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CBA talks expected to begin in April, Mara says

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Is it time for the NFL to eliminate the franchise tag? (1:21)

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PHOENIX -- Talks between the NFL and its players union on a new collective bargaining agreement are expected to begin in early to mid-April, New York Giants owner John Mara said Tuesday at the NFL's annual meeting.

Mara said there already have been talks "at the staff level" about setting up negotiating sessions for a new CBA. The current agreement, signed in 2011 following an offseason lockout, expires after the 2020 season.

Sources with the NFL and the NFL Players Association say both sides are motivated to reach a new agreement and avoid a work stoppage this time around. However, those sources cautioned that the collective bargaining process is complicated and unpredictable, and there's no guarantee a new agreement would be reached this offseason just because discussions begin.

"Any conversation with NFL owners will be a renegotiation for a new deal, not an extension," NFLPA president Eric Winston responded via Twitter. "At our board meetings, we told everyone to prepare for a work stoppage; nothing has changed."

The conversations that have taken place so far have dealt mainly with logistics, one source said. That means staffers from the NFL and NFLPA have discussed scheduling, timing and potential agendas for meetings that could take place this spring and summer, but that negotiators have yet to engage in serious discussions on the issues that would drive any new agreement.

Sources on both sides say it is unclear which of those issues will prove to be the most pivotal or hotly contested, but those sources offered some idea of what each side might be seeking in a new deal.

Owners are expected to seek mainly financial gains, most prominently new stadium credits similar to the ones they secured in the 2011 deal. Stadium credits are allotments of money that come off the top of the revenue pile before the revenue is split with the players and are used to assist teams with stadium renovations or new stadium construction. The NFL used up all of the stadium credits from the 2011 deal a couple of years ago, meaning new projects in Los Angeles and Las Vegas as well as hoped-for projects or renovations in places such as Cleveland and Buffalo are not reaping the benefits of that system. In order to help with such projects and ones to come, owners are expected to seek stadium credits in the new deal.

That would, of course, require some concessions, as the players union likely won't be eager to hand over chunks of revenue that aren't part of the pool they split with the owners. The 2011 CBA reduced the players' share of revenue from 51 percent to 47 percent, but in return, the players secured concessions such as reduced offseason workloads and post-career health and financial benefits.

The NFLPA held its annual player representative meeting in Miami earlier this month, and issues important to the players for the next round of CBA talks were a major point of discussion. Some of the more prominent that appear to be important to the players this time around include:

  • Trying to increase the revenue share from that 47 percent mark.

  • Trying to create structures that create more avenues for players and agents to secure greater guarantees in contracts. For example, raising the spending "floor" that currently requires teams to spend 89 percent of their salary cap in cash over a four-year period or doing away with the antiquated "fully funded rule" that requires teams to hold fully guaranteed contract money in escrow.

  • Adjusting rules that get to the issues of players' freedom over their contract situations -- for example, the franchise tag, the fifth-year option for first-round rookie contracts and the length of time it takes rookies to reach free agency.

  • The personal conduct policy, which was unilaterally changed by the NFL in 2014 after the league tried to engage the union in discussions but refused to accede to the union's request that the policy be collectively bargained.

  • Potential updates or improvements to the drug policy and programs that could be put in place to address players' mental health.

The league and its union have almost two years to come to an agreement, so the potential start of talks in the coming weeks is a good sign that they could settle on a new CBA before the current agreement expires. But it's a long and complicated process subject to fits, starts and unforeseen impasses. Sources on both sides cautioned that this is only the beginning.