the player until the expiration of those players’ 2012 Player Contracts at 4:00 p.m. ET on March 12..

The three-day negotiating period applies only to potential Unrestricted Free Agents; it does not apply to players who are potential Exclusive Rights Players or Restricted Free Agents, or to players who have been designated as Franchise Players or Transition Players.

So ... yeah. It's "hands off," but with a nudge and a wink. The league put this time period in place to eliminate illegal tampering with soon-to-be free agents -- not that it makes much of a difference. Teams, agents, and players might just happen to bump into each other at the Super Bowl, at the Pro Bowl, at the Senior Bowl, at the scouting combine, in the supermarket ... you just never know what might happen. And as St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead recently told Jim Corbett of USA Today, the official terms of the legal tampering period create a weird sort of personnel purgatory.

"I like it. And I don't like it,'' Snead said on Friday. "What I don't like about it is that it's maybe a day too long. You're used to kicking off, and it's 'Let's go cover kicks.' This is like the national anthem is going to be two songs too long. ... The nice part about it is that it slows everything down so everybody can make rational decisions.''

Corbett uncovered another weird angle to this whole thing -- players who choose to represent themselves, such as Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, are prohibited from participating in this process.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the NFL sent a memo to all 32 teams on Friday, making sure they understood the parameters.

"Clubs are advised that prior to the beginning of the new League Year it is impermissible for a club to enter into an agreement of any kind, express or implied, oral or written, or promises, undertakings, representations, commitments, inducements, assurances of intent or understandings of any kind concerning the terms or conditions of employment offered to, or to be offered to, any prospective Unrestricted Free Agent for inclusion in a Player Contract after the start of the new League Year. Any announcement of an agreement or an agreement in principle by a club or another party, including, but not limited to, a certified agent, player, or media organization may subject the club to a tampering investigation.

Don't ask, don't tell? That's sure what it sounds like.

"It is interesting we can make the call at midnight tonight,'' Snead concluded on Friday. "But your call tonight may be, 'Look, hey, we're interested. But let's talk tomorrow. ... And then again on Sunday, and then maybe again on Monday. And throughout the day on Tuesday. Tonight's call is probably going to be brief.''