One of the benefits of attending all-star games, as I’m doing now, is having some one-on-one in-depth discussions with the very top of the NFL food chain. After four days and six practices at the East-West Shrine Game, I can tell you that change is in the wind and it’s real.

There’s been lots of rhetoric and posturing over the last few months from both the NFL and the NFL Players Association. They’re like enemies preparing for war while their respective diplomats meet in private, waiting for the other side to make a concession or offer a proposal of value -- neither of which, to my limited knowledge, has happened.

After talking to several GMs and team presidents, I can tell you that they too are preparing for the worst. This is the first time I’ve ever heard this group, which is close to the owners, speak in a definitive sense that their owners are ready for battle. Just about every scout, coach and front office executive I talked to has language in their contract that takes a work stoppage into consideration, with specific language that triggers salary reductions at three, four or six games. One of the most respected figures in the business went so far as to tell me that his owner is looking forward to the opportunity to “stick it back to the union.” This type of talk is unhealthy to the process.

Another prominent agent I spoke to thinks some small-market teams will take their player payrolls to as low as $50-$60 million in 2010 from the current minimum floor of $109 million per team. I had predicted that many would go as low as $70-$80 million.

More and more evidence is piling up from both sides that we’re beyond posturing, and real steps are being taken toward a work stoppage, specifically a lockout.

The agent community is convinced that nothing will get done before the 2010 league year begins. The underground message from the owners is that they are definitely looking forward to the 2010 uncapped year. Once the new league year begins, the threat level of a work stoppage in 2011 will rise significantly.

It would be absolutely foolish for both parties to let it get that far. Let’s make some progress, guys.

Follow me on Twitter: jackbechta