North Queensland Cowboys coach Todd Payten has admitted he is now nervous over the future of star five-eighth Tom Dearden.

With the November 1 deadline passing, Dearden, along with over 170 other players, is now allowed to negotiate with rival clubs for 2024 and beyond.

The Cowboys had originally been hoping to have Dearden locked up on a new deal by the time the calendar rolled over to November, but they haven't, and now other clubs are coming knocking.

It's believed the pursuit of the fringe State of Origin five-eighth will be led by the St George Illawarra Dragons.

Incoming coach Shane Flanagan is desperate to kick start the club's turnaround with a number of key signings, and it's understood the Dragons have the cash to do it, with money also on the table for Joseph Manu, and, potentially more immediately, Addin Fonua-Blake who has requested a release from the New Zealand Warriors.

Other clubs will also come knocking for Dearden, who could demand a million dollars per season on the open market. In a similar situation to at the Penrith Panthers who are attempting to retain Jarome Luai, it's believed the Cowboys may be over $150,000 per season short for Dearden if he goes to the market.

While a four or five year deal to stay in Townsville may convince him to remain a Cowboy, there is no guarantee, and Payten said that while they remain confident, he is nervous.

“He knows how much we admire and love him and want him to stay at the club. He's expressed the same in the last couple of months,” Payten said to News Corp.

“This is the right club for him, but it always makes me a little nervous when other clubs get a good shot at them.”

Dearden, who made a switch from the Brisbane Broncos to the Cowboys, has rapidly developed into one of the game's best five-eighths.

While the Cowboys missed the finals in 2023, he is a big part of the future plans in Townsville, who will have change in the coming years when veteran halfback Chad Townsend hangs up the boots.