IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys are under the salary cap.
The Cowboys released center Phil Costa and reworked the contract of right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau on Friday to get under the $134.55 million salary cap, according to sources. The Cowboys trimmed roughly $20 million in cap room during the week by cutting Costa, reworking Bernadeau's deal and restructuring the contracts of Tony Romo, Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick.
With free agency set to open next week, the Cowboys now have roughly $2 million in cap room.
There is a chance they could gain more space if they reach a new deal with DeMarcus Ware or release the franchise's all-time leader in sacks.
According to a source, the Cowboys approached Ware this week about taking less money to remain with the club. Ware is set to make $12.75 million this year in salary and workout bonus, and will count a little more than $16 million against the cap.
The Cowboys would like to keep Ware at a lower price, which could give them a chance to add pieces in free agency or keep their own free agents, such as Jason Hatcher and/or Anthony Spencer. If the Cowboys cut Ware, they would save $7.4 million against the cap.
Key free agents: FS Mike Mitchell, WR Ted Ginn Jr., CB Captain Munnerlyn, OT Bruce Campbell.
Where they stand: The immediate future of Carolina’s top two free agents -- left tackle Jordan Gross and defensive end Greg Hardy -- has been decided. Gross retired, and Hardy was franchised. Now the Panthers turn their attention to Mitchell at free safety and Ginn at wide receiver. They want Mitchell back because of the attitude he brought to the league's second-ranked defense. They also like Ginn because of his value as a kick returner beyond stretching the field for quarterback Cam Newton. Look for Carolina to let its other free agents test the open market. If the price is right, the Panthers will bring some back. If not, they’ll look for bargain upgrades.
What to expect: Gross' retirement and the uncertainty surrounding the future of wide receiver Steve Smith make signing a veteran at each position almost a necessity. Carolina won’t spend a ton on either because of salary-cap limitations, so look for general manager Dave Gettleman to be patient and let the market level out before making a big run at players. One of the intriguing names is wide receiver Sidney Rice, who was released by Seattle. He's 27, grew up about an hour from Charlotte and went to the University of South Carolina less than two hours away. He would provide the big target Newton hasn't had.
BRISTOL, Conn. -- Greg Hardy is styling, "Krakened" out, as he likes to say.
From a dark blazer with a silk lining around the lapel to designer jeans to blue leather sneakers to fashion glasses, the Carolina Panthers' Pro Bowl defensive end looks like he just stepped out of GQ Magazine.
Being featured in the magazine, by the way, is one of his goals.
"I like to look good, bring my own swag to the game, my Kraken swag," Hardy says, referring to the mythical sea creature that has become his alter persona. "I put my own different flavor on it so when Kraken swag, the clothes line, does come ..."
"That's actually coming out soon," Hardy says of his clothing line.
Hardy also is working on the release of his first rap mix album with Styles P "and a lot of big-time music people." After Wednesday's trip to the ESPN campus for a day of television and radio appearances, he returned to Miami for "40 to 60 hours" in the studio.
"You're going to hear me on the radio real soon," Hardy says.
"You'll be shocked," interjects Sammy Curtis, Hardy's manager and right-hand man.
Hardy, 25, looks like a million bucks. Make that 13.1 million bucks, the amount he was guaranteed in 2014 when he signed a franchise tender on Tuesday.
Hardy is having a blast going from one show to the next, introducing ESPN talent to The Kraken. Many remind him of his prediction that he could beat NBA star LeBron James in a game of one-on-one.
"Make it happen," Hardy tells me of the exhibition game as he leaves the ESPN cafeteria.
Hardy also wants his own ESPN commercial like James has. He even has a script in which he, as Kraken, comes out of the watercooler and scares "First Take" co-host Skip Bayless.
"I'd watch that," the woman applying his makeup says.
Some think Hardy is a bit crazy. He's OK with that. It's part of his plan.
Yes, there is a plan.
"I don't want them to understand me, man," Hardy says. "If they think you're dumb, they let you get away with a lot more stuff."
Behind this alter persona that Hardy wears better than designer clothes is arguably the best new self-promoter in the NFL.
