Per a Monday morning report by Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter of ESPN, the NFL and NFLPA are drilling down through the labor impasse to the point where both sides could be ready to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement by Thursday, July 21. That's when the next owner's meetings take place — this time in Atlanta, Ga. — and where the Lords of the Realm could agree on a new deal with the players having signed off on the basic agreement. Negotiations will most likely begin again on Wednesday with lawyers meeting earlier in the week to discuss contract particulars. Schefter also reports that there are some on the players' side who believe that their group has reached the limit of compromise.
If everyone is able to get past all remaining complications, the NFL has already put together a series of "transition dates" to get the league year started as quickly as possible. All parties will be playing a furious game of catch-up as the result of a lockout in place since March 11. The dates are approximate, of course, but fairly in line with what we've heard elsewhere.
July 21: Meet with teams on the updated rules; voluntary team-sponsored training would be allowed.
July 25: Undrafted rookies could be signed, and teams would have a window of opportunity to sign their own free agents. What we don't know yet is whether free agency will be available to players whose contracts expire after four years, as it was before 2010 when the number went up to six, but the winds seem to be blowing that way. Obviously, that would put a far larger pool of true free agents on the market.
July 28: The league year would begin, and free agency would start. This, of course, would be a very interesting date parameter in that teams could have a three-day head start on signing their own free agents. It is not known at this time whether the "right of first refusal" tender will be invoked as part of a new CBA, but I wouldn't bet on it.
August 2: Teams must have rosters set at 90 players to begin the preseason.
August 3: Restricted free agents can sign offer sheets with other teams, and prior teams will be able to match those offers by August 7.
August 12: Rookies must have signed their contracts.
August 16: The end of the signing period for restricted free agents.
August 29: Deadline for players to report if they want to earn an accrued season under the new CBA.
Right now, the rookie wage scale is the main sticking point between the two sides, but just about everybody involved in the process (and we've heard this from other sources, as well) believe that a July 21 deal is as close to reality as it can possibly be.
If a deal is not done by then, preseason games could be threatened (right now, the only game under the gun is the August 7 Hall of Fame Game between the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams) and the owners could very well pull back from the table and say, "See you in court, guys!" At that point, the owners would be losing as much as $200 million per week in the money grab that is the preseason, and there would be far more incentive to freeze the union out as long as possible to drive a much harder bargain.