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Here's why NFL is investigating potential tampering by Eagles, Falcons for pursuit of Saquon Barkley, Kirk Cousins

Barkley says former Penn State head coach James Franklin 'kind of misinterpreted' a conversation

A pair of high-profile tampering questions left the NFL little choice but to respond Thursday.

Whether the Philadelphia Eagles or Atlanta Falcons face consequences, however, remain to be seen.

The NFL is investigating the Eagles and Falcons for tampering in their free-agency pursuits of running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Kirk Cousins, a source with knowledge of the investigation confirmed to Yahoo Sports on Thursday afternoon.

“Standard for the league to look into such matters,” the source said.

It would be less standard for the league to impose sanctions, even if levying fines and docking draft picks is within league purview if allegations are confirmed.

The Eagles investigation stems from comments made by James Franklin, the head football coach at Barkley's alma mater Penn State. Franklin indicated Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and Barkley spoke on the phone before Barkley’s New York Giants contract officially expired Wednesday.

NFL policy allows for a player’s agent to communicate directly with teams in the 52 hours before free agency officially opens. Agents and teams have also long communicated before that window, including at the NFL scouting combine that lasted into early March.

Proximity to Penn State was “one of the first things that Howie said to him on the phone as part of his sales pitch, not only the Philadelphia Eagles and that but also the connection of Penn State and the fan bases," Franklin said.

Barkley responded to the confusion in a Thursday introductory media conference with Eagles reporters.

“Coach Franklin, I think he kind of misinterpreted it,” Barkley said, with a smile. “The truth was the sell pitch of Penn State, how many Penn State fans are Philadelphia Eagles fans. But that was through my agent and my agent told me that. It happens.”

Philadelphia Eagle's Saquon Barkley talks to the media during a press conference after signing with the NFL football team, Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Saquon Barkley explained how he became a Philadelphia Eagle in his introductory news conference on Thursday. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Cousins had less opportunity to respond as his media conference was what spurred, rather than reacted to, potential tampering evidence.

In a Wednesday evening podium session, Cousins seemed to indicate that he spoke with the Falcons’ head athletic trainer, a relevant selling point for the 35-year-old who recently underwent the first surgery of his life. Cousins tore his Achilles in October and has since rehabilitated sufficiently to drop back and take throws. But he cannot yet fluidly move outside of the pocket, he said Wednesday, and his medical examination was cleared excluding rather than including his Achilles recovery.

As a member of the Falcons, Cousins can rehabilitate at the team’s facility. But he was not, per league policy, allowed to communicate with director of sports medicine Jake Pfeil or any team staffer beyond the players who seemed intent on recruiting him.

“There’s great people here, and it’s not just the football team," Cousins said Wednesday. "I mean, I’m looking at the support staff. Meeting, calling, yesterday, calling our head athletic trainer, talking to our head of P.R. I’m thinking, we got good people here. And that’s exciting to be a part of.”

Cousins' agent, Mike McCartney, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Thursday. Cousins did mention how much he leaned on McCartney to negotiate his megadeal with Atlanta, Cousins also acknowledging the restrictions he faced contacting the Falcons.

Instead, to learn more about Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot, Cousins contacted longtime Saints quarterback Drew Brees who overlapped with Fontenot for more than a decade in New Orleans.

"I said, 'Drew, I can't talk to teams, but I can talk to you,'" Cousins said.

What precedent is there for NFL enforcing anti-tampering policy?

How likely is the NFL to impose consequences on the Eagles, Falcons or both? NFL sources were split regarding the vigor with which an investigation would move forward.

One executive felt the league would “probably look but not punish” given the Pandora’s Box that comes with chasing down the widely prevalent league tampering. Another executive felt league investigators could find evidence if they wanted to but doubted whether that would be a priority.

The most recent case of a team losing draft picks came when none other than the Eagles pursued such action, against the Arizona Cardinals entering last year’s draft. The Cardinals sent the Eagles their 2024 fifth-round pick as well as swapped the 2023 66th overall pick for the Eagles’ 94th following what was deemed improper communication with Jonathan Gannon when Gannon was Eagles defensive coordinator.

The Cardinals ultimately hired Gannon as head coach ahead of the 2023 season.

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (19) pleads for a penalty to side judge Walt Coleman IV in the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 18, 2015 at TCF Stadium in Minneapolis. The Vikings won, 16-10. (David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The Kansas City Chiefs lost a 2016 third-round pick and 2017 sixth-round pick when they were found to have contacted receiver Jeremy Maclin directly during the legal tampering period. Maclin was still under contract with Philadelphia at the time. The NFL levied three fines atop the picks: $250,000 to the team; $75,000 to head coach Andy Reid, who was previously Eagles head coach; and $25,000 to then-Chiefs general manager John Dorsey.

In both cases, the Eagles’ interest in pursuing the case seems to have been a factor.

The Falcons, on the other hand, were docked a 2016 fifth-round pick after they were found to be pumping fake crowd noise into their stadium, which is against league rules.

Neither of these alleged violations seems to rise to that of the highest-profile tampering punishment which dropped in a 2022 decision after the Miami Dolphins and team owner Stephen Ross were found to have committed yearslong violations in recruiting then-New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and then-New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ruled that the tampering violations were of “unprecedented scope and severity” before docking the Dolphins first- and third-round draft picks, fining Ross $1.5 million and imposing a suspension on him.

But the league’s ruling of the Chiefs’ violation could say more about what the NFL does and doesn’t pursue.

Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said in a release then that in "assessing discipline, the goal is to balance the seriousness of the violation of an important and longstanding competitive rule (the Anti-Tampering Policy), with appropriate recognition of the club's history (no prior offenses), and the cooperation shown by both the club and individual employees,” per an ESPN article from the time. “The discipline should be sufficient both to deter future violations and encourage cooperation in future investigations.”