"I feel if you can't get up in the morning and put on your Kraken suit, walk out of your Kraken house and get in your Kraken car -- that runs on electricity -- and drive down your Kraken street and next to Kraken Blvd. to the McDonald's sponsored by Kraken, then we ain't doing nothing right," Hardy says.
"Why not, man?" Hardy says. "We can go green."
When he's not sacking quarterbacks, which he did a team-best 15 times this past season to earn the franchise tag and leaguewide respect, Hardy is a full-time salesman. The product is him.
But to become the product, he had to perform. He did that with 26 sacks the past two seasons.
Since he's established himself as a player, the marketing side has been much easier. But unlike a lot of athletes who have entire corporations behind them, Hardy and Curtis do most of their own legwork.
"I guarantee you everything that is my career, we did," Hardy says.
The ESPN car wash in many ways is no different from a typical day.
"I'm working," says Hardy, who grew up with little in Memphis, Tenn. "Traveling state to state, city to city, show to show, it's nothing new."
It's a little different. Now Hardy is in demand. He did more interviews in New York City during Super Bowl week than many of the Seahawks and Broncos.
"Yeah, bigger scale, man," Hardy says. "The grind is the same."
It's also more fun. People are starting to recognize Hardy on the street.
"Yeah," he says. "But to be honest, I had a pretty good following, man. Like an underground rapper following."
Curtis interrupts to tell how kids at a few events in New York City ran past other players to get to Hardy, whose face became more recognizable when he introduced himself as "Kraken from Hogwarts" before a Sunday night game against New Orleans.
"I made a lot of key moves as far as the entertainment business goes," Hardy says.
But it's the moves Hardy makes on the field that put him in the spotlight. He's so valuable to the league's second-ranked defense that coach Ron Rivera practically insisted the fourth-year player be retained, even if that meant a tag that would eat up more than half of the team's salary-cap space.
"If you don't have success on the field, then you're back to square one," Hardy says.
Despite the tag number and a promise from the Panthers to negotiate a long-term deal, Hardy remains hungry.
He insists he won't fall into that trap of having a drop-off in performance after getting the big payday.
"You have to have a motivation," Hardy says. "My motivation is to be undeniable. I've got fans of all shapes, sizes and colors that love the hell out of me. My fans are some of the best in the whole entire world.
"But then there are those guys that say ... 'He's an average defensive end.' That's not something I agree with. I feel like I'm in a position to do something about it. So I'm going to make sure by the end of my career I'm undeniable."
On this day, he is undeniably sharp. This look is as important to his brand as the black paint on his face and black contact lenses are on game day.
But Hardy still embraces the bad-boy image that makes him a feared pass-rusher even though his smile suggests otherwise.
"That's just the persona you have to live with," Hardy says. "I have fun. I do what I want to do. It's not going to stop now. It's not going to change.
"I don't think I'm a bad guy. I think I'm awesome."
Nobody will argue that with a Kraken.
Wide receiver Steve Smith could have put to rest any mystery about his future with the Carolina Panthers during a Thursday interview with ESPN’s Josina Anderson.
Instead, he added to it.
Smith avoided specifics.
“Here’s all I have to say about it,” the team’s all-time leading receiver said. “I am working out and doing all the things as I am a Carolina Panther. That’s where I am. And I’ll continue to move forward until I am told otherwise.”
Asked if he could see himself playing for another organization in 2014, Smith was equally evasive.
“It’s a business and I understand that, and ultimately decisions aren’t up to me,” the 13-year veteran said. “I’m a player. At the end of the day, if a team decides to move on, I have to either accept that or I go sit at home and cry about it. So we’ll see.”
If the Panthers are going to move on, Smith will be either released or traded soon. Teams can begin talking to representatives of free agents from other teams on Saturday and begin signing them on Tuesday.
Smith is the only one of Carolina’s top four wide receivers from 2013 under contract. Without him, the Panthers would have to secure a veteran free agent as well as use one of their top two or three draft picks on a receiver.
With Smith and his $7 million salary cap number, the Panthers don’t have much flexibility in going after free agents such as Sidney Rice, Hakeem Nicks and Devin Hester, to name a few.
