Here on the NFC North blog, we've been operating under the assumption that too much money is at stake for NFL owners to lock out their players for the entire 2011 season.
That means, at some point this summer or early fall, we'll have an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. It will be followed in some form by a free agent period that will allow players with expiring contracts to seek and negotiate new deals. We'll then have some sort of preseason training, followed by the start of the regular season.
The details remain unanswered, but ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton offered an outline of the potential timing in his weekly mailbag.
Clayton reports that optimism is building for a late-June/early-July agreement, based on consistent negotiations over the past few weeks. Free agency would begin around July 15, and training camps would largely begin on time.
In the NFC North, the Chicago Bears would be most impacted by that timeline.
First, they would conceivably be able to open training camp as scheduled on July 23 and play in the annual Hall of Fame game Aug. 7. An agreement in mid-to-late July might threaten the Hall of Fame game and leave the Bears with four preseason games instead of five.
In either case, however, a new CBA by Aug. 1 would solidify the Bears' Oct. 23 game in London against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If there is no agreement by Aug. 1, the game will be moved to the Buccaneers' Raymond James Stadium.