If the NFL and its players continue to make progress toward a labor deal this week, a new collective bargaining agreement could be ratified at the next owners meeting July 21 in Atlanta.
According to a detailed report by ESPN, that would start a timeline in which free agency would open July 28, a scenario in which nearly all clubs could open training camp on time.
The report, which includes details like the expansion of rosters from 80 to 90 for at least the beginning of training camp, does leave the Hall of Fame Game between the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio, very much up in the air.
If a deal wasn't completed until July 21, it would make it difficult or nearly impossible for a team like the Bears, who are scheduled report to training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., the next day. The team's first practice would be July 23, and that could also be pushed back, which would not allow enough time to prepare for the extra preseason game. But the Bears and Rams would have full training camps, and the NFL would play 64 preseason games.
"We have not identified a date by which we have to have an agreement to save the Hall of Fame Game," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Tribune Newspapers. "Time is admittedly running short, however."
Per the report, the NFL has drafted a document called "The Transition Rules," which lays out a timeline for the key dates leading to the start of the 2011 season. There would be a separate period for signing undrafted college free agents, and teams would be given a few days to re-sign their own free agents before the gates opened on veteran free agency July 28.
It also means training camp could be going on while teams are trying to put the finishing touches on free agency.
Some teams — the Ravens, Giants and Jets — have already moved their training camps to their practice facilities from local colleges because of the lockout, which began March 12. The Ravens announced on June 22 that they will practice at their Owings Mills facility this summer instead of McDaniel College. The team's lease agreement with Baltimore County does not allow fans to watch practice at the facility. Their only chance to see the team in action before the regular season will be preseason games or open workouts at M&T Bank Stadium.
With every team losing the offseason, the NFL might not want to allow the Bears and Rams to play an additional fifth preseason game and have an extra week of training camp. That could be viewed as a competitive advantage as teams face the task of preparing for a season in such a short period of time.