Smith turns 35 in May. Regardless of what happens this season, the Panthers have to secure his replacement for the future. That part Smith seems to understand even more after his talk with Gettleman, who brought the receiver’s future into doubt when he said Smith was under evaluation at the combine.
“Like every offseason they are making moves and making decisions that are going to be, moving forward, for the betterment of the team,” Smith said “Those decisions and those conversations, I don’t know all of them. I’m not in the meeting rooms. But we talked about some things. And what we talked about it is what we talked about.”
Smith could have ended all speculation and said Gettleman assured him he would be on the Carolina roster in 2013.
That leads me to believe there’s a better than 50 percent chance that Smith won’t be back at Carolina. Then again, Smith likes to play head games with the media, so maybe this is one of those times.
Either way, the mystery continues.
But if quarterback Cam Newton doesn’t have protection and time to throw, Jerry Rice in his prime doesn’t have a chance to catch passes. That's why I still believe the pick will go to a left tackle unless there’s not a quality receiver on the board.
This would be the best long-term solution to replacing recently-retired Jordan Gross.
Carolina’s biggest issue there may be NFC South rival New Orleans, which McShay has taking Virginia tackle Morgan Moses with the 27th pick. The Saints need help on the line as well -- as the Panthers made evident with six sacks against them in a late-season game.
If the Panthers aren’t sold on keeping Steve Smith, the team’s all-time leading receiver who turns 35 in May, then they should find a way to trade him for enough value to move up in the draft and get the player that can make an immediate impact.
MIAMI -- An attorney for the trainer fired last month by the Miami Dolphins says his client was improperly singled out to appease a "public outcry for action" in the wake of the team's bullying scandal.
Kevin O'Neill was fired Feb. 19, five days after the release of an NFL report on the scandal following a three-month investigation.
Attorney Jack Scarola issued a statement Thursday saying his firm is prepared to "take every appropriate legal measure to restore Kevin O'Neill's good name." A partner in Scarola's law firm, Chris Speed, said no lawsuit is being immediately contemplated.
"We're trying to help a guy who has been portrayed in a bad light, and let folks know he's not a bad guy in this circumstance," Speed said in a telephone interview. "Mr. O'Neill was a victim in his own right in this thing."
It happened when the left tackle got around to thanking general manager Dave Gettleman as one the people who played a role in his 11-year career with the Carolina Panthers.
"I didn't like you very much last offseason, but I got over that," Gross said with a smile.
He was referring to Gettleman asking him to restructure his contract a year ago, in essence making 2013 the last season of what Gross planned to be his final NFL contract.
Gross wasn't happy about it at the time, but he went along with the request because he's a team player and it allowed Gettleman salary-cap room to improve the team in other areas.
As he got to know Gettleman, Gross learned to like him.
He should. Gettleman is a likable guy.
But there remained doubts about the new GM, even late in the season when he hadn't approached Gross about a new deal. As Gross repeatedly said in response to questions about his future, the new regime has a different way of doing things.
Former general manager Marty Hurney was loyal to a fault. He rewarded key players with contracts that, looking back, were bad for the long-term health of the team. He was particularly loyal to players who had been with the team a long time.
Gettleman's primary allegiance is to winning.
He showed that when he asked Gross, one of the team's most respected players and leaders, to knock a year off his contract -- a year Gettleman probably would like to have back now that he realizes Gross' full value.
He showed that when he traded linebacker Jon Beason, one of the more popular Panthers, three games into this past season.
He's showing it big time by saying the team continues to evaluate Steve Smith and what role -- if any -- he will have in 2014 for the reigning NFC South champions.
That he said it about the team's all-time leading receiver without much provocation sent a message loud and clear that Hurney's way was a thing of the past.
It's like a story of good cop, bad cop.
Gross finally got over his dislike for Gettleman by spending time with him. Gross told me on Sunday, during Smith's fundraiser to fight domestic violence, that his good friend needed to do the same.
That reportedly happened Tuesday when Smith, at his own request, met with Gettleman. What, if anything, will come of it remains to be seen.
As I wrote when Gettleman first raised questions about Smith's future, the 13-year veteran deserved better treatment. Gettleman should have talked to Smith before talking to reporters, which would have prevented this from becoming a soap opera and angering a player you don't want angry.
