NFL Combine week is here, and despite all the hype about more than 300 draft-eligible prospects participating in boring on-field drills, the most important activities are taking place away from the cameras and spotlight.
I’m talking about lots of conversations — legal and illegal under NFL rules — between general managers with their contract/salary cap guys often in tow; conversations with agents for soon-to-be free agents and for players already signed but targeted for pay cuts or release. There also are trade talks among teams looking to move/acquire players or improve draft spots.
While the most important aspects of the Combine for players are physicals and interviews, the priorities for GMs are the agent chats in hotel rooms, bars, restaurants, coffee shops and skyways of Indianapolis — with greater privacy needed for the illegal discussions on other teams’ players who will soon hit the free-agency market.
Such negotiations on outside free agents are not supposed to take place until the legal tampering period, which is two days before the start of the new league year (March 18). It is the NFL’s most absurd rule, as it is constantly broken by every team beginning long before the Combine. Things only escalate in Indy.
A couple years ago, for example, then-soon-to-be-free-agent Kirk Cousins’ agent likely had been fielding offers since the previous season ended, and probably before that. Things only intensified once the trade of Alex Smith from Kansas City to Washington was announced several weeks prior to the Combine.
It was a great time to be Mike McCartney, who as Cousins’ agent was overjoyed when the 49ers signed quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and his then-seven career starts to a record $27.5 million-per-year deal. That jumped the asking price for Cousins, who eventually signed with the Vikings on a three-year, $84 million, fully-guaranteed contract.
High-powered negotiations like this will take place in Indy this week for the next contracts of the top pending free agents.
These Combine-week/weekend negotiations rarely occurred in my early management years before free agency hit the NFL with the 1993 collective bargaining agreement. In those years, players never hit the open market unless their teams released them, and the intense negotiating period was before the start of training camp. The signing timetable changed with free agency coming in March, and the salary cap created the incentive for agents to get deals done before the money dried up.
Now there are hundreds of agents in Indy, as the Combine in effect has become an NFL convention that’s a must-attend event for all agents, no matter if they represent Pro Bowl players or practice squad guys. The NFLPA holds agent seminars at the Combine since they know so many agents attend.
In my later years as a GM and team president, I would set up meetings in advance of my Indy arrival on the Thursday of Combine week. I had a packed calendar of negotiation sessions with agents along with meetings with our coaches, player personnel execs and scouts (often between Combine drills).
I’d try to see as much of the player workout sessions as I could, but I knew I would see their Combine performance on video and later watch players at their Pro Days and during pre-draft visits to our facility. I was more interested in how they played in college than whether they were workout warriors at the Combine. In the evenings, I was off to the player hotel to attend as many of the important player interview sessions as possible in order to get a feel for their personalities.
I remember moving quickly through my hotel and the skyways between the hotel and the convention center leading to the stadium. I would try to avoid getting cornered by agents with whom I was not planning to meet, which could be difficult since they knew the routes of the team execs.
I also would have to give daily updates to the media that basically amounted to saying as little as possible about the negotiations with my current players; and nothing about talks with upcoming outside free agents due to tampering rules.
Of course I played it coy on potential draft strategy and trades in the mix. It was and still is a juggling act for GMs.
So as you watch the Underwear Olympics on NFL Network this week — although hopefully you have something better to do — just know the real action is taking place behind the scenes.
There, GMs and agents are talking big bucks.
Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.
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