Wink, wink: Handshake deals in free agency

Reports suggest the next NFL labor agreement will begin with a 72-hour window for teams to re-sign their own free agents.

PalmerPalmerPlayers could not change teams during this period, but I expect teams to conduct business the way they've always conducted business -- ahead of schedule, despite the rules. Barring unforeseen new rules with stiffer penalties for tampering, they'll still reach out to agents for players from other teams in an effort to keep up with their rivals.

The thought came to mind Monday upon reading through the NFC West mailbag. Paul from Butte, Mont., noticed that Ken Whisenhunt and Carson Palmer were playing in the same golf tournament over the weekend. Whisenhunt's Cardinals could use a quarterback. Palmer is a quarterback looking for a new team. When opportunity and motive combine ...

In this case, I doubt players and coaches would use a forum as public as a nationally televised golf tournament to conduct business outside NFL rules. However, it's no secret teams have lined up handshake deals before the official start to free agency, usually beginning at the scouting combine in February.

"We all do it,'' one team executive told ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas for a 2008 story. "Up until a few years ago, there were still a few teams that wouldn't do it. But they were the last bastion and they finally gave in because they realized they were losing out on players at the start of free agency because they weren't doing it.''

Teams and agents have little incentive to report one another because all parties want to continue benefiting from business as usual.

An agent I spoke with Monday said he expects business as usual from teams unwilling or unable to restrain themselves. He said teams have been operating that way for years, and in his experience, the teams were the ones initiating the contact.

Teams face additional pressures to land targeted free agents this offseason. The lockout has wiped out minicamps and left teams less prepared. Teams with new coaching staffs and quarterback issues are worse off. The free-agent signing pool figures to be bigger than usual this year if, as expected, the new labor deal requires free agents to have only four accrued seasons to become unrestricted, down from six seasons a year ago.

It all adds up to a more chaotic, pressure-packed signing period if and when free agency finally does open.