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Rookie salary system a major discussion point as talks roll on

NEW YORK -- There have been other big days over the last six weeks, as NFL players and owners have worked to resolve their differences and end a lockout that reached its 122nd day when face-to-face talks resumed Monday.

But this week, those days start to count in a whole different way.

The parties have been working against deadlines since starting this phase of negotiations in suburban Chicago on May 31. Those deadlines are no longer on the horizon, now, with July 15 -- this Friday -- long having been pegged internally as the date when a deal needed to be agreed upon in order to save the preseason in full. The Bears and Rams, combatants in the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame Game, are scheduled to open their training camps at the end of next week.

Legal teams and staffs from both parties met separately in the morning hours on Monday, then came together for five hours in the afternoon, finally breaking around 7:30 p.m. ET. Negotiations between players and owners, including labor committee chairman Jerry Richardson and Giants owner John Mara, will be conducted Tuesday, though it may be through video conference calls with people scattered. Face-to-face talks between the principles, likely back in New York City, will start back up Wednesday.

It's the league's objective to present a completed proposal to the larger group at the July 21 owners meeting in Atlanta. At this point, that's a goal and not a certainty.

The biggest issue remaining on the ledger is the rookie salary system, according to sources on both sides of the table.

The current system has long awarded rookies at the higher end of the first round with the kind of payday many veterans will never see -- 2010 top pick Sam Bradford copped $50 million guaranteed in his first deal -- and the league has always targeted an overhaul to that compensation model as an area critical to these labor talks. The players, too, have been open to restructuring rookie pay.

But the money alone isn't the problem. It's the give-and-take between the cash and the length of deals, and, in particular, the fifth year of such deals.

The NFL's disagreement with the players comes, primarily, with the top eight picks in the draft, where the dollars are biggest. Conversely, the players' issue stretches across the entire first round, with a desire to get younger players to free agency quicker, if their pay is going to be slashed significantly.

The league is aiming for a more systematic, predictable pay structure for rookies, resembling what the NBA has adopted. 

One league proposal would slash compensation for the draft's No. 1 pick from the six-year, $78 million deal we saw Bradford net in 2010 to a five-year, $34 million deal.

Contracts for the top eight draftees would include triggers that push fifth-year earnings to 150 percent of the average starter’s salary at that player's position. 

In what remains a sticking point with players, fifth-year numbers would be derived from the average starter's salary in the year the player was drafted -- not his fifth season. 

Players don't want to see, for example, a player's 2015 market value -- and the final year of his contract -- based upon 2011 figures.

The league, which is open to making the fifth year an option year, proposes a $6 million floor and $12 million ceiling for fifth-year earnings.

Naturally, the gap between old system and new shrinks by the pick, but just as important as the overall value of the deals is the structure.

As part of its proposal, the league is asking for a system setting the limit for length on first-round deals to five years. Under the old collective bargaining agreement, the NFL allowed six-year deals to the first 16 picks.

Meanwhile, the level to which players have been willing to cut rookie money is tied directly to the years on such deals. More significant economic changes are agreeable to the players if all rookie deals are limited to four years, which was the case for players selected in Rounds 2-7 under the expired CBA.

It's the fifth year where the disagreement arises. A proposal by the players allows a fifth year, but only as a team option year that would be fully guaranteed once exercised and pay players at the top of the market. The insistence is that players be treated as veterans in Year 5.

The parties agree on four-year deals for all other draft picks, the aforementioned term in the expired CBA. There's also basic agreement on new stipulations that would keep draft picks from renegotiating until after Year 3, and undrafted free agents (on three-year deals) from renegotiating until after Year 2. The hope is that the new mechanisms would also promote renegotiation for players outperforming their contracts.

This aspect of any new deal, of course, has a slew of other complexities that involve structure and guaranteed money as well that can further cloud what raw numbers tell you.

This isn't the only area where the players and owners need a breakthrough. But last Thursday and Friday, it was one that was largely responsible for the stalemate.

As the parties try to work those differences out, several key dates loom ahead as landmarks in this critical period, outside of just the deadlines to save preseason games and training camp practices.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who ran the court-ordered mediation in April and May and has overseen these talks the last six weeks, is on vacation this week, but has scheduled a meeting between the principles and their lawyers for July 19 in Minneapolis. Two days later, on July 21, the owners have a meeting scheduled in Atlanta.

Less certain, time-wise, is when a ruling will come from U.S. District Judge David Doty in the networks rights fees case, with more than $4 billion in television money at stake. That could be another significant event, as the 8th Circuit ruling on the injunction appeal was on Friday.

In any event, it's clear that time is running short. And once the preseason revenue starts coming off the table, everything starts to change.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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