BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jeff Ireland knows a good fit when he sees one. So when the New Orleans Saints’ former player personnel director, Ryan Pace, was hired away as the Chicago Bears general manager, Ireland sent a text message to Saints GM Mickey Loomis:

“Hey, keep me in mind.”

[+] EnlargeJeff Ireland
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesJeff Ireland said he's visiting about three schools per week as the Saints prepare for the NFL draft.

That led to informal interviews with Loomis and Saints coach Sean Payton to “see if we were on the same page.” And it ultimately led to Ireland becoming the Saints’ assistant GM, heading up the team’s college scouting department.

“It was a great conversation [with Loomis], had the same conversation with Sean,” said Ireland, the former Miami Dolphins general manager, who said he considered Loomis a friend and “mentor” from getting to know him over the years as a young personnel guy moving up the ranks.

Ireland also knew Payton well from their days working together with the Dallas Cowboys under Bill Parcells.

“Both sides were comfortable. … And it’s great to be part of this organization,” said Ireland, who met with the local New Orleans media for the first time since his January hire during LSU’s pro timing day on Friday.

Ireland said it’s been a “rat race,” joining the Saints this late into the scouting process. He’s been visiting about three schools per week while also getting to know the Saints’ scouts and coaches and helping to put their draft board together.

But he said it’s been a great experience after he spent last season out of football for the first time in nearly two decades.

“I was watching a lot of football, but it’s different when you’re watching football on the couch versus watching football in the meeting room and writing reports,” Ireland said. “When you’re out of football and you love football, you grow to appreciate the game more. I missed it so much. I missed the relationships that you have.

“It’s good to be back in the mix.”

Among other topics Ireland discussed:

  • Ireland said he “didn’t start the conversation” about trading for former Dolphins linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, whom Ireland had signed to a five-year, $35 million contract two years ago. But he said he was certainly part of the conversation, since he had intimate knowledge of Ellerbe. "He's a productive football player. He's a great person. He’s a good leader. He's athletic,” Ireland said. “I only got the one year with him. He's transitioning defenses. We've got to get him healthy [after he missed 15 games last year with a hip injury]. And if he gets back to full health, he's going to be a productive football player for this franchise."
  • Ireland joked that it was a “prerequisite” for him taking the job that the Saints load up with nine draft picks, including two first-rounders. But on a serious note, he said that opens up a world of possibilities. “It gives you a lot of flexibility. You can do pretty much anything you want to in the early rounds of the draft. You can slide back, you can move up, you can use a combination of picks to do anything you want. Again, that's going to be up to Mickey and Sean. I'm gonna be part of the process. My job is to put the board together and make sure we've got players in the right positions, and let them make the decisions based on what they need."
  • Ireland said “you don’t want to make a habit of trading young players away.” But he said of the bold moves the Saints made this offseason, including trading away Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills: “In this particular instance, those were some things that Mickey and Sean wanted to do, and we were all for it as an organization. And we’re looking forward to [having so many draft picks now], because we’ve got some holes to fill.”

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers added more depth at wide receiver on Friday, signing Jarrett Boykin to a one-year deal.

Boykin, who attended Butler High School in Charlotte, visited the Panthers a few weeks ago. He became a free agent after spending the past three seasons with the Green Bay Packers.

Boykin lost his spot as the third receiver at Green Bay this past season, catching only three passes for 23 yards. In 2013, he had 49 catches for 681 yards and three touchdowns.

Boykin is not known for his speed, but the former Virginia Tech standout has good size at 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds.

He originally signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. After only a few days on the roster, he was cut and picked up by Green Bay.

He likely will compete as the third or fourth receiver with Carolina behind Kelvin Benjamin, Ted Ginn Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery.

The signing of Boykin came hours after it was announced that free agent cornerback Alan Ball had signed with the Chicago Bears. Ball visited with the Panthers last Friday and, according to multiple sources, had agreed in principle to terms.

What kept wide receiver Stephen Hill on the Carolina Panthers' practice squad for the entire 2014 season wasn’t simply his ability to contribute.

Quarterback Joe Webb was a factor.

In Webb, the Panthers had somebody who could play quarterback, wide receiver and special teams. To make room for Hill on the 53-man roster a player would have to be cut, and Webb was considered too valuable.

The Panthers made that clear during the offseason by re-signing Webb to another one-year deal.

But Hill’s time on the practice squad wasn’t wasted. He improved to the point that coach Ron Rivera believes the New York Jets’ 2012 second-round pick is ready to be a factor in 2015.

[+] EnlargeStephen Hill
AP Photo/Chris SzagolaThe Jets cut wide receiver Stephen Hill, a second-round pick in 2012, after two seasons and 45 catches.

