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Nobody comes for free in NFL free agency that begins Monday

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

FILE - Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady leaves the field an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, in this Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, file photo. om Brady has agreed to a contract extension with the Buccaneers that provides the Super Bowl champions with much-needed salary cap relief and will help the seven-time NFL champion reach a goal of playing until hes at least 45. Brady posted a picture of himself on Twitter, signing the extension Friday, March 12, 2021, with the message: In pursuit of 8 ... LFG@ Buccaneers were keeping the band together. (AP Photo/Brett Duke, File)

The term in use these days is “legal tampering.” Doesn't seem sensible, and some might call it the “cheating period” instead.

Regardless, on Monday, two days before the NFL's 2021 business year begins, the 32 teams and agents for the players will be making deals. Lots of deals, even if they aren't official until Wednesday.

“I hate calling it the legal tampering period because that just seems like that’s a debacle of the English language,” Rams general manager Les Snead says. “Legal tampering, and tampering is illegal? But we’ll have to adjust based on that because there’s no guarantee that you can re-sign (players).”

Even at a time when the salary cap has plummeted by $16 million due to lost revenues during the COVID-19-impacted 2020 season, lots of money will be going to the most-prized players.

That likely will include Tampa Bay pass rusher Shaq Barrett; Green Bay All-Pro center Corey Linsley and standout running back Aaron Jones; Detroit wide receiver Kenny Golladay; San Francisco tackle Trent Williams; and Chargers tight end Hunter Henry. No superstars about to break the bank, but plenty of proven talent to help teams improve before turning attention to next month's draft.

Of course, free agency always is a buyer-beware situation.

“Yeah, we want talented players; but we want a good cohesive unit and guys who fit well together,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores says. "That’s not always 11 stars. It’s almost never that way.

“So we’ve scoured free agency, the draft, and I think we have a pretty good feel for the types of guys we are looking for from a skillset standpoint, but also from a locker room standpoint as people as well. ... That’s an important factor that can’t be overlooked. All of those things play a role.”

Nine players have been given franchise tags: receivers Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay) and Allen Robinson (Chicago); offensive linemen Taylor Moton (Carolina), Cam Robinson (Jacksonville) and All-Pro Brandon Scherff (Washington); safeties Marcus Maye (New York Jets), Marcus Williams (New Orleans) and Justin Simmons (Denver); and defensive tackle Leonard Williams (New York Giants).

Dallas locked up quarterback Dak Prescott with a four-year deal, and J.J. Watt, released this offseason by Houston, signed with Arizona. Those were the biggest names potentially available.

Snead's Rams didn't use the tag, which could mean losing solid safety John Johnson or revitalized linebacker Leonard Floyd or center Austin Blythe.

“Strategically, probably philosophically, you’d love to be able to not utilize the franchise tag and work to get something done long term,” Snead says, “just because usually when there’s a franchise tag used, the history of it says it’s very hard to get something done longer term off of that tag.”

Thus far, the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers have played the free agency game best this month. It helps when your high-priced quarterback is willing to redo his deal to open up spending room, something Tom Brady did frequently in New England, then again this week in Tampa Bay.

Voila: Lavonte David, a key linebacker, was re-signed, and several other key guys in the title run could be back.

Another star, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, followed Brady's lead in reworking his contract.

Players in a strong position to land a nice payday include Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson; Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and edge rusher Bud Dupree; Ravens edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue and linebacker Matthew Judon; Patriots guard Joe Thuney; Titans tight end Jonnu Smith; Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson; Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram; and Bucs running back Leonard Fournette.

And yes, there are quarterbacks on the market, some of whom could wind up starting in new locales. Will Jameis Winston leave New Orleans, particularly if Drew Brees retires? Teddy Bridgewater seems destined for somewhere other than Carolina in 2021, though he still belongs to the Panthers. The same could be true with the Jets' Sam Darnold.

Free agent Jacoby Brissett will be heading away from Indianapolis and Ryan Fitzpatrick possibly will find yet another team to help as a mentor/backup/starter. Same thing for NFL Comeback Player of the Year Alex Smith.

Mitchell Trubisky is out there. So are Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco.

Long-term deals will occur, but with a reduced salary cap this year and the promise of rising caps through the rest of the decade after the NFL's new broadcasting contracts kick in, a more than usual number of one-year deals are possible. That could delay some signings for weeks as players expecting big numbers are disappointed with initial offers.

Flores admits the Dolphins could be observers rather than participants.

“This is a very unique year,” he says. “We do have some money from a cap standpoint that we can spend; but again, it’s an interesting year. I think I’m going to be playing the song ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ on Day 1 in free agency, to be honest with you, because we may get priced out on some guys we’re looking at that we’d like to have.”

Many clubs could be in that position — and need to recognize that if you try sometimes, well, you might find what you need.

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