BRAD Crouch's interest in joining Gold Coast last year came out of the blue but was part of a much bigger trend.

A year out from becoming a free agent, which he will be at the end of this season, the Adelaide midfielder surveyed his options.

The Suns were surprised, but as Gold Coast list boss Craig Cameron told AFL.com.au last month, it was indicative of a pattern.

"I think what we're finding more and more is players and their managers are exploring their options a year before free agency to see if they can put pressure on their existing club either to get a new contract or to get moved," Cameron said.

The power of the 'pre-agent' is strong. The pre-agent is a player who will become a free agent in another year, thus ticking over from seven to eight years of service and being able to leave and join a rival.

By weighing a move elsewhere a year before free agency hits, the player can force a contract extension from his current club, or the club can seek to trade him a year before he reaches free agency status to ensure it gets a better deal than a single compensation pick under free agency rules.

Often, like in 2018 when pre-agents Dylan Shiel, Lachie Neale, Steven May and Chad Wingard moved clubs, they are more active participants of the off-season than the free agents.

This year is different in most ways, but COVID-19's impact won't stop clubs from hunting players who are only a year away from free agency eligibility.

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The contract freeze remains in place as the AFL and AFL Players' Association begin to work through how the pandemic could change the collective bargaining agreement.

But behind the scenes, with list managers all back at their clubs, discussions are ramping up about who could be available and on the move.

This year's group of pre-agents (all signed until the end of 2021) is star-studded. Carlton co-captain Patrick Cripps is in there, as is Western Bulldogs skipper Marcus Bontempelli.

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St Kilda gun Jack Billings, Essendon's Zach Merrett and Adelaide's Matt Crouch are among the names, with Crouch returning to the Crows' side last weekend after being dropped by new coach Matthew Nicks.

Adelaide defenders Rory Laird and Brodie Smith are also pre-agents this year, as is Richmond dual premiership defender Nick Vlastuin.

Melbourne's Christian Salem and North defender Luke McDonald, who silenced Bontempelli on the weekend, are among the group, as is West Coast's premiership hero Dom Sheed.

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Orazio Fantasia shapes as one of the most fascinating pre-agents this year. The Bombers forward contemplated a move to Port Adelaide last year with two years remaining on his contract, but eventually decided on staying at Tullamarine.

If he puts through the request to move back to South Australia will the Bombers stand in his way like they did with Joe Daniher last year?

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Daniher was a pre-agent when he requested a trade to Sydney last season, but can join the Swans as a (restricted) free agent this time around. The Daniher situation might be instructive for the Bombers in a number of ways if Fantasia asks to be traded with a year to run before he hits free agency.

There are more products of the 2013 NAB AFL Draft who shape as pre-agent targets this season.

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Sydney midfielder George Hewett falls in this group as does Cats defender Jake Kolodjashnij, while Gold Coast's Sean Lemmens has been squeezed out of the Suns' side. Saint Luke Dunstan, another pre-agent, is injured on the sidelines.

Greater Western Sydney star midfielder Josh Kelly technically qualifies as a pre-agent this year because his contract expires at the end of 2021.

However Kelly, under an unconventional contract option, can automatically commit to an extra eight years with the Giants if he accepts the long-term deal in 2021.

A number of other club captains, such as Sydney's Luke Parker, Melbourne's Max Gawn, North's Jack Ziebell,  Geelong's Joel Selwood and Brisbane's Dayne Zorko, also sit as pre-agents this year. However given their age they don't have the same capacity to push for long-term extensions a year before they hit free agency, which is a key facet of the pre-agency movement. 

Robbie Gray (Port Adelaide), Luke Breust (Hawthorn) and Jamie Elliott (Collingwood) sit in the same category.

KEY 2020 PRE-AGENTS

Adelaide – Matt Crouch, Rory Laird, Brodie Smith
Brisbane – Dayne Zorko
Carlton – Patrick Cripps
Collingwood – Jamie Elliott
Essendon – Orazio Fantasia, Zach Merrett
Geelong – Jake Kolodjashnij, Joel Selwood
Hawthorn – Luke Breust
Gold Coast – Sean Lemmens
Greater Western Sydney – Matt Buntine, Josh Kelly
Melbourne – Max Gawn, Christian Salem
North Melbourne – Luke McDonald, Trent Dumont, Jack Ziebell
Port Adelaide – Robbie Gray
Richmond – David Astbury, Kamdyn McIntosh, Nick Vlastuin
St Kilda – Jack Billings, Luke Dunstan
Sydney – Aliir Aliir, George Hewett, Luke Parker
West Coast – Dom Sheed
Western Bulldogs – Marcus Bontempelli