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Potential tampering by Eagles, Falcons is very different

The NFL is exploring whether the Eagles and Falcons engaged in tampering in the days preceding the official start of free agency. The two situations are vastly different, on the surface. And possibly beneath it.

The Eagles landed on the tampering radar screen because Penn State coach James Franklin spoke of the Eagles' recruiting pitch to former Giants running back Saquon Barkley by saying that Barkley spoke directly to Eagles G.M. Howie Roseman during the 52-hour negotiating period. The Eagles issued a general denial of any suggestion that they speak to players represented by agents during the pre-free agency window for discussing deals with players still under contract with other teams. More importantly, Barkley said during his introductory press conference that he did not hear directly from Roseman during the negotiating window.

Of course, Barkley (and any other player or executive who was aware of the issue in advance) would be inclined to deny it, even if it happened. The question becomes whether the NFL will check phone records to see whether Roseman called Barkley directly, or whether he received a call from Barkley. Most teams, however, would be smart enough to not leave such clear digital footprints.

Except for the Falcons, apparently. The Falcons seem to have engaged in blatant tampering with former Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Recklessly. With potentially little effort made to cover their tracks.

The best evidence comes from Cousins himself, who admitted during his introductory press conference — without prompting — that he spoke to the team's head athletic trainer on Tuesday. Cousins also spontaneously admitted that he spoke with Falcons director of player personnel Ryan Pace. While no specific time was applied to that conversation, the Cousins press conference happened just a few hours after the start of the new league year, which also marks the point at which conversations between the Falcons and Cousins could commence.

At one point, Cousins started to say he actually met with the head athletic trainer, before changing "meeting" to "calling." If a meeting happened, it would be an even more egregious violation. (One executive with a team not attached to the situation suggested that, if Cousins actually met with the Falcons' head athletic trainer before 4:00 p.m. ET on March 13, the Falcons should lose a first-round draft pick.)

The situation has another wrinkle. The Falcons might have tampered so extensively with Cousins that Cousins became the conduit for tampering with former Bears receiver Darnell Mooney. Cousins said at his introductory press conference that, at one point during the team's negotiations with Mooney, Cousins offered to call Mooney directly to make the pitch. This shows that the Falcons had jumped over the line with Cousins so far that Cousins was operating as an extension of the team. It also shows that Cousins was recruiting Mooney at the behest of or with the permission of the team, which is a separate violation.

The fact that Cousins didn't know to not volunteer such information shows that the Falcons weren't nearly careful enough about not generating evidence of tampering. It suggests that, if/when the league investigates, it will find plenty of digital evidence (emails and texts) showing that direct contact was made with Cousins during the negotiating window. The league also might find communications to and from the team and tight end Kyle Pitts, who (again, per Cousins) took the lead in recruiting Cousins, weeks before the window for negotiating with his agent opened.

This is as blatant a case of smoking-gun, pre-free-agency tampering as we've ever seen. It goes layers deep, like Inception. It shows no regard for subtlety or discretion. And if the NFL doesn't fairly investigate and address this one, there's no point in even having any rule against tampering.