But this is Carolina's new way of doing things. Gettleman has taken emotion out of the equation. He has been entrusted with doing his job without interference from team owner Jerry Richardson, who in the past might have protected Smith.
"When I went there as a rookie, that's all everybody told me about, that it's a real family organization 'cause that's how Jerry Richardson runs it," defensive end Greg Hardy told me during a Wednesday trip to ESPN headquarters.
"Gettleman coming in with a money-first attitude ticked everybody off, man. So he kind of changed the face of the organization to: It is a business, and once business is settled we can be a family."
It's hard to argue with the formula. It's one that, as Gettleman learned in his time with the New York Giants, wins Super Bowls. It's a my-way-or-the-highway approach that might even be essential in tough salary-cap times.
Gettleman is looking at the cold, hard facts that say only 16 times in NFL history has a receiver gained 1,000 yards after turning 35, and not once since Derrick Mason in 2009. Smith turns 35 in May.
But the GM can't overlook that there are star receivers who had more receptions at the age of 35 than at 34. Drew Hill improved from 74 to 90. Tim Brown went from 76 to 91. Cris Carter went from 90 to 96.
This isn't like when San Francisco let Jerry Rice go after the 2000 season. The 49ers had Terrell Owens emerging as a superstar.
The Panthers have ... well, nobody after Smith.
Smith still can be a No. 1 receiver for another year, maybe two. He'd make a helluva No. 2 receiver if the Panthers could find a No. 1 in free agency or the draft.
Gettleman doesn't appear to deal in ifs or possibilities. He looks at what's best long term.
He treats it like a business, even though the Panthers come off as one big, happy family.
That's reality. If Smith wants to remain with the team and ride off into the sunset as Gross did with a news conference full of laughter and tears, he probably will have to agree to a lesser role -- if not a lesser contract. And even that might not be enough for Gettleman.
Gettleman just has a different way of looking at things. While Smith is chasing numbers, attempting to finish his career ranked in the NFL's top 10 in receptions and yards, Gettleman is crunching them.
That doesn't always make for a harmonious relationship.
Gross got past that and, in the end, found an appreciation for Gettleman.
Smith must get to that point, too.
Gettleman isn't going anywhere.
There might not be a team that is in store for a rougher offseason than the Panthers. After placing the franchise tag on Greg Hardy, Carolina has plenty of salary cap issues. Look at what defensive backs, wide receivers and offensive linemen (now minus the retired Jordan Gross) are presently under contract for the 2014 season … and these weren’t strong areas last year. Carolina is going to have to be very aggressive and thorough in all three of these areas on draft day. McShay had the Panthers selecting WR Kelvin Benjamin in his second mock.
Whom does McShay have the Panthers drafting at No. 28? Let's take a look:
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Drew Brees is 35 years old. To date, he hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. But are his NFC South counterparts about to catch up to the New Orleans Saints' elite quarterback?
Atlanta's Matt Ryan will be 29 and Carolina's Cam Newton 25 before the start of next season. Ryan has been trying to close the gap in recent years but played behind a lackluster offensive line and with a depleted receiving corps in 2013. Newton has shown signs of brilliance, helping the Panthers clinch the division title, but he hasn't been able to put it all together consistently for a Panthers team that's powered by an elite defense.
Maybe this is the year Ryan makes his move. Or maybe this is the year Newton takes a huge leap forward. If either of those quarterbacks gains ground on Brees, the NFC South could have a whole new look.
The uncertainty is in Tampa Bay, where the Bucs are looking at Mike Glennon, who did some nice things as a rookie but still lags behind Brees, Ryan and Newton. The Bucs have the nucleus of a good defense, but they need some stability at quarterback to make their offense click. If they can get that -- they have made noise about drafting a quarterback or signing a veteran free agent -- they might be able to make the NFC South a four-team race.
The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton in Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the quarterback situations and some other some key offseason topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Who would you want as your quarterback for the next three years: Cam Newton, Drew Brees or Matt Ryan?
