Sources: Sides agree to rookie wages

Updated: July 15, 2011, 4:50 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- A source with knowledge of the NFL talks told ESPN's Sal Paolantonio on Thursday night that the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement are headed toward a settlement.

The sides have agreed in principle to a rookie wage system, sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Since that is no longer an impediment to a deal, the source told Paolantonio, "both sides are intent on working through each issue line by line to get this deal done."

The progress made was significant -- with almost unforeseen momentum -- surprising even the participants, another source said.

The movement in talks has raised hopes that a tentative agreement in principle could perhaps come within 24 hours, two people familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press. They cautioned, however, that other key issues remained for owners and players to resolve, including free agency and new offseason workout rules.

There was also a tentative agreement to make the 2011 salary cap $120 million, a source told ESPN.com NFL senior writer John Clayton. When a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, it will be seven to 10 years in length, sources have told ESPN.

After meeting for nearly 15 hours Thursday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith, players and owners were back at the negotiating table Friday as they attempted to end the sport's first work stoppage since 1987. Goodell has asked the NFLPA for a full day of talks, a source familiar with the meeting told ESPN's Schefter.

"I know our fans are frustrated and want (us) to get it done," Smith said as he entered the Times Square office building where the negotiations were being held. "We'll get everything to the players when the time is right."

Baltimore Ravens defensive back Domonique Foxworth emphasized when the last of the participants left after 11:30 p.m. Thursday, saying "there's really no deal until our players approve it."

Since February, the players have been willing to accept a $141 million player cost number -- which includes both salaries and benefits paid to players -- per team, multiple sources told Clayton. By agreeing to the $120 million cap, the players allow $21 million per team to be in benefits. Now that a cap number has been formed, teams need to determine the minimum cash payroll number, or what teams will be required to spend.

The guaranteed spend forces every team to put up more than 90 percent of the salary cap in cash each season. A couple of weeks ago, the owners talked about having the guaranteed spend number at close to 100 percent of the salary cap, according to sources. That number and percentage could still be adjusted.

The 2009 cap was $123 million but was moved by $5 million to $128 million due to a one-time adjustment called a cash adjustment mechanism. The change is an aberrational adjustment, due to the fact that 2009 was the last capped season of the previous CBA.

Last season was an uncapped year.

Because a 2011 salary cap of $120 million could cause problems for teams such as Dallas, Pittsburgh and others that currently spend more than that, one of the provisions being discussed is a one-player cap exemption for each team, according to a source. That exemption would be a $3 million credit in 2011 that would count against benefits paid out, a source said. That exemption, which could drop to $1.5 million next year, could save the jobs of players.

The exemption transition would be similar to the minimum salary benefit that allows teams to sign a veteran player to a one-year contract at a greatly reduced cap number. Full details of that option weren't immediately announced.

The work to be done could still scuttle a deal, but that is unlikely, a source told ESPN. A player source told ESPN's Andrew Brandt that the sudden surge in progress is due to a "sense of urgency" arriving in the talks Thursday.

A player source told ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen that as talks began to wrap up for the night Thursday around 10 p.m. ET they were "on a positive note." NFLPA lawyer Jeffrey Kessler told ESPN after Thursday's session that the sides could stay through the weekend.

Sources told Mortensen the two sides continued to work on open issues including workman's compensation, right-of-first-refusals on this year's free agent class, settlement on the television damages and the Brady vs. NFL antitrust case and issues relating to commercial sponsorships.

Additionally, owners want the NFL Players Association to recertify as a union and settle all grievances through arbitration without judicial oversight. To gain advantages on many of the remaining issues, sources say the players may be willing to grant the owners' request for a comprehensive arbitration system without judicial oversight, a thorn in the owners' side since 1993 on grievance cases that have been appealed to U.S. District Judge David Doty.

In exchange for the NFLPA surrendering judicial oversight of the pending agreement, an overhaul of the NFL-NFLPA arbitration system is in the works, sources told Mortensen. It would include a panel of former judges to serve as arbitrators.

Although sources had told Mortensen earlier Thursday that commissioner discipline would be subject to arbitrator appeal, sources said late Thursday night that was unlikely. However, other matters of discipline, including drug suspensions, will still be subject to review under the proposed system, the sources said. Terms are still being negotiated, according to sources.

The players currently are unwilling to grant NFL teams extra right-of-first-refusals on this year's free agent class, because many of those free agents were restricted under last year's uncapped system. Owners have asked that they have the right to designate three free agents whose contracts with other teams they would have the right to match.

It is unclear whether the talks will shift to Minneapolis on Monday. Judge Arthur Boylan, the court-ordered mediator who is on vacation in Ireland, has ordered both sides to meet in Minneapolis on Tuesday, July 19. But if the deal is completed, or close to completion, the negotiators may stay in New York at the Manhattan law firm where the complex work is slowly coming to a close.

The rookie wage system had been a key part of that complex work in recent weeks. Exact language of the rookie wage system is being worked out by both sides' lawyers, sources told Mortensen, but a management negotiator agreed that the rookie system was "done."

According to sources, the terms agreed to on the rookie wage system are, in part, as follows:

• Five-year contracts, with a team option for the fifth year.

• If the team option is exercised, in the fifth year the top 10 picks would receive a salary equal to the average of the top 10 player salaries at their respective positions. That money would be guaranteed if the option is exercised after the third year of the contract.

• If the team option is exercised, in the fifth year picks 11-32 would receive a salary equal to the average of the Nos. 3-25 salaries at their respective positions. That money would be guaranteed if the option is exercised after the third year of the contract.

Goodell and eight of the 10 members of the owners' labor committee were present at Thursday's session, including Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and John Mara of the New York Giants. Two new participants Thursday were Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy and San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos.

Smith of the NFLPA and a half-dozen current or former players also were there Thursday, including Foxworth, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, and Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora is one of 10 player plaintiffs in a federal antitrust lawsuit against the league.

Sources told ESPN that Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Tyson Clabo, a pending free agent, also is in attendance.

With deadlines coming up next week to get training camps and the preseason started, one owner told ESPN's Paolantonio on Wednesday that owners are trying to figure out how to get the league operational in time "so that we don't lose a week of preseason and we don't lose $200 million."

The Hall of Fame game that opens the exhibition season is scheduled for Aug. 7 between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears, who hope to be able to start training camp at the end of next week.

Players won't be in danger of going broke because of a complete lack of pay, however.

The NFLPA gave Smith approval more than a year ago to acquire insurance and pay premiums that would amount to $200,000 for each player if there were no 2011 season, NFLPA sources confirmed to ESPN's Mortensen.

Drafted rookies would be included in the payouts, the sources said.

Information from ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen, ESPN national correspondent Sal Paolantonio, ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, ESPN sports business analyst Andrew Brandt and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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