A new collective bargaining agreement between the National Football League and its striking players is either close at hand or many days away, depending on whether union or management negotiators are assessing the current round of negotiations.

Two NFL Players Association officials said yesterday they are certain "progress is being made" in the negotiations between union executive director Gene Upshaw and the owners' negotiator, Jack Donlan. Those negotiations include the areas of free agency, pension and severance, according to the union.

The NFLPA apparently believes good-faith negotiating on both sides could lead to an agreement shortly, possibly in time for striking players to return to action this weekend, although that seems unlikely.

But a spokesman for the owners said negotiations to end the 17-day strike are moving slowly and that playing this weekend's games with regular players "seems remote at this point."

The two sides met for the third straight day, starting yesterday morning at a Tysons Corner hotel, and began going line by line over 38 items in the old contract. After a 90-minute recess, talks resumed at 4 p.m. After breaking for dinner at 8:30, a union spokesman indicated the sides had discussed 20 of the 38 articles. Talks continued into the early morning.

Doug Allen, the union's assistant executive director, acknowledged that getting union players onto the field this weekend will be increasingly difficult as the hours pass, but said there is still "a chance" regular games will resume Sunday and Monday.

Allen said Upshaw felt negotiations on the subjects of free agency, severance, pension and the duration of the agreement were "fruitful and productive," and that differences between the two sides had been narrowed in some areas. It was the first direct discussion of free agency since Sept. 24 in Philadelphia.

But John Jones, a spokesman for the owners, said the union still is seeking to change the current system of free agency and have unrestricted movement for players at some point in their careers. Jones said management still wants clubs to be compensated and wants to retain the right of first refusal for players seeking to change teams.

"There's been no crossover" by either party on the issue of free agency, Jones said. Allen said he would not comment on the specifics of what was being discussed.

Upshaw and Donlan appeared to be closer on other issues. Dick Berthelsen, general counsel for the NFLPA, said Upshaw and Donlan had already affixed their initials to at least five articles, then added, "How can you not call that encouraging?"

But Jones said there had been minimal movement on any of the major issues and added that the only things agreed upon so far were in the areas of player fines (which will be increased) and in benefits.

Jones said it is still the owners' contention that it will take days or, perhaps, weeks before the bargaining results in a new agreement. Allen said Upshaw was encouraged by the pace of the bargaining.

If an agreement cannot be reached by Saturday, the owners say they will stage a second week of games with replacement players.

Several owners, according to sources, are against that idea, in light of last week's poor attendance and plummeting television ratings. But some of the stronger owners, including Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm, have indicated they don't believe a quick settlement will happen and are more than willing to play another week of replacement games, sources said.

The NFLPA claims those owners are more interested in trying to break the union than to reach a settlement, and that they hope to entice more players back to work next week, further weakening the union's bargaining position.

"Saying that it will take weeks to reach an agreement is just an attempt on the part of the owners to send a false signal to players," Allen said. "I do sense that management is trying to scare the players into thinking there's no hope . . . I'm not sure why Mr. Jones is characterizing the talks this way. There must be a campaign outside the bargaining room to bring players across the line . . ."

Berthelsen said that when negotiations reached this stage in the 1982 players strike, it took only 48 more hours to complete the agreement. "We have a comfortable sense of how long these things will take and should take if both sides are negotiating and compromising," he said.

Having heard those comments, Jones responded, "They're going line by line through the {recently expired} agreement. There are still major differences of opinion on several major issues.

"The union's expression of optimism at this time could be something of an overstatement. This is a lengthy process, not an overnight process."

Jones said the union's insistence on having an agreement in writing, not just in principle, delays the process. Allen said he wouldn't want to "create any absolutes" about having a signed agreement, leaving open the possibility that union players might return with an agreement in principle.

It is possible Upshaw and Donlan could reach agreement on the original points -- including pension, severance, union representative protection, guaranteed contracts and even free agency -- and get stalled on demands that have arisen since the strike began on Sept. 22.

The owners, Jones said, want the new collective bargaining agreement to run for six years, which is double the length the two sides agreed on a month ago. Jones said the owners don't want to face another strike in less than three years. The players still want a three-year agreement.

The players want replacement games to be stricken from the standings and want statistics from such games not to count. Several owners, including Schramm, Hugh Culverhouse of Tampa Bay and Art Modell of Cleveland, said the games will count in the league standings and that the issue is not negotiable.

Part of the reason why the owners are refusing to wipe out the results of the games played by the replacement teams is because of what one top network official described as "an understanding" between "{Commissioner Pete} Rozelle and us {the networks} and us and the advertisers" that the games will count.

The network official, who spoke on the condition that his name would not be used, said advertisers had been "assured by the networks that the games count" and that was one reason why only three car manufacturers and one brewing company withdrew their advertising from last week's games.

At the same time, the network official said, some advertisers received more air time than usual and new advertisers purchased time.

While the network official said he does not expect the NFL to change its position on counting the replacement games, he said that despite earlier statements that the league would not make make up the Sept. 27 and 28 games that were cancelled, the NFL "may or may not" change its position.

In Dallas, Tony Dorsett, saying he could never be comfortable playing for a replacement Cowboys team, said he may beg Coach Tom Landry not to use him in Sunday's game with Philadelphia.

Landry, who said earlier in the week he expected Dorsett to be ready for Sunday's game, said he would have to monitor the situation before making a decision.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Dorsett, who has been practicing with the new Cowboys team since crossing the picket line last week, said he hopes fans, coaches and management will understand his request.

"For me to step out and play against scabs will always be tough. That will never change," Dorsett said. "I'll just make a plea. If they want me to beg, I'll go out on the 50-yard line at Texas Stadium and beg them not to play me. I'll do it on national television. Anything they want me to do, I'll do. That's how serious I am about this."