Major breakthroughs in Saturday's discussions between NFL owners and players have set up a timetable for both sides to resolve their 130-day labor dispute, sources said.
Owners tentatively agreed Saturday to a players-recommended plan for the NFL Players Association to bring players into team facilities starting as early as Wednesday to physically vote on whether to recertify the current trade association as a union, a source said. Progress in other talks with the owners has put the players' 11-member executive committee in a position to have a vote Monday to recommend accepting the 10-year collective bargaining agreement.
The plan calls for the players' executive committee to meet in Washington, D.C., on Monday, a move that, according to a high-ranking NFLPA official, was not communicated to the NFLPA executive committee until Saturday morning via phone.
If all agreements have been reached by then, the executive committee is expected to vote to recommend the CBA and recommend recertifying itself as a union, according to the source. Following that, a recommendation has to be made by the 32 player representatives, likely via conference call. As of late Saturday night, no time had been set for that vote, but it is expected to occur Monday after the executive committee votes to recommend approval, according to the high-ranking official.
If the executive committee accepts the new CBA, players from certain teams would be allowed to report to training camps on Wednesday and players from other teams will be asked to report to training camps Friday, a source said. The hope from both sides is there are enough votes to recertify the union by as early as Friday.
For that to happen, a 50-percent-plus-one-vote majority of the players have to accept the NFLPA as its union and accept the terms of a CBA.
The NFL announced Thursday it would open its doors to players under contract two days after the NFLPA executive committee accepts the CBA and settlement terms from existing lawsuits. The league also said that free agency would start the day after the union is recertified.
Therefore, under this tentative schedule for recertification, the pre-league year buffer period could start Wednesday.
Under that scenario, teams could potentially open contract talks with their own unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents and draft choices Wednesday. However, no contracts could be signed until July 30 at the earliest. In that scenario, teams would also be able to renegotiate contracts with players from their own team starting as early as Wednesday.
Upon recertification of the union, free agency could start at 2 p.m. ET on July 30 and rosters would be allowed to expand to 90 players.
It is still uncertain when teams would be able to sign undrafted free agents.
It was vital for the NFLPA to have enough time for recertification and have a period of time for the renewed union to work out final details of its benefit plans.
Only a union can negotiate benefits for its members and the NFLPA feared a Tuesday deadline to recertify would not leave enough time to properly negotiate changes in the benefits packages. Under terms of the owners' agreement from Thursday, players would have reverted back to the 2010 benefits plan if they didn't make adjustments within a certain time period.
According to a source, the NFLPA is so confident it will get the necessary votes to recommend the CBA that it is planning a major news conference for Monday.
The confidence is due in part to the continued working relationship between NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a source said. The pair have been working with each other directly as the sides near an agreement and will continue to do so through the weekend to ensure the remaining issues are resolved, according to a source.
Smith, a source said, has pledged to Goodell that he will also expedite the remaining issues before the first preseason game is played, creating optimism that those games will not be canceled. In that vein, Smith has personally taken on much of the work on the actual CBA-related documents, with his legal team, including NFLPA lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, assisting.
According to the source, Smith took on this responsibility as a show of good faith, because the NFL's management council executive committee had been skeptical due to its prior experience with Kessler as legal counsel.
As talks progressed Saturday, the sides removed one roadblock while moving the dial on another.
A league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter on Saturday that San Diego Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson, one of the 10 named plaintiffs in the players' antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, is now willing to release his claim without compensation, meaning no money or lifting of the franchise tag, on Saturday morning. Jackson was the last of the 10 named plaintiffs unwilling to drop his claim.
The sides also got closer to settling the $4 billion network television insurance case, according to a source. That case, which is in the court of U.S. District Judge David Doty in Minneapolis, involved damages suffered by the players after Judge Doty ruled against the owners.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Chris Mortensen is a senior NFL analyst for ESPN.