“Very much so," Rivera said Wednesday during the NFL owners meeting in Phoenix. “He’s a guy we feel has an opportunity. We’re very excited about [seeing] Stephen during OTAs and minicamp.

“With his size [6-4, 215] and speed and his ability to get vertical, if he can assimilate to what we do -- and I think he will; he seems to be a very smart man -- he might be a guy that has an opportunity to contribute for us."

Hill is so close that Rivera doesn’t feel the sense of urgency to draft a speed receiver. That doesn’t mean the Panthers won’t take one in the first couple of rounds if a receiver is the best player available.

But, as Rivera said, the presence of Hill lessens that sense of urgency.

“It takes pressure off us, most certainly," Rivera said. “The big thing, we have a guy that potentially can contribute, and in a big way. And at the end of the day, you can sit back and say he was a second-round pick."

The Jets had high expectations for Hill. But between his lack of production and a history of drops, he never fulfilled them. He was cut at the end of training camp last season, and the Panthers were quick to stash him on their practice squad.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to take a step back and take a break," Rivera said. “The thing I liked about Stephen was how he contributed to our football team’s success. He came in. He had been a second-round pick. He had no assumptions, no entitlement.

“He ran all the scout teams for us. He ran them hard. Gave us great looks, which is what makes us excited, 'cause you watch a guy perform who could very easily dog it, and he didn’t. And you saw him grow. You saw him make catches. You saw him get comfortable in his own skin again."

The Panthers signed free agent Ted Ginn Jr. to fill the need of a speed receiver to play opposite 2014 first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin. Ginn also was brought in to fill a big need as a kick returner.

Carolina also has a speed receiver in Philly Brown, an undrafted player out of Ohio State who played well at times last season.

Athletically, Hill has the tools to be better than both.

“We saw him begin to get comfortable," Rivera said. “There was no pressure on him for a season, so he relaxed and [was] really showing that he is capable."

Because the roster isn’t set, Hill now has a chance to win a spot on his own merit.

“The hard part about giving other guys opportunities is you’re going to eliminate somebody that you don’t want to," Rivera said. “That was our situation [last year]. We didn’t want to cut a guy to have to activate a guy and potentially lose him."

From Sean Payton to Mickey Loomis to Drew Brees and other veteran leaders, the New Orleans Saints have consistently stressed the need to improve intangibles such as leadership and locker-room culture in the wake of last year’s 7-9 season.

Payton indicated this week that those qualities remained a priority with the players the Saints added through free agency and trades – respected veteran leaders such as center Max Unger, cornerback Brandon Browner, running back C.J. Spiller and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.

The scouting reports on most of those guys often point to their toughness as well. And Payton singled out Spiller as someone who has a love and passion for the game.

[+] EnlargeBrees & Payton
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsSaints coach Sean Payton is hoping to improve the culture in the team's locker room.

“Mickey and I said this at the start of the offseason, ‘Let’s not lose track of why we’ve been successful and what’s been good to us,’” Payton said during the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. “And part of that is putting highly-motivated players in that locker room that care about each other. It’s something that seems so simple and yet, it’s not been our secret; it’s just been our formula.

“Getting the right type of guys that are smart, tough football players. That certainly will be an emphasis this offseason, and going into the draft as well.”

On the flip side, I don’t necessarily think it would be right to draw the conclusion that the players the Saints got rid of lacked those qualities.

I have never heard any strong indications that Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, Ben Grubbs, Curtis Lofton or Pierre Thomas were locker-room distractions or malcontents, etc. And there was a specific reason that everyone was traded away.

With Grubbs, Lofton and Thomas, the moves were financially motivated (and both Lofton and Grubbs, at least, were offered the chance to stay if they took a pay cut). And with Graham and Stills, the Saints made it clear that they were valuable commodities who could generate a large return if traded – which both of them did. The Saints believed like they could afford to part with some of their offensive firepower to acquire assets to help build their defense and offensive line. Graham and Stills were the two most tradeable commodities among their offensive weapons.

However, it is fair to suggest that the Saints deemed all of those players expendable – including Graham, whose production was just as inconsistent and frustrating as many of the other players on the Saints roster who underachieved last season.

Meanwhile, the Saints’ culture change can’t just come from the newcomers. In fact, the Saints pointed to their large amount of roster turnover last year as one of the issues they stuggled to deal with (losing longtime veterans such as Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles).

An improved culture and attitude has to come from a renewed commitment within the current group of coaches and players, as well.

“Every year, every team is different," Loomis said when asked how he feels about the current state of the Saints’ culture this week. "And yet we’ve got a pretty solid core group of guys in that locker room, and I’m pretty confident that we’ll have that straightened out."