Vaughn McClure: This is tough because Drew Brees is the only one who's among the elite, but he's the oldest at 35. At some point, he's going to slow down. So, I'm not sure I want to ride with him for the next three years. Matt Ryan has some great qualities and could be right up there with the right protection in front of him and a healthy group of receivers in his arsenal. But I'm all for the younger, multidimensional quarterbacks of today, and that's why I would ride with Cam Newton. Sure, he has to become a better decision-maker and leader. But Newton, who turns 25 in May, has all the tools to be a great quarterback. And with a strong defense and solid running game in Carolina, the pressure's not totally on Newton.
Mike Triplett: Brees -- and I really don't even think it's close. He has been head and shoulders above those guys up to this point. So the only argument against him would be predicting a drop-off in the next year or two. I don't see that coming yet. He just turned 35 in January. And he had another excellent season in 2013 (5,162 yards, 39 TDs, 12 INTs). He had some quiet games down the stretch -- but that was more because the Saints played at Seattle twice and at Carolina once than it was a sign of career regression. That's not to say that Newton and Ryan are slouches. They're both very good quarterbacks -- probably among the top 10 in the NFL. I just think they're both clearly a tier below Brees.
Pat Yasinskas: After a lot of deliberation, I'm going with Brees. Yeah, I know he's 35, but I'm betting we don't see a drop-off from him in the next three years. Brees has always taken good care of himself, and his only serious injury, to his shoulder, came a long time ago. Brees and head coach Sean Payton are a dynamic combination, and I don't see that changing.
@DNewtonespn Cam. Because, you know, he can actually play outside.- Mr. Baker (@JBwhync) February 26, 2014
Are the Panthers and Bucs following the best model for success -- stingy defense and sturdy run game, just like Seattle -- or can the Saints and Falcons contend by heavily investing in the passing attack?
McClure: Seattle's Super Bowl win definitely turned heads around the league and has coaches dreaming about having tough, rugged defensive players such as hard-hitting Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor roaming the field. The Falcons understand the reality and are doing all they can to follow the model by targeting "tougher" players in free agency and the draft. A more balanced offense and stouter defense are what the Falcons believe will equate to a resurgence following a 4-12 season. So balance across the board is key, no matter how high-powered your passing offense might be.
Triplett: It's hard to argue against the Seahawks' blueprint after the way they completely shut down great passing teams like Denver and New Orleans down the stretch. But it's easier said than done to try to mimic them. Their defense played at an all-time-great level last season. I'm still a believer that great passing teams -- like the Saints and Packers in recent Super Bowls; like Denver for most of last season -- can win big. The best-case scenario would be having a great quarterback and a great defense. I think that's possible this season for both New Orleans (if its defense continues to rise) and Carolina (if Cam Newton continues to rise).
Yasinskas: Everyone talks about how it's now a passing league. But the Seahawks showed defense still wins championships. I think Carolina and Tampa Bay are taking the right approach. They're going to need contributions from their offense. But I think each team has the nucleus of a defense that can carry it a long way.
How will the return of Julio Jones, the NFC South's most talented receiver, change the complexion of the division? Only New Orleans faced him in 2013.
McClure: I spoke to both Bucs coach Lovie Smith and Panthers coach Ron Rivera about this subject during the NFL combine. Both agreed how dynamic a player Jones is and how much more dangerous the Falcons will be with him back in the lineup. Now, Jones can't do it all alone. But his ability to stretch the defense will open up so many other options for the Falcons, provided they upgrade the offensive line. If Ryan has time to get him the ball, Jones should be the most dangerous deep threat in the division, if not the league.
Triplett: I think the Falcons can get back to pushing for a playoff spot if they find their 2012 offensive groove. Obviously, Jones' injury wasn't the only reason they fell from 13-3 to 4-12 last year; they dropped off in a lot of areas, from the run game to the offensive line to the defense. But I think it would be fair to say Jones was the biggest reason. And it had a ripple effect. For example, the Saints used their top cornerback, Keenan Lewis, to silence Roddy White during their second matchup last season since they didn't have to worry about Jones.
Yasinskas: There's no question that getting Jones back will be a big lift for the Falcons. He and Roddy White form one of the best receiving combinations in the league. But Jones isn't going to change the Falcons' fortunes all by himself. This is a team that needs to be a lot better along the offensive and defensive lines if it wants to make a return to the playoffs.
