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NEWLY FREED FREE AGENTS HAVE 5 DAYS TO SIGN

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Keith Jackson and three other NFL players went from holdouts to pioneers when they became football's newest new-look free agents.

Jackson, Detroit's D.J. Dozier, Cleveland's Webster Slaughter and New England's Garin Veris were set free Thursday by a federal judge who said they were still suffering from the effects of Plan B free agency. The league-imposed system was declared illegal by a jury on Sept. 10.The four players, protected under Plan B but not under contract when Plan B was annulled, were given five days to sign with any team. U.S. District Judge David Doty will decide Tuesday whether to extend their freedom until all the appeals in the antitrust trial are exhausted.

Jackson's agent, Gary Wichard, said he's confident the order will endure. Still, he hopes to have Jackson signed by Tuesday.

"What do I need it extended for?" he said. "He's a football player. We've got to get him playing football.

"It's great. It's what we've been waiting for. He's a totally free agent able to deal with any and all teams right now. A few teams have expressed interest in him, and we will pursue all avenues."

The teams involved mostly said that they have been negotiating in good faith, and they will keep trying to sign their players.

"Our door is open. We still want Slaughter on our team," said Cleveland spokesman Kevin Byrne, adding that the court's ruling would not change their view of negotiations.

Slaughter's agent, Brian Duffy, said Slaughter would consider offers from Dallas, Philadelphia, Miami, Buffalo, Houston, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Tampa Bay.

"That's the teams he's interested in," Duffy said. "He's got the ability to go out and negotiate in an open market. His objective was to not play for Cleveland."

Only Detroit broke from the pack, noting that Dozier was just a reserve. Lions spokesman Mike Murray said, "We've gone through six weeks of training camp and into the fourth week of the season without him."

But Jackson, generally considered the biggest name of the group, is another story.

"We're going to have to take a good look at the players available and see if they fit into our plans," Lions coach Wayne Fontes said in a statement. "He's a proven player who might be able to help this ballclub."

Technically, Doty's 20-page ruling bars the four teams from preventing the players from signing elsewhere for the 1992 season. It is the first practical impact of the jury's decision that Plan B, under which teams are allowed to protect 37 players each year, violates federal antitrust laws.

Under Plan B, protected players couldn't offer their services to other teams without first giving their current team a chance to sign them. A team signing a protected player had to compensate the player's original club.

"Some pundits watching the process have said this isn't news until a player is set free, and that's what happened today," said Doug Allen, vice president of the NFL Players Association. "And that's an absolute watershed for NFL players."

"It's definitely a victory for us," said Dozier, currently an outfielder with the New York Mets. "But it's just a piece of the pie. Because although the guy ruled in favor of the players, we only have five days to work with that."

Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer for the players, said Doty's order bodes especially well for the 300 or so players whose contracts expire Feb. 1. Kessler suggested those players would be in the same position as the ones affected Thursday, and thus would likely get the same relief.

"We believe that this decision is a strong indication that at the end of the season that all of the players whose contracts expire are going to be set free," he said. "The days of Plan B are over."

The league disagreed, saying in a statement: "This ruling affects only four players and does not have any bearing - nor serve as a precedent - on other pending cases."

The league has said it hopes to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the players that would make such issues moot. But in the meantime, Doty wrote, the players are suffering "irreparable injury each week that they remain restricted."

"The existence of irreparable injury is underscored by the undisputed brevity and precariousness of the players' careers in professional sports," he wrote, "particularly in the NFL."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said a team will also be harmed by the loss of a player.

"If that verdict is reversed and those players have moved, how do you unscramble the egg?"