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando gathered together some of ESPN’s top talent evaluators for this detailed breakdown of each team’s performance so far in free agency (which requires Insider access).

Sando gave the Saints a B-minus, though he admitted the grade is conservative because they’ve made so many bold moves and still have a lot of draft picks that will become part of the overall picture.

I loved what ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson said on that front: "People will downgrade them in free agency and then laud them in the draft, but what they do in the draft is because of what they did in free agency.”

The other analysts – Louis Riddick, Bill Polian and Field Yates – broke down the pluses and minuses, naturally sharing concerns about trading away Jimmy Graham in his prime. But they recognized the Saints were willing to sacrifice offensive horsepower to improve their physicality and defense. And the overall tone was cautious optimism.

TAMPA, Fla. -- A lot has been made of the fact that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has virtually no experience operating under center.

 It’s a valid point. The only time Mariota took snaps from under center in college was when the Ducks were doing kneel downs at the end of games.

There is no question Mariota would have to make a big adjustment if he is selected No. 1 overall by the Buccaneers. But maybe the change wouldn’t be as dramatic as it might seem.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the current league-wide trend is to use the shotgun or pistol formation much more frequently than in the past. In 2014, 60 percent of the league’s snaps came out of either the shotgun or pistol formation.

There has been a steady rise since ESPN Stats & Information started charting this category in 2006. In that season, only 19 percent of the snaps came out of the shotgun or pistol formation. But there has been a steady rise in each year since then and the 50-percent barrier was first broken in 2013.

Exact numbers on how often the Bucs used the shotgun formation last year weren’t available. But it’s safe to say they used it less frequently than the league average. As long as Lovie Smith is the coach, the quarterback is going to be required to line up under center a fair amount of the time. But the shotgun is a part of the Bucs’ offense.

Maybe Mariota’s not as far behind the curve as many think.

The Atlanta Falcons entered free agency with thoughts of upgrading the nickelback position. Right now, they find themselves without a reliable or experienced third cornerback to fill such a role.

Last season, Robert McClain, Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas competed for time at the position. McClain signed with New England this offseason while Wilson and Arenas remain on the street after not being re-signed. The Falcons targeted Walter Thurmond from the New York Giants, but Thurmond ended up signing with Philadelphia.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn isn't overly concerned about nickelback situation or the cornerback spot as a whole. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are projected to be the corners on the outside with free safety Dezmen Southward expected to get an extensive look at corner, too.

"The good thing is, I like having corners that can play nickel but I don't want to necessarily have a guy that's just a nickel,'' Quinn said. "Of all the guys, I know Trufant can move down inside. Alford can move down inside. So those are two guys that, if we feature them, they can do some stuff inside for us.''

Alford, who is recovering from a season-ending broken wrist, seems like a more likely candidate to shift inside with Trufant established outside and the strong possibility of the speedy, lanky Southward also playing outside at corner. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Southward has been working on his press-coverage technique in preparation for the transition.

Second-year player Ricardo Allen, who was promoted from the practice squad at the end of last season, and newcomer Philip Adams are the other cornerbacks on the depth chart right now.

Quinn was asked if drafting a cornerback is a priority.

"Yes, absolutely,'' Quinn said. "Just the fact to have speed and length with guys who can play on the outside because there's some big receivers in the division, too. So we want a guy who can get his hands on them.''

It's still unclear where the Falcons will draft a corner, with pass-rusher their primary focus in the first round and the possibility of losing a second- or third-round pick as a result of the NFL's punishment for piping crowd noise into the Georgia Dome.

Some of the tall, athletic corners projected to go after the first round include LSU's Jalen Collins (4.48), Connecticut's Byron Jones, Stanford's Alex Carter, USC's Josh Shaw, Utah's Eric Rowe and Mississippi State's Justin Cox.

The Atlanta Falcons released a statement Thursday offering their thoughts on minority owner John Imlay, who died of a massive heart attack Wednesday at the age of 78.

Here is the entire statement:

Everyone at the Falcons and across the Blank Family of Businesses is saddened by John Imlay’s passing.

We will remember John as a highly successful entrepreneur and pioneer in the technology industry; a loving husband, father and grandfather; a true friend; and someone who was sure to make you laugh no matter how bad his jokes were. His frequent presence in Flowery Branch brightened our days.

John’s contributions to the Falcons date back to 1991 as a minority owner and board member of the club. We were proud that he continued his relationship with the Falcons as a limited partner when Arthur acquired the club in 2002. John was instrumental in that transaction and remained one of our most ardent supporters right up to his death.

