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Owners, players make progress, aim to seal deal next week

NEW YORK -- The week began with the NFL lockout reaching the four-month mark. It ended with a new collective bargaining agreement in clear sight.

Various sources on both sides said Friday that owners and players are expected to reach an agreement in principle early next week on a settlement to end the longest work stoppage in league history without losing a single game.

"The discussions this week have been constructive and progress has been made on a wide range of issues," the owners and players said in a joint statement issued after Friday's meeting.

With all the major hurdles cleared, the parties' lawyers and staff met for eight hours Saturday to work on and review the details and language in the potential deal. They plan to talk through phone and email Sunday and meet again Monday in New York.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who's based in Minneapolis, will fly to New York for his Tuesday meeting with the parties. Owners and league officials then will travel to Atlanta on Wednesday for their meeting, where a ratification vote on the labor deal is expected Thursday.

Several issues -- such as The Legacy Fund (retiree benefits) and drug testing -- will require the NFL Players Association to re-certify as a union or obtain a waiver to finalize, but they aren't considered stumbling blocks in a deal. Likewise, the lion's share of player safety issues and related items such as offseason programs were answered Friday.

The owners also dropped their proposal to have one-time, right-of-first-refusal tags on free agents. Owners initially dropped their proposal from three tags to two before losing it altogether.

So, the bulk of what remains before a full agreement can be reached is settling the Brady antitrust litigation and the television rights fees case. That's considered procedural because of where the parties stood after their latest meetings.

Although owners and players adhered to Boylan's request that confidentiality be observed during talks, it was difficult not to notice the optimism while they left the building Friday.

"We made some progress," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said. "We continue to have a lot of work to do. Our lawyers and other folks are going to continue to work through the weekend. (NFL Commissioner) Roger (Goodell) and I will either talk or meet starting tomorrow morning.

"I know everyone is frustrated and they want a definitive answer. I hate to disappoint you, but you're not going to get one right now. But we're going to continue to work, and that's a positive sign."

The most significant breakthrough of the week came Thursday, when the parties closed in on an agreement on the rookie compensation system.

While the institution of a rookie compensation system is a concession in itself, the players' side gave a little more in allowing some rules preventing the renegotiation of draft picks' deals until after three years. The owners' concessions came on the price tag for the fifth-year option for first-round picks, which the players want paid at the top of the market. It was learned Saturday that the fifth-year option must be picked up after Year 3.

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According to sources, it was agreed that the fifth-year option for rookie contracts would pay top-10 picks the average salary of the top 10 players at their position. For picks 11 through 32, the amount would be the average of salary Nos. 3 to 25 at a given position. All figures will be taken from the third year of rookie contracts, meaning that for top-10 picks, their fifth-year option amount would be equal to the transition tag number from the previous year.

One point of emphasis for the players in these talks was to take care of the rank and file. As such, across-the-board hikes in the league minimum salary, from rookies to veterans, are expected.

It also was learned Friday that the parties discussed the issue of players who lost the chance to earn offseason workout bonuses because of the lockout. And while the issue hasn't been fully resolved, the NFLPA ultimately expects those payments to be made in full, sources within the players' camp told NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora.

Discussed have been proposals that would include eligible players receiving a lesser percentage of what they were due. The bonuses, frequently worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, are pegged to a player participating in a set percentage of his team's offseason sessions -- all of which were wiped out by the lockout this year.

Sources within the players' camp maintain they don't intend to take less than the full value of the bonuses, according to La Canfora. Still, it's a relatively minor issue -- and not one expected to cause a significant fight.

Now the parties are aiming to have a completed deal to present to their constituencies next week. The owners have had that objective for more than a week, wanting to conduct a ratification vote at their meeting in Atlanta.

It now appears that will happen following two furious days of negotiating that followed a very difficult session of talks Wednesday.

The full preseason schedule could be saved, thanks to a rush at the finish line to beat internal deadlines that were focused on July 15. The preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game between the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Ramsremains scheduled for Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio.

"Everybody involved here has gotten educated, and so it's just more knowledge, more awareness of all the issues probably makes everybody feel more comfortable to talk about it and try to make progress," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Friday. "I don't know it's any more (urgency), because we all want to and should want to, because of the game and the fans, get this done with as little interruption as possible."

The league's labor committee had nine of 10 members present Friday after the arrival of Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown. Jones, New York Giants owner John Mara, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos were involved in all three days of talks, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney and Kansas City Chiefs chairman/CEO Clark Hunt participated Wednesday and Thursday. Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy arrived Thursday.

Smith led a players group that included retirees Pete Kendall and Sean Morey, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth and Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Tyson Clabo, with Houston Texans offensive tackle Eric Winston joining the team Friday.

The collaborative effort of those people has the sides on the brink of re-opening the gates to the league.

"Stay tuned," Jones said. "When we get here, or wherever we meet next, we'll report on that progress. But there has been some progress. I wouldn't dare speculate on where we are in that sense. But this has been as productive a time, and we've covered as much and worked as hard over these three days, spent a lot of hours and everybody's focused in."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora contributed to this report. Follow La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora.

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