As of Wednesday, March 9 at 4:00 p.m., NFL free agency officially begins and teams will be free to sign players whose contracts expire at that time, making them free agents. But, before that happens, today, as of 12:00 p.m. EST teams can begin contacting players' agents to discuss their interest and potential deals that may be reached when free agency kicks off.
The time between today and Wednesday is known as the league's legal tampering period; during this time, deals cannot actually be signed or officially agreed upon, but can be discussed. Rumors will be flying in all directions, and as the Bengals have 13 unrestricted free agents left to re-sign or let sign with other teams, during this time, many Bengals players may figure out where they will be playing in 2016.
Last year, the legal tampering period lasted three days, but this year, the league has shortened this period to two days, while adding some new rules. Per Pro Football Talk:
"During the two-day negotiating period, all clubs may negotiate all aspects of an NFL Player Contract with the certified agent of any prospective UFA," explains the March 2 memo to all teams, a copy of which PFT has obtained. "However, a new club may not execute an NFL Player Contract with a prospective UFA until 4:00 p.m., New York time, on March 9, when the player's 2015 contract expires."
The memo then explains that "the only valid, binding and enforceable employment agreement between an NFL player and an NFL club is an NFL Player Contract that has been fully executed by the parties in compliance with all applicable League rules and the CBA," and that any discussions regarding possible employment or terms of employment "are non-binding and are unenforceable by the player or the club."
Per PFT, teams cannot execute an NFL contract, execute an agreement in principle or other similar document, announce that an agreement in principle or other similar agreement has been reached, or reach agreement on any undisclosed terms.
Any teams who break the rules of the legal tampering period will be subject to an investigation, and if this occurs, the league, "would seek all relevant documents from the team under suspicion, including email and phone communications, along with a review of documents regarding travel arrangements for the player," per PFT.
Once the clock hits 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, many of the top free agents will quickly fly off the market, as most of the legwork of their new deals will have already been done during the legal tampering period.
As Adam Jones admitted in a recent interview, teams speak to free agents, or at least their agents, before the legal tampering period begins, but it's as of today that more news (and rumors) will come to light. Keep in mind that over the next few days, reported deals should be taken with the knowledge that anything's possible once free agency actually begins, and sometimes, there's a method to the madness behind a rumor.