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NFL free agency: Byron Jones, Austin Hooper set for big paydays

The free-agent marketplace is harder to project than it has been in years, according to dozens of NFL executives and others familiar with the landscape.

Many negotiations are on pause as everyone awaits the results of the players' ongoing vote on a new collective bargaining agreement, which is now scheduled to end late Saturday night. Planning is challenging. And the twice-adjusted deadline for applying franchise and transition tags now butts up against the opening of the negotiating window at noon ET on Monday, setting the stage for a 52-hour free-for-all until the league year commences at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 18.

The impact of a "no" vote by the players on the proposed CBA can't be overstated in terms of short-term spending: Teams could use both tags, restricting more top players from getting their fair value on the open market. Altered accounting rules in a "Final League Year" under the current CBA would limit signing bonuses. The extra tags and accounting rules, along with the existing funding rule for contracts, would roughly have a $175 million impact on player spending in 2020, according to NFL and NFLPA projections. If there is a "yes" vote, there will be changes to the salary cap, higher minimum salaries, extra roster spots, benefits, etc., which the sides estimate would combine for a total shift of roughly $700 million.

Adding to the madness that awaits: a remarkable list of quarterbacks who remain unsigned for 2020, led by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Dak Prescott, Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Tannehill.

With all that in mind, and without a single tag officially placed as of this posting, here's a look at some non-QB free agents who might end up getting more money than you think:

Defensive backs

Byron Jones isn't a huge name outside of Dallas, thanks in part to just two career interceptions. But teams expect the versatile former first-round pick to command $16 million to $18 million a year in free agency, making him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history. Fellow cornerbacks James Bradberry (Panthers) and Trae Waynes (Vikings) also figure to land upwards of $12 million per year, and may well end up closer to $16 million. With John Elway announcing he'll franchise tag Justin Simmons if the Broncos can't work out a long-term deal, Anthony Harris (Vikings) is in line to be the top safety on the market and could push $14 million a year. Vonn Bell (Saints), Jimmie Ward (49ers) and Devin McCourty (Patriots) should all make out well, too.

(UPDATE: The Broncos applied the franchise tag on Simmons.)

Tight ends

In a year with few headliners at the non-QB skill positions, and Hunter Henrylikely to be tagged by the Los Angeles Chargers absent a long-term deal, Austin Hooper (Falcons) should be one of free agency's big winners after consecutive 70-catch seasons. Look for Hooper to reset a tight end market that needed resetting, with an APY over $10 million.

(UPDATE: The Chargers placed the franchise tag on Henry.)


The Ramscould tagCory Littleton. If not, teams believe his contract could be in line with the likes of Carolina's Shaq Thompson and Jacksonville's Myles Jack, meaning upwards of $13.5 million a year. Don't be surprised if Joe Schobert (Browns) cracks the $10 million mark, as well.

Offensive linemen

Nate Solder and Trent Brown have reset the tackle market in free agency the past two years, respectively. Next up may be Jack Conklin (Titans), whom NFL executives believe could command $17 million a year. Bryan Bulaga (Packers) is expected to do well for a soon-to-be 31-year-old right tackle with a long injury history, potentially landing in the $10 million to $12 million range. Germain Ifedi (Seahawks) could potentially push toward that same range. The market is also expected to be strong for a couple young players who have mostly been reserves: Halapoulivaati Vaitai (Eagles) and George Fant (Seahawks). Both players could command $10 million a year, and maybe more. Then there's the guard market, where Brandon Scherff is likely to be franchise tagged if the Redskinscan't extend him, but Joe Thuney (Patriots), Andrus Peat (Saints), Greg Van Roten (Panthers) and Graham Glasgow (Lions) should all do well.

(UPDATE: The Redskins placed the franchise tag on Scherff.)

Wide receivers

Beyond Amari Cooper, who seems destined to stay with the Cowboys, the only receiver NFL executives expect to really get paid big is the Jets' Robby Anderson. A generational WR class in the draft figures to depress the market overall, but Anderson still could land a deal in the $12 million to $15 million range.

Defensive linemen

Chris Jones (Chiefs) is expected to be franchise tagged -- and possibly Arik Armstead (49ers) -- but other D-linemen will hit the market and hit it big. Teams wouldn't be surprised if Javon Hargrave (Steelers) commands close to $14 million a year -- huge money for a nose tackle. Jarran Reed (Seahawks), D.J. Reader (Texans), David Onyemata (Saints) and A'Shawn Robinson (Lions) could all land north of $10 million, too.

Pass rushers

The franchise tag is likely to pick off several names here, including Yannick Ngakoue (Jaguars), Matt Judon (Ravens) and Bud Dupree (Steelers). So, if you don't break the bank for Jadeveon Clowney, you're looking at a group of pass rushers who could all land in the $12 million to $15 million range. That'd be another huge payday for two veterans: Robert Quinn (Cowboys), who enjoyed a revival last season with 11.5 sacks in Dallas, and Jason Pierre-Paul (Buccaneers), who had 8.5 sacks in 10 games after returning from a fractured neck. Dante Fowler Jr. could land in that same range if the Rams don't franchise tag him. Markus Golden -- coming off a 10-sack season with the Giants, his second time in double figures -- and Shaq Lawson (Bills) should do well, too.

(UPDATE: The Jaguars and Ravens used the franchise tag on Ngakoue and Judon, respectively.)

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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