Kevin O'Connell hints at Kirk Cousins tampering, but do NFL rules suggest otherwise?

Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell believes that other teams violated tampering rules with quarterback Kirk Cousins during the NFL Scouting Combine.

Chicago Bears v Minnesota Vikings
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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is set to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent. The 35-year-old veteran will be the most coveted quarterback available, and the Atlanta Falcons have already been suggested as a potential landing spot.

General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O'Connell have made it clear that they want Cousins to return to Minnesota, but the probability continues to lessen with each passing day.

The 2024 NFL free agency period begins on Wednesday, March 13, but teams are allowed to begin negotiating with unrestricted free agents on Monday, March 11, when the league's "negotiating period" begins. Prior to that date, the Vikings have exclusive negotiating rights with Cousins. Or, at least, that's how it's supposed to operate in accordance with the NFL's by-laws.

Vikings HC Kevin O'Connell says teams violated rules with Kirk Cousins

During an on-air interview with NFL Network's Rich Eisen and Daniel Jeremiah, Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell suggested that the NFL Scouting Combine gave other teams an opportunity to begin planting seeds for a lucrative contract with Cousins.

"Yeah, I think the Combine just kinda gave everybody else an opportunity — even whether they're supposed to be or not — to maybe have some conversations," O'Connell said.

Any team that negotiating with Cousins' agents at the Combine would be in violation of the rules of the negotiating period, an offense the NFL considers to be conduct detrimental to the league and a violation of the league's anti-tampering policy.

What is the NFL's legal tampering period?

The two-day negotiating period, commonly referred to as the "legal tampering" period, is a two-day negotiating window for prospective unrestricted free agents. During the legal tampering period, all teams have the right to negotiate “all aspects of an NFL player contract” with the certified agent of an impending free agent. While the two parties can discuss terms for a deal, nothing can be agreed to or announced before the start of free agency.

Impending unrestricted free agents are only allowed to negotiate contracts with their current teams prior to the legal negotiating period, which begins two days before the start of free agency. For teams that are negotiating a contract with a coveted player, as the Vikings are with Cousins, not having competing offers from other teams can be a significant factor in getting a deal done. Once a player hits the open market and offers begin to flood in, a bidding war can drive up the price significantly.

Is tampering a big deal?

Teams tampering with Kirk Cousins is no bigger of a deal than SpyGate or DeflateGate were. It's no secret that every team violates tampering rules every year, and the league office governs with a lackadaisical attitude. Essentially, skirting the rules is common practice, and the league turns a blind eye toward competitive cheating as long as it can.

With so many of the league's decision-makers gathered at one location, the NFL Scouting Combine serves as a lawless convention where teams can operate outside of the NFL's guidelines. Personnel directors meet with other executives or agents to begin devising trades and negotiating backroom deals in restaurants, conference rooms and dark bars across Indianapolis. Without any phone calls to trace, it's easy for agents and teams to deny ever speaking at all, or to claim they met about another client the agent has on their team.

While teams are punished for tampering from time to time, those instances all occurred outside of the Combine. In 2022, the Miami Dolphins were penalized for tampering with former New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton. In 2008, Minnesota was penalized for tampering with Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre.

The Cousins era in Minnesota has likely reached its end, regardless of tampering. Minnesota was reportedly exploring a trade for the No. 3 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft at the Combine. Such a move would certainly be for a quarterback. While the Vikings don't have a succession plan in place, they hold the No. 11 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, which features a particularly strong class of quarterbacks. In addition to the No. 11 overall pick, the Vikings also hold the No. 42 overall pick in the second round,

Also, Cousins have mastered the art of negotiation — only three active players and ten players in the history of the league are above Cousins on the all-time career earnings list. He's unlikely to take a discount for Minnesota, especially when the team passed on the opportunity to sign him to a long-term extension last offseason. Instead, the Vikings opted for a renegotiated deal that voids on the first day of free agency. If the Vikings don't re-sign Cousins by Wednesday, they will be left with a $28.5 million dead money charge on their salary cap. With a deal still not in place, it seems more and more likely that Cousins will be playing for a different team in 2024.

"I know Kirk, where he's at in this whole process," O'Connell said. "He's earned the right to be a free agent. He's played really good football."

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