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Game On

After four months of labor talks, the NFL is almost back in business—with several significant changes

NFL owners and players are expected to ratify a 10-year collective bargaining agreement by the end of the week, ending a four-month work stoppage that threatened the season. The game will look the same on the field under the new pact, but expect significant changes in how the league does business. For instance, imagine an NFL in which rookie salaries are restrained, two-a-day practices are prohibited and salaries are partially guaranteed against injury on deals with multiple years remaining. Each of those provisions could be part of the NFL's new world order.

"Our thing was always to leave the game in better condition than we found it," said one member of the Players Association's executive committee, who requested anonymity because the negotiations are ongoing. "We think we've done that. There are things that can be built on going forward."

One of the building blocks of the agreement is a simplified formula for splitting revenue between owners and players. The new model eliminates the confusing "expense credits," the money off the top that owners received before the pool was split with the players. Under the new plan the players will receive a minimum of 46.5%, which is roughly 3.5% to 5% less than in recent years, but their cut over the life of the deal has to average 47%, and they believe more money will go into their pockets because the floor of the salary cap is expected to be higher.

Other key points include:

• Rookie compensation: Owners (and some veterans) were upset that top draft picks instantly became some of the highest-paid players—if not the highest—at their position. Under the new system each team is expected to be assigned an aggregate amount it can spend on its rookies, depending on draft position. (But it will not be like the NBA's structure, in which salaries are predetermined and slotted so each player earns less than the person drafted ahead of him.) General managers can then divide the money among first-year players as they see fit. That means negotiations will still be a part of rookie contracts, but there would be a hard ceiling in place to prevent an untested player—such as the Panthers' Cam Newton—from receiving the $50 million guarantee that the Rams' Sam Bradford received as the first overall pick in 2010.

First-round draft choices will sign four-year contracts that include a fifth-year option at the team's discretion. The cost of the fifth year would vary, although it would include a minimum and maximum amount depending on where the player was drafted. The bulk of the savings in rookie salaries across the NFL—which is expected to be at least $150 million a year—will go into the pockets of established veterans.

• Workouts/practices: With so much focus on player safety and the dangers of brain trauma, the players have been fighting for cutbacks on out-of-game contact. The elimination of two-a-days was critical in their minds because they believe the grind of multiple practices contributed to injuries and shortened careers. The players have dubbed this the Eric Mangini rule, contending that the former Jets and Browns coach routinely overworked players to the point that it hurt their careers. Strict fines and punishments—including the loss of a draft choice—for teams and coaches that violate the new guidelines are expected to be included.

• Guaranteed salaries: Previously if a player with multiple years on his contract sustained a season-ending injury, he could be cut in the off-season and his contract terminated. Now the player's salary for the year after his injury is expected to be guaranteed even if he was cut and unable to find work.

It's not the NBA, major league baseball or the NHL, leagues in which contracts are fully guaranteed the minute they're signed. But NFL players believe this could be something for future generations to build on. The owners meanwhile get control of rookie salaries, a rollback on the salary cap and a long-term deal that makes financial sense. And future CBA disagreements could be handled outside of Minneapolis courtrooms.

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ROOKIE RULES The new deal would prevent No. 1 pick Newton (near left) from earning the same windfall that Bradford did last year.



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