The Reggie White Derby is about to begin.
In the wake of the tentative agreement reached by the players and the owners yesterday, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive end is likely to be the top free-agent prize when the teams start bidding on Feb. 1.
Since he was one of the plaintiffs, White can't be exempted from free agency by the Eagles.
The ability of players to change teams if they wish after their contracts expire was a key point in yesterday's tentative agreement. This is what NFL players have been fighting for since 1987, when they struck for 24 days after their previous labor contract had expired.
For the owners, the agreement is a realization that the courts will not permit the restrictions that have characterized previous systems of player movement in the NFL. They were persuaded not only by the players' negotiators but also by U.S. District Judge David Doty of Minneapolis, who must approve any settlement.
Representatives for the owners, including commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and the players, including their lawyer, Jim Quinn, met in New York for a total of 12 hours Monday and yesterday. In a joint announcement, they issued this statement:
"We've had two full days of discussions. We made progress on the remaining issues and have reached a tentative settlement agreement in principle. We will attempt to finalize the settlement on Monday."
White, 31, is still at the top of his game. On the final play of Sunday's 17-13 win over the Washington Redskins, his rush forced Mark Rypien inside. Rypien then hit offensive lineman Jim Lachey as he threw to Gary Clark and defensive back Eric Allen batted the pass away.
Those types of game-saving plays make White one of the most valuable players in the game.
The bidding for White will give a glimpse of what free agency will belike in the league.
Jimmy Sexton, his agent, said that White will have two main criteria when he looks at the offers:
* A team that has a chance to win the Super Bowl.
Sexton wouldn't specify any teams, but the Redskins fit both criteria. They're a winning team and have one of the league's richest owners in Jack Kent Cooke.
Sexton also insisted White will give the Eagles a chance to retain him, although the speculation in Philadelphia is that he's going to leave.
"The same burden of proof that the other teams will face will be the same for them [the Eagles]. They have to show that they can win. I'm not saying they aren't going to win this year. Everybody starts at ground zero," Sexton said.
White's preference for a winning team is the owners' worst nightmare. They've always speculated that the best players will tend to jointhe best teams, although the salary cap will put a limit on how many players the best teams will sign.
But Sexton argues that it will simply put a premium on teams putting together good organizations.
"The top organizations will be the ones that are good in evaluating talent and can sign the right free agents," he said.
A Reggie White can fit in with virtually any team, but some players will fit into systems better than other players.
Among the other top free agents will be 49ers quarterback Steve Young, Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert and Raiders running back Marcus Allen.
Money, of course, will be a big factor. Nobody is sure how high the bidding will go. The top defensive players currently get around $2 million a year. Sexton said he hasn't set a number, but White figures to get $2.5 million if not more.
The salary cap will affect the bidding. Even though it won't go into effect until designated gross revenues hit 67 percent of the gross, teams will have to estimate how much they can pay a star defensive player and still keep the whole team under the cap.
"The job of the general manager is going to become much tougher," said one member of the players' negotiating team.
The general managers already thought it was very difficult.
The general managers were operating under a virtual gag order yesterday because commissioner Paul Tagliabue doesn't want any speculation until the deal is finalized.
But one general manager, who asked not to be identified, said that pro football will become more like college football. A team will bring in a group of players for four or five years and then they'll move on.
"I think without question it's going to change the complexion of how you build a pro football franchise. You're not going to have the luxury of developing players. You're going to have to play them quickly to find out how good they are," he said.
The teams with coaches who have college football experience and are used to recruiting may have an edge because they're going to have to virtually recruit players.
Since the draft will only be seven rounds, the teams will have to sell themselves to the rest of the rookies.
And when they become free agents after five years at the start of the agreement, they're going to have to be recruited again. Not only will the money and the city be a factor, but the players will want to play for coaches they respect.
One general manager said that one of the reasons he liked being in pro ball was that he didn't have to recruit, but he's resigned to the fact that this will now be part of the job.
The teams still weren't notified yesterday of the exact terms of the proposed deal, but when they met in Dallas last week, the proposal called for them to be able to protect only four players during the life of the contract.
"If we lose 10 players a year, that's 70 players in seven years and we can protect only four," a general manager said.
One thing both the agents and general managers agree on is that it'll be a relief to have some type of contract after five years of fighting in court.
"At least it's an agreement," Sexton said. "I think everybody is tired of operating without an agreement."
"I know the league's attitude in Dallas was, 'Let's get this out of the courts and away from the attorneys. Let's get on with our business,' " a general manager said.
On Feb. 1, they'll start doing business in a different way.
Key points believed to be in the tentative deal
Free agency: Will come after five years of experience.
Exempt players: The owners would able to designate one player -- a franchise player -- who can't become a free agent. He will have to be designated as such at the time he signs and remain so for the life of the contract. His salary would have to be among the top five at his position.
Right of first refusal: In the first year of the contract, each team would be able to subject two players to the right of first refusal (the player's team would have the option of matching any offer the player received and keeping the player). In the second year, each team would be able to subject one player to the right of first refusal. After that, there will be no matching.
Salary cap: Would be 67 percent of designated gross revenues. If the cap reached that figure in any year, four-year players would get free agency the following year. The cap would then drop to 64 percent of the gross. Each team would have to spend 50 percent of its revenue on players.
Current litigants: Would receive a total of $200 million to settle all current litigation by players seeking free agency in several separate suits. Those litigants, including 49ers quarterback Steve Young, Eagles defensive end Reggie White, Los Angeles Raiders running back Marcus Allen and New Orleans Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, would be free to move to new clubs when their contracts expire on Feb. 1.
The college draft: Would be cut from 12 rounds to seven.
Rookie salaries: Would be limited to $2 million per team.
Contract length: Six years, with a seventh year as an option year in which both sides would be encouraged to negotiate a new deal.