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Tommy Stevens tug-of-war exposes NFL’s dirty little draft secret

When Saints coach Sean Payton found out the Panthers were going to sign Tommy Stevens after the draft, New Orleans jumped back into the seventh round and took the Mississippi State QB.

On April 21, the NFL reminded all coaches, General Managers, and player personnel directors of the bright-line rules regarding communications with prospects before and during the draft. On April 25, those rules once again were blatantly violated, probably by every single team.

The evidence of that fact comes from the nonchalance with with Saints coach Sean Payton shared the details of the in-draft bidding war for Mississippi State quarterback Tommy Stevens. In comments to Jeff Duncan of, Payton acknowledged that he eventually traded back into round seven to disrupt an agreement that the Panthers had reached with Stevens and his agent on a contract to be signed after the draft.

The rules in this regard are clear, and they were reiterated in the April 21 memo from the league’s player personnel department. Once the draft begins, teams that aren’t on the clock can speak to representatives of players who were not yet drafted, but those conversations must focus only on non-financial matters.

The memo (a copy of which PFT has obtained) contains this message, which is the only passage in the three-page document that appears in bold print, with both underlining and yellow highlighting: “Although a club may inform a player or his agent that the club would be interested in the player’s services if the player is not drafted, no oral or written agreement can be made regarding a player’s future employment.”

Payton’s account of the events that led to the Saints eventually trading back into round seven and drafting Stevens shows that both the Saints and Panthers violated the rules by discussing financial matters and making financial offers to Stevens while the draft was still unfolding. The Panthers committed the more egregious violation by entering into an agreement with Stevens while the draft was still happening.

“[The Panthers] felt like they had him signed, sealed and delivered,” Saints assistant G.M. Jeff Ireland said Monday, while appearing on the team’s official website’s podcast (via Duncan). “[The] agent wasn’t really talking to us, so we just decided we’d just go take him from them. . . . There’s a little bit of competitive juices flying between me and Sean about, ‘We want this player. We’re not going to let anybody take him from us.’”

The league office declined comment on the matter, but one league source predicted that the Saints and Panthers will be sanctioned for this violation.

If that happens, it will become the latest example of inconsistent application of the rules by the league. This time, however, the NFL emphasized the rule, possibly due to the fact that the stay-at-home nature of the draft would make the land rush for undrafted free agents even more challenging than usual. Even if all teams violated this rule in the past, the league wanted everyone to respect the rule during the 2020 draft.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that every team ignored the rule during this draft, too. The problem for the Saints and the Panthers, however, is that the Stevens example is the only one that has come to light. And if the Saints and Panthers do indeed get in trouble over this, here’s hoping that the league is willing to fully and fairly investigate the other 30 teams. Chances are that most if not all of them did the same thing.