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Beginning of NFL free agency could face delay, but who are the big prizes?

Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney looks on before a playoff game against the Packers on Jan. 12, 2020.
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney played for the Seahawks last season, but the former No. 1 overall pick figures to hit the open market.
(Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

Down, set ... wait?

A lot of people around the NFL are expecting the league to push back this week’s scheduled start of free agency in light of the coronavirus outbreak, following the lead of virtually every other sports league. The belief: The league will temporarily pause the ticking countdown clock.

For the moment, though, it’s business as usual with the focus on the pressing matter of players voting on a new collective bargaining agreement. The widespread belief is the league is taking a first-things-first approach and waiting to address a potential free-agency delay until after the Saturday night CBA voting deadline passes.

As it stands, the legal tampering period — when teams and players can talk about potential deals — starts at 9 a.m. Pacific time Monday, followed by the official start of free agency at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

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The possible delay isn’t the only reason this year is different. The most successful quarterback in league history could be on the open market. New England’s Tom Brady, winner of six Super Bowl rings, is scheduled to become a free agent and could have a long line of suitors in addition to the Patriots, likely among them the Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders and Tennessee Titans. Possibly the San Francisco 49ers and others to boot.

It’s anyone’s guess if Tom Brady will end up signing with the Chargers in free agency, but the team has been freeing up salary-cap space.

But it’s not all about Brady. Some lesser-known players are in line to get big paydays too, such as cornerback Byron Jones (currently with Dallas), guard Joe Thuney (New England) and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (Pittsburgh).

Whereas some teams have an enormous amount of salary-cap space — Miami, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants all have at least $78 million to work with — others are already close to bumping their heads on the $200-million salary ceiling. San Francisco, Kansas City, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Atlanta and Pittsburgh all have less than $15 million in wiggle room.

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Some of the big-name free agents won’t be going anywhere. New Orleans, for instance, is expected to work out a new deal with quarterback Drew Brees before free agency begins, and Kansas City is expected to apply the franchise designation to defensive tackle Chris Jones.

Denver has franchised safety Justin Simmons, and Jacksonville has done the same with pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue. As Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said at the end of last season, linebacker Shaq Barrett “ain’t going anywhere.”

There will be elite pass rushers to be had, however. Seattle’s Jadeveon Clowney, a former No. 1 overall pick, figures to hit the open market, and the Rams will have to work some salary-cap magic to keep both linebacker Cory Littleton and edge rusher Dante Fowler.

The Rams will have to pay up if they want to prevent Dante Fowler and Cory Littleton from signing with other teams in NFL free agency.

There’s a possibility the Patriots could lose Devin McCourty, although they are expected to fight hard to keep that coveted safety in their lineup. Thuney, a two-time Super Bowl winner who has never missed a game, could wind up elsewhere as the highest-paid guard in history.

Amari Cooper has been a star receiver for the Cowboys, but there’s a good chance another franchise will outbid Dallas for his services. Then again, this is such a deep receivers draft, that clubs might choose to go the more economical route of drafting a developing wideout themselves.

Then, there’s Philip Rivers. The longtime Chargers fixture is done with that club and is hoping to close out his career elsewhere, possibly in Indianapolis where he would be reunited with Colts coach Frank Reich, his onetime offensive coordinator.

“I do feel like I’ve got some emotional fire and passion still left,” Rivers said. “I know I have the passion for the game that I think is going to last my lifetime. And I think I have the ability left to go play at a high level.”

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But again, this could all happen on a delayed schedule. The NFL on Friday banned all in-person visits with draft-eligible players. If they want to communicate with prospects, teams must now do so by phone or video conference.

Then, there’s the adjustment to the financial realities of a new CBA, contingent on the Saturday night vote. So for now, though teams are positioned to make moves, teams are ready to wait if they must.


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