NFL owners might opt out of the existing labor agreement as soon as Tuesday when they hold their next meetings in Atlanta, according to league sources.
One management source called it a "high likelihood" that the owners will exercise their option to terminate the agreement, which will trigger a number of alternatives, including a potential work stoppage by 2011. Another source said "be prepared" for the action, although it was "not a 100 percent proposition yet."
An NFL Players Association source said, "We expect it to happen."
A league spokesman said the NFL had no comment.
The decision to exercise the option, ending its labor deal with the union in 2011 instead of 2013, is not expected to have any significant impact on the next two seasons, 2008 and 2009.
However, by opting out of the agreement that was struck on March 9, 2006, the NFL would play 2010 without a salary cap, unrestricted free agency for players would be increased from four years to six years and the orderly selection of college players in the annual draft would not exist after 2011. These "poison pills" are designed to motivate both the owners and the union to work toward a new collective bargaining agreement.
When the current CBA was agreed upon amid much acrimony between high- and low-revenue clubs, the deal included options for both the owners and players' union to terminate the terms early in either 2008 or 2009. The deadline for opting out this year is Nov. 8 but league sources say many owners want to pull the trigger now.
Three owners contacted by ESPN.com declined to comment, with one joking, "The fine is so high for speaking a word about this that you would have to buy my children's shoes."
The players' association will not be caught off guard by an early opt out.
NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw had his first official meeting with NFL management leaders two weeks ago as a "feeling out" session. Upshaw made it clear to league officials that the union is not about to "give back" what it has gained in collective bargaining.
During the NFLPA's annual meeting in mid-March, much of the union's agenda was spent discussing the options of a looming labor battle. Upshaw warned of the possibility of an owners' lockout in 2011.
The NFL has not had a work stoppage since 1987, when an ill-fated union strike resulted in three regular-season games being played by "replacement players" before the union broke ranks.
Upshaw took over as the NFLPA executive director and decertified the union, which led to an anti-trust lawsuit that the players won in federal court. That ultimately led to the breakthrough 1993 labor agreement which led to unrestricted free agency for players and a salary cap.
Upshaw has told his player ranks that decertification is again a possibility, along with other options, although the union is not inclined to strike because football careers are relatively brief.
Chris Mortensen is an NFL reporter for ESPN.