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A glance at the list of players currently not under contract following this season suggests the 2015 NFL free agent class might be the best ever.

However, a mechanism in the three-year-old collective bargaining agreement was triggered for the first time at the end of the 2013 regular season, and teams must decide by May 3 whether to activate options for 2015 for players taken in the first round of the 2011 draft.

That means Pro Bowlers like Cam Newton, A.J. Green and J.J. Watt -- all likely to ultimately receive huge extensions from their clubs anyway -- almost certainly won't reach the market next year.

"(The new rookie contracts) cover a long period of time with less opportunity to get out and no opportunity to negotiate in the first three years," ESPN sports business analyst Andrew Brandt, formerly a vice president and salary cap specialist for the Green Bay Packers, told USA TODAY Sports. "That gives the team more negotiating leverage. Theoretically -- Newton, Watt, whomever you want to name -- they're under contract for two more years, which gives their teams great negotiating leverage."

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Even if, as expected, teams use the 2015 options on the affected players in the next few weeks, they can still cut them before the 2015 season, as long as the players are not hurt.

"Locking a guy in for an injury guarantee is not a big deal," says Brandt. "It's a real bonus for teams. There seems to be little harm or downside to using the option."

However, players picked after Round 1 in 2011 will have the chance to break the bank sooner than their peers who entered the league with more fanfare. Day 2 and Day 3 draft picks can cash in with the franchise tag a year from now if they don't sign bigger deals first.

After digesting all of that, here are 11 stars who might benefit from the free-agent system next year:

1. Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers (2nd round, 2011): These days, even better-than-average quarterbacks like Jay Cutler and Tony Romo command $18 million annually before they ever sniff the market. "Kaep" still has strides to make as a passer, but he's also got superlative athleticism for the position and already owns four postseason wins (or two more than Romo and Cutler combined). If he doesn't get an extension soon, he will surely be tagged.

2. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos (1st round, 2010): If Mike Wallace was worth $12 million per on the open market in 2013, it's fair to wonder if Thomas might approach something in the $15 million yearly range. Few receivers have the same nose for the end zone, but "Bay Bay" may be even more rare for his dynamic run-after-catch power. The Broncos could also be facing decisions on OLB Von Miller and TE Julius Thomas in 2015.

3. Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys (1st round, 2010): He's almost a carbon copy of Thomas, and his numbers bear that out even though he doesn't have the benefit of working with Peyton Manning. Bryant's fire can be viewed as an asset or detriment depending on the beholder.

4. Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks (1st round, 2010): Some regard the two-time all-pro as the keystone of a defense that's approaching legendary status. If New Orleans Saints FS Jairus Byrd is worth $9 million per season, there's little doubt Thomas will become the first at his position whose yearly salary averages eight figures.

4A. Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks (5th round, 2011): Then again, there's an argument that Sherman, arguably the NFL's premier corner, is Seattle's most valuable defender. His 16 picks over the past two seasons are a testament to ball skills rarely seen at the position even though most quarterbacks don't even test Sherman anymore. He and Patrick Peterson are the only current cornerbacks likely to challenge Darrelle Revis' earning power.

5. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions (1st round, 2010): No quarterback wants to step up in the pocket against Suh, who also feasts on running backs and blockers. And his on-field rage would be welcomed by clubs lacking the coveted junkyard dog mentality.

6. Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots (1st round, 2007): By the time the 2014 season wraps, he will have earned $84 million in eight years. Why? Because he's as shrewd off the field as he is dominant on it. Assuming he returns to peak form in Year 2 post-ACL surgery, the only thing that might depress his price tag in 2015 -- assuming the Pats don't pick up his $20 million option or negotiate an extension -- is a market of corners younger than Revis, possibly including Sherman and the Cleveland Browns' Joe Haden.

7. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints (3rd round, 2010): Depending how this year's anticipated franchise tag standoff pans out, Graham could be looking at a tag worth upward of $12 million in 2015 if he's franchised a second consecutive offseason rather than locked up in the coming weeks. But whether it's this year or next, he'll eventually become the league's first $10 million-per-season tight end and deservedly so.

8. Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs (3rd round, 2011): He took another step up in class last year, notching 11 sacks in 11 games before an elbow injury derailed him. But a 6-3, 260-pound edge rusher will command quite a ransom in a league where half the teams now favor the 3-4 defense.

9. Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers (6th round, 2010): Like Graham, he seems more likely to land a multi-year agreement sooner than later. If not, the Panthers would have to pony up about $16 million to tag Hardy again in 2015. Given the premium on pass rushers in today's NFL -- and especially ones also stout against the run -- he might even be worth it.

10. Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1st round, 2010): He was the third overall pick, one spot after Suh. Yet McCoy may be on the verge of overtaking his fellow all-pro if his development continues on the steep arc he's currently riding.

(*Among players taken in first round of 2011 draft: Green, Miller, Newton, Watt, Nick Fairley, Julio Jones, Cam Jordan, Patrick Peterson, Robert Quinn, Aldon Smith, Tyron Smith and Muhammad Wilkerson.)

Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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