Sources: Sides eye July 21 ratification

Updated: July 12, 2011, 6:36 PM ET
By Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter | ESPN

There is a growing belief inside league circles that the NFL and NFL Players Association will have an agreement in place that can be ratified during the July 21 league meetings in Atlanta, according to sources familiar with the state of negotiations.

As one NFL owner said this weekend, there's "no reason to believe it won't get done."

Other people familiar with the talks now think an agreement in principle will be put in place in the next seven to 10 days, a handshake deal that would allow each side to ratify the deal to start the 2011 season.

However, one member of the players' negotiating team who has been a constant presence at the table said that players feel they have made significant concessions and overtures "that have not been reciprocated."

He stated that negotiations Wednesday and Thursday will be the most telling days on whether an agreement indeed will be finalized within the July 21 time frame because "we've basically reached the limits of compromise."

The same source added that the players have agreed to cut rookie compensation in half but won't agree to a deal that does not allow for the rookie class to become free agents at the end of four years.

The lone exception could relate to allowing a fifth year for quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round but their salary would have to be set at the average of the top-10 players at their position in Year 5. The player source said that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones proposed such a solution but was shot down by his fellow owners.

Lawyers for both sides met in New York for the second straight day Tuesday, but, according to an NFLPA source, a conference call between the players' association and the plaintiffs in the Brady vs. NFL antitrust case -- the second such call in less than a week -- produced nothing of significance.

According to sources, NFLPA leader DeMaurice Smith told those on the call that the players' association had no comment on current negotiations and wouldn't be updating plaintiffs on the particulars. Smith said plaintiffs have some legal tactics they could pursue if necessary in the future, sources said, but Smith declined to identify what those were.

While a rookie wage system has been identified as the most complex issue still to be resolved between the owners and players as they return to the negotiating table this week in New York, the level of overall confidence in reaching an agreement also is evident in a document known as "The Transition Rules" that NFL teams would follow if and when both players and owners ratify a new labor agreement.

The Transition Rules spell out an actual timeline for roster transactions under the July 21 deal scenario, including the start of the new league year during which free agents would become eligible for the open market on July 28.

With the tight timeline, teams will be scrambling to fill rosters that must be set at 90 players on roughly Aug. 3 -- but all training camps would be able to open on time.

If the deal were to be ratified July 21, it would assure that almost all preseason games would be played, according to sources.

The one game in danger would be the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame matchup between the Bears and Rams. There are still mixed opinions and thoughts as to whether that game could or would be played.

The Transition Rules also would include a designated period for teams to sign undrafted free agent rookies, a pool that routinely provides productive and even star players.

If and when the final issues are resolved, the two sides will have closed enough ground in other key areas to have an agreement in principle that the courts, players and owners must ratify. But those steps are expected to occur in the days leading up to, and during, the July 21 owners meetings in Atlanta.

Once it is done, The Transition Rules will kick in. During the lockout, the NFL's Chief Executive Committee, or CEC, have selected a group of team executives to compile a timeline for how the offseason would operate from the moment a labor deal was done. The group produced plans for the lockout ending in March, June, July and October.

The one now dated July 1 is likely to be applied to any deal done by July 21, and it would spell out how and when roster moves could and would be made. It doesn't mean the new league year will unfold exactly like this; but it won't be far off, either.

Here is how the outlined plan for a July 1 deal could be adjusted for a potential July 21 deal with what would be the corresponding dates, according to sources familiar with the document, which many teams in the league have not yet seen:

• July 1 (July 21) -- Educate the clubs on the new league rules and allow voluntary training for teams and agents.

• July 5 (July 25) -- Sign undrafted rookies, as well as give free agents a chance to re-sign with their teams.

• July 8 (July 28) -- League year starts and free agency begins.

• July 13 (Aug. 2) -- Rosters must be set at 90 players.

• July 14 (Aug. 3) -- Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets.

• July 18 (Aug. 7 ) -- A four-day match period for teams to match restricted free-agent offer sheets.

• July 23 (Aug 12) -- Deadline for rookies to sign contracts (not yet agreed upon).

• July 27 (Aug. 16) -- Signing period for restricted free agents ends, as does the signing period for franchise and transition tenders.

• Aug. 9 (Aug. 29) -- Deadline for players to report to earned credit for an accrued season toward free agency.

Dates could be moved back within the framework of an already-outlined plan by the NFL for how a July 1 deal would have resulted in preparations for a season, according to sources. In the adjusted calendar, the league year would start and free agency would begin July 28.

Of the dates, the most significant is July 28, which would be the start of the league year and the multitude of roster moves that teams have been waiting for and planning for months.

The most intriguing is the deadline for rookies to sign their contracts. The NFL and NFLPA have discussed the idea of placing a deadline on rookies to sign to reduce the number of holdouts. Teams have expressed concern that the longer a rookie holds out, the higher his frequency for injury and failure are.

The two sides still must figure out this issue, as well as how much rookies will be paid and how long their contracts will be. Just as the NFL has insisted that there cannot be federal oversight in the next labor deal, the NFLPA feels just as strongly that all rookie deals be four years, according to sources.

But as one person close to the talks said this weekend, "We're at the 10-, maybe the 15-yard line, and we're marching down the field, and both sides want to score and I think we will."

Yet the disagreement over a rookie wage system for those who were drafted in late April is now the darkest cloud hanging over negotiations that are nearly complete on most major issues.

"The rookie wage scale is the only part I'm worried about," one source involved in the talks said this weekend. "They've finished the other important parts. The only issue left that can cause a problem is the rookie wage scale."

Under the NFL's proposal, the top pick's contract value would go from $78 million over six years to $34 million over five years with the ability to renegotiate after three years.

Owner and management sources maintain that the rookie wage system the players have proposed does not represent the anticipated dramatic reduction in salaries -- most notably for the top eight players chosen in the draft -- which would result in redistributed money to veteran players and retirees.

Player sources countered by saying their proposed system provides considerable reduction to the 2010 rookie salaries and that the dispute is based on owners desire to not only cut salaries drastically but control players for five years, morphing into "a dramatic veteran wage scale, not a rookie scale."

Aside from the rookie wage scale, the owners and players also have been stuck on a proposal by management that for the 2011 transition period, teams can exercise the right of first refusal on three free agents, in addition to their franchise-tag designees.

The players have rejected the proposal, which means teams could match any contract offer and retain their free agent player.

The two sides appear comfortable with a split of an all-revenue model in which players will receive about 48 percent of the money at the outset, and never less than approximately 46.5 percent as revenues are expected to grow significantly from $9.6 billion in 2011 over the term of an agreement that will be no less than seven years and couid go as long as 10.

But just as there is a roadmap for how this summer will work, there also is a roadmap for completing a deal that has taken football as hostage since March 11.

Chris Mortensen is a senior NFL analyst for ESPN. Adam Schefter is ESPN's NFL Insider.

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