A federal judge yesterday cleared the way for NFL teams to sign three to five practice players, settling part of a suit over last year's developmental squads.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth approved an agreement between players and the NFL that was passed Tuesday by a 23-2 vote of owners. Each team will be allowed to keep three to five inactive players at a minimum salary of $3,000 a week. The players can be signed as free agents by other clubs at any time but have to be activated immediately by their new clubs. Teams will be notified by the NFL when they will be allowed to begin signing players.

The squads had been abolished after eight players filed the class action suit, which said players were receiving only $1,000 a week, compared with the $50,000 season minimum for an active player, and had no freedom of movement.

The lawsuit seeking $30 million in damages for players who were on the developmental squads remains alive. Teams had voted to abolish the squads because of the suit.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Tuesday that the agreement is "just the resolution of a suit" and is not necessarily a turning point in collective bargaining.

"I think it is significant in that the issues were resolved in a settlement and not through collective bargaining," said Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association. "It's a departure in that some in management suggested a settlement was impossible. It's not impossible. I applaud the settlement and the influential role the commissioner had in it."

Lamberth tentatively approved the plan and set a hearing on the suit for Oct. 15. Final approval should come then.

The settlement is one of the first labor agreements in pro football since the 1987 players strike. The league has not had a collective bargaining agreement since then and the NFLPA has said it is decertified as the players union.