@PatYazESPN it doesnt change much if ATL still cant run the football and address the defense.- Jim Rathernot (@BlackSaiyan440) February 26, 2014
Addition or attrition: What will your team experience more of in free agency?
McClure: The Falcons will lose some familiar faces -- and already have, with the releases of Asante Samuel, Stephen Nicholas and Garrett Reynolds. Safety Thomas DeCoud's imminent release will mean the team has rid itself of three defensive starters from the 2012 NFC Championship Game appearance. Again, the Falcons have the theme of getting tougher this offseason, so losing a handful of players who fail to meet those requirements, while adding a couple of rugged difference-makers -- thanks to some added cap space -- will only make the team better.
Triplett: It will probably be attrition for the Saints -- but only slightly. They've already released several veterans, most of whom had become part-time players. And they will almost certainly let one or two starters -- from the group of right tackle Zach Strief, center Brian De La Puente and safety Malcolm Jenkins -- get away in free agency. But I expect the Saints to keep tight end Jimmy Graham and to stay aggressive by adding one or two mid-level free agents from other teams who can be upgrades elsewhere. That's what they've done the past two years under similar salary-cap restraints.
Yasinskas: The Bucs will come out ahead of where they were. They don't have any high-profile free agents they'll be losing, and they'll be active in bringing in players. The Bucs might not go after the big-ticket free agents like they have in landing Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Dashon Goldson the last couple of years, but they're not going to sit still. They need to add some free agents that fit the new offensive and defensive schemes.
@PatYazESPN Saints will have more attrition but not a bad thing since they're cutting lots of fat.- Craig Jackson (@craigjackson422) February 26, 2014
North Dakota State tackle Billy Turner apparently was one of those.
NFL.com's Gil Brandt tweeted that Turner will visit the Panthers, Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, saying it's one of the earliest scheduled visits he could remember.
At 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, Turner turned some heads at the Senior Bowl. He's not rated among the top tackles. Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Michigan's Taylor Lewan, Notre Dame's Zack Martin, Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio and Tennessee's Antonio Richardson consistently rank among the top six.
But Turner is in that second-tier mix with Virginia's Morgan Moses, Ohio State's Jack Mewhort, Clemson's Brandon Thomas and North Carolina's James Hurst.
He's likely a second-round pick at best, so don't look for the Panthers to use the No. 28 pick on him.
But with an upgrade needed on the offensive line, and knowing general manager Dave Gettleman likes building from the inside out, don't be shocked if Carolina takes a couple of tackles in the first three or four rounds.
They did draft defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two picks a year ago, and that turned out pretty good.
Turner's visit doesn't tell you much about what the Panthers are doing in the first round, only that they are preparing to address their weaknesses -- and tackle is a big one, along with wide receiver and secondary -- throughout the draft.
Hardy officially signed his franchise tender Tuesday, assuring he will earn $13.1 million this season.
"We're going on good faith like we have been this whole time,'' Hardy said Wednesday during an appearance at ESPN. "People have been talking trash about me, talking about blah, blah, blah ... [I want] bucket loads of cash. Oh, I'm not coming back. I'm full of crap.
"I signed a tender like I said I would. You're really 100 percent incorrect if you don't think I'm excited about $13.1 [million].''
The $13.1 million tag number is more than 10 times the $1.3 salary that Hardy, who often refers to himself by his alter persona "The Kraken,'' earned in 2013.
"It's a lot better than a million dollars,'' he said when explaining why he was happy with the franchise tag. "It's a lot better than no million dollars. I'm pretty excited about it. It helps that I'm a sixth-round draft pick and ain't got no money. It's pretty cool to be the guy they waste a franchise tag on, because you've only got one.
"I could see the dislike in it. You don't get the deal and you do have to play out your thing, but that's what I've been doing for four years. I'm used to it.''
This past season, Hardy said he wouldn't mind the franchise tag while the team gets its financial house in order. He also said he wanted to remain with the team that selected him in the sixth round of the 2010 draft.
"This is me saying I've got no problem showing you what I've been showing you every single day of every single year,'' said Hardy, styling in a navy blue blazer in what he called "Kraken'' swag.
"Progress. Getting better.''