NEW YORK - 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.
They cautioned, however, that other key issues remained for owners and players to resolve, including free agency and new offseason workout rules.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.