The phone call came and the agent was slightly surprised at the voice on the other end. He recognized almost immediately: it was an NFL general manager.
Startled because this was lockout hell and there'd been little contact until now, the conversation started as so many others have in the past -- how's the wife, the kids, etc., blah, blah -- then it suddenly turned to the agent's client, an undrafted free agent. This is how that portion of the conversation went according to the agent.
GM: Hypothetically speaking, we might be interested in your guy down the road.
GM: We like him, hypothetically.
Agent: He likes you guys. He'd be honored. Hypothetically.
GM: Thanks. Just keep us in mind when other teams call.
Agent: Will do.
They spoke -- hypothetically -- about possible hypothetical salaries and potential hypothetical reporting dates and hypothetical contact with the hypothetical strength and conditioning coach. Then, before hanging up, they talked about the wife, the kids, etc., blah, blah. (The wife and kids are real. Not hypothetical.)
Other agents told me they've had similar conversations with different teams following the end of the draft.
There's just one problem: such talks are strictly forbidden by the league while the lockout ensues.
It's understandable why teams would risk severe punishment from the NFL over illicitly contacting undrafted free agents. These players are in some ways the backbone of football and are cheap to sign. They're critical to the league and undrafted players have a long track record of great achievement.
Last year alone over 20 undrafted free agents made the Pro Bowl. The list of those players throughout history is a distinguished one and includes Tony Romo, Kurt Warner, Antonio Gates, Wes Welker, James Harrison, and Warren Moon, among many others.
Speculation about teams trying to circumvent league rules regarding contact with undrafted free agents has been circulating for days. The chatter actually started during the draft when teams were allowed contact with drafted players. Once the draft ended, and the lockout resumed, contact with all players was supposed to cease.
Agents say, in that seventh round, when contact was still allowed, teams spoke to agents regarding potentially undrafted players. They talked hypothetical salaries and urged agents not to let those players sign with other teams. Arizona kicker Jay Feely, an executive committee member of the former union, speculated on Twitter during the draft that this was occurring. "Teams can talk to players during draft and line up potential agreements," Feely wrote. "Round 7 phones will be very busy."
Agents say Feely was correct and that's exactly what happened. The rules were not technically being violated but their spirit was.
Since then, teams have become much more brazen, agents say. They're aggressively prepping for the eventual end of the lockout and when it concludes, these teams figure, they'll be ahead of other teams in the race to sign undrafted free agents or, at the very least, not losing ground.
Agents say these types of conversations are happening across football. None of the agents wanted their names used or the teams named out of fear of retribution from the NFL.
The reasons why the teams are flirting with crossing the line on the rules -- or, actually, in some ways, leaping over that line -- is a simple one. It's about competitive advantage.
First, teams do this all the time. During normal free agency periods when there is no lockout there is always illicit contact between teams and agents. During the lockout the same thing is happening.
Second, think baseball's steroid race in the 1980s and 1990s. Players knew the other guy was juicing and if he didn't he'd fall behind. Team general managers are facing the same kinds of choices and pressures.
So while not extremely unusual, this type of contact in a lockout environment is nonetheless extraordinarily risky. The league could penalize any team caught breaking the rules.
But some teams feel it's worth the risk since that undrafted player could be the next Gates or Moon.