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AP sources: NFL players, owners making progress

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NEW YORK (AP) — Significant progress on a major sticking point in

the NFL labor impasse – soaring rookie salaries – during marathon

talks Thursday raised hopes that a tentative agreement in principle

could perhaps come within 24 hours, according to two people

familiar with the negotiations.

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They cautioned, however, that other key issues remained for owners

and players to resolve, including free agency and new offseason

workout rules.

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The people spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of

anonymity because the negotiations aimed at ending the NFL’s

four-month-long lockout are supposed to be confidential.

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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.

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“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.”

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Talks gained steam in May, overseen by a court-appointed mediator,

U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who is on vacation this week.

Boylan ordered both sides to meet with him in Minneapolis early

next week, and the owners have a special meeting set for next

Thursday in Atlanta, where they potentially could ratify a new

deal.

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Any agreement also must be voted on by groups of players, including

the named plaintiffs in a class-action antitrust lawsuit pending in

federal court and the NFLPA’s 32 team representatives.

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Baltimore Ravens defensive back Domonique Foxworth emphasized that

when the last of the participants left after 11:30 p.m. Thursday,

saying “there’s really no deal until our players approve

it.”

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Even once an agreement in principle on the core economic issues is

drawn up, there will be more work to be done. That’s because there

are certain issues that won’t be addressed in full until after the

NFLPA re-establishes itself as a union – a process that might take

a couple of days – and can then serve once again as a collective

bargaining unit for the players.

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Items that could fall under that umbrella include the league’s

drug-testing program, health insurance, retired players’ pensions

and other benefits, none of which is likely to be resolved

completely while the union is still dissolved.

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There’s also a chance the players could pursue a lockout injunction

for rookies and free agents after an appeals court ruled last week

that the work stoppage could continue.

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The NFL locked out players in March, after negotiations broke down

and the old collective bargaining agreement expired, and now the

preseason is fast approaching. The need to arrive at a deal becomes

greater with each passing day.

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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. Yet

camps will not open without a new CBA in place.

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Disruptions to the planned preseason schedule would decrease the

overall revenue pie – by tens or hundreds of millions of dollars,

depending on how many games are canceled. The parameters for how to

divide the more than $9 billion in annual league revenues have been

sketched out, but remaining hurdles include the owners’ desire to

have more right-of-first-refusal tags for unrestricted free

agents.

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The players want to get back to free agency rules similar to 2009,

when a four-year veteran whose contract expired was unrestricted.

That minimum shifted to six years in 2010, when there was no salary

cap because owners already had declared they were opting out of the

old CBA.

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On rookie salaries, four people familiar with the talks said

Thursday that first-round draft picks will sign four-year contracts

with a club option for a fifth year. That represents a compromise;

owners were hoping for five-year contracts, while players wanted

highly drafted rookies to be under a team’s control for only four

years.

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NFL owners have long sought to restrict the huge bonuses and

salaries paid to unproven rookies, particularly those selected at

the top of the draft. Quarterback Sam Bradford, taken No. 1 overall

in 2010 by the St. Louis Rams, signed a six-year, $78 million

contract that included a record $50 million in guaranteed

money.

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Under the system discussed Thursday, people told the AP, clubs will

have an option for a fifth year on a rookie’s contract for a

predetermined amount based on the player’s performance during the

previous years of the deal.

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This week’s talks in New York began Monday with two days of

meetings involving primarily lawyers. Wednesday’s face-to-face

session that was attended by Goodell, Smith, owners and players

went nearly 11 hours.

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On Thursday, Goodell was joined by eight of the 10 members of the

owners’ labor committee, 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.

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Smith’s group included Foxworth, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff

Saturday, and Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora is one

of the 10 named plaintiffs in the antitrust case against the

league.

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Pro Football Writers Howard Fendrich and Barry Wilner contributed

to this report.

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