NFL Faces Deluge of New Free Agents : Pro football: Players Assn. researcher says there are 600 players whose contracts expire Feb. 1.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 27, Keith Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles is a four-year NFL veteran who ranks with the most valuable of pro football's tight ends. He has started three of the last four Pro Bowl games.

Still, in an era of $3 million or more for the better quarterbacks, and $1 million or more for the better receivers, the Eagles paid Jackson a base salary of $350,000 last year.

Again this year, their offer was short of his expectations, so he sued.

And this week Jackson was the biggest winner, potentially, when he and three other veterans became free agents.

As holdouts, they alone were eligible for unrestricted free agency Thursday when a federal judge ruled on the case. They were the only ones, among the league's 1,500 players, without 1992 contracts.

Thus the NFL question of the year is still out there:

How many other players, if any, are about to be freed?

"I can tell you how many are about to be eligible," Michael Duberstein, researcher for the NFL Players Assn., said Friday. "Earlier estimates this week were wrong. There are 600 NFL veterans whose contracts will expire Feb. 1."

That means the league has three difficult options:

--It can allow the 600 players to become free agents, with others to follow. Based on a Minneapolis jury's findings this month, followed by Judge David S. Doty's ruling Thursday, the 600 will have all of Jackson's legal rights as soon as their present contracts expire.

--It can press for a new collective bargaining agreement, rewarding the players in substantial ways for a limitation on free agency to veterans of, say, four seasons.

--It can develop a new labor plan, replacing Plan B, which was struck down in this summer's antitrust trial in Minneapolis.

Time is against the owners. They must bring either the players or the court to their side--with either a new collective bargaining agreement or a new version of Plan B--before Dec. 21, the date Doty has set for the decisive hearing.

Historically, however, NFL owners have not given in, even after losing in court. They have simply retreated to new systems--the Pete Rozelle Rule, for example, or a first-refusal compensation system or the more complicated Plan B. Or they have persuaded the players to OK a new agreement.

And they have carried on exactly as if they had won in court.

It could happen again.

"There has to be a plan that will work," said Ram Vice President John Shaw, a member of the league's management committee.

An NFL attorney, Frank Rothman, noted that the Minneapolis jury voted, 8-0, in favor of some restrictions on free agency "in the interests of competitive balance."

No league executive or club executive would speculate, however, on precisely which restrictions would be applied in a new plan.

"No one knows," Kansas City Chief owner Lamar Hunt said, adding that it will be determined at an NFL meeting next month.

Most neutral sources have concluded that the players have finally won the upper hand, which was the goal of NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw.

"The only way to deal with the NFL is from a position of strength," Upshaw said. "And the players have it now."

In the meantime, wide receiver Webster Slaughter, one of Thursday's freed four, was dickering with the Miami Dolphins. And Jackson was rumored to be on his way to the Buffalo Bills.

The other new free agents, D.J. Dozier and Garin Veris, reported no new contacts.

Jackson might be en route to $1 million per year. That would be an ironic victory for Upshaw and the NFLPA's attorneys, who have been fighting for Jackson throughout his pro career. He has yet to join the NFLPA.

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