Our hearts and prayers go out to his wife Mary Ellen and all the other family members and friends who had the opportunity to share life with John.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan tweeted about Imlay's passing:

 

Before the New Orleans Saints unexpectedly landed dynamic runner/receiver C.J. Spiller in free agency, they considered a reunion with Sean Payton's original dual threat weapon Reggie Bush.

Payton said he had dinner with Bush in Los Angeles after Bush was released by the Detroit Lions but wound up changing course when Spiller wasn’t immediately snatched up in free agency.

“I was out there [in Los Angeles], we were able to sit down and that was really prior to really the start of it all. It was really just, ‘Hey, this would be a good fit,’” Payton said of Bush during the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix on Wednesday. “With a player like that, it’s more about, ‘Do we have a vision of exactly how we’d use him?’ And I think we did. But a few days later, Spiller is taking a visit, so it just sorted out in a way that was a little unique. I think we expected Spiller to be somewhere else with a higher number. But it all worked out.”

[+] EnlargeC.J. Spiller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSean Payton is eager to get C.J. Spiller going in the New Orleans offense.

Payton continued to rave about Spiller, by the way, during his hour-long session with the media.

I’ve already written a few times about how intrigued both Spiller and the Saints are by his fit in Payton’s versatile offense that loves to exploit matchups. But I imagine it’s a subject I’ll continue to write about more this offseason after hearing the way Payton gushed over him (Fantasy Football Alert!).

“His cutup is unbelievable,” Payton said of breaking down Spiller’s film with the Buffalo Bills. “And I’m not talking about last season because I think it became challenging, but you go back a couple of years and start looking at his screen reel, a sweep reel, a return reel. So when you watch his film you think of a lot of things he can do.

“He’s physical. He’s the most explosive player on the field a lot of times when you’re watching him. And you know, he’s someone who’s been in the AFC, he’s not someone we see a lot of on film. So he’s an exciting player that clearly heading into free agency there wasn’t any thought about, and then after that first rush there was some interest. And I think to his agent’s credit, they looked at it from a ‘how he was going to be used’ standpoint, the system, the offense and wanting to be a part of it. And we feel the same way.”

When asked how Spiller compares to another former Saints dual threat, Darren Sproles, Payton said there are some similarities and differences.

“I think that Darren’s got this unique quickness that, 10 steps can take place in a second. Spiller can hit the edge and all of sudden go 80,” Payton said. “And you see a [passing game] route tree from Darren that’s pretty encompassing, and then from CJ you see X-number of routes [in how he was used in Buffalo]. So I’m anxious to see some of the things he can do in the passing game.

“I think [Spiller] is a little bit bigger. But they are both playmakers that are explosive, so there will be a lot of similarities that way. ... I would say the thing that’s most apparent, though, is I know how much Darren loves playing, and you can tell you get that feel from C.J. as well. I mean it’s everything to him. You can’t put a value on that enough. They really love playing, and that’s contagious.”

Sean Payton said the New Orleans Saints are committed to keeping Jahri Evans as their right guard – though there’s still a chance his contract will be addressed.

However, Payton revealed Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix that the Saints discussed possible trades for both Evans and veteran guard Ben Grubbs before dealing Grubbs to the Kansas City Chiefs for a fifth-round draft pick.

[+] EnlargeJahri Evans
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsJahri Evans won out as far as which veteran guard the Saints would keep around for 2015.

“We knew we weren’t going to be able to keep both veteran guards,” Payton said of Evans, who is due $7.5 million in salary and bonuses this year, and Grubbs, who was due $6.6 million.

“We knew we were going to be able to afford one of the guards,” Payton said. “Both guys we have great respect for, we graded very closely. … [But] we were at kind of a threshold with regards to our salary cap. And we knew we had a young player in [third-year backup] Tim Lelito, he was going to be coming in.”

Payton said Lelito is now projected to be the Saints’ starting left guard. He said Lelito might have been projected as the Saints’ starting center instead if they hadn’t acquired veteran center Max Unger in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks. And in that scenario, the Saints would have looked at either signing a free agent guard or drafting one.

Evans and Grubbs are very similar, since they’re both former Pro Bowlers, both 31 years old and both have shown signs of regression in recent years.

Based on my film reviews, I felt like Evans was still playing at a slightly higher level, especially as a run blocker – though he had some very rough performances in pass protection against Atlanta, Baltimore and Tampa Bay.

It’s unclear if the Saints stuck with Evans out of choice or because they received a better offer for Grubbs.

“Jahri will play for us at right guard,” Payton said of the six-time Pro Bowler, who was due to receive a $500,000 roster bonus on Tuesday. “I think that the structure of his contract with regards to this upcoming season, I don’t know that that’s resolved, in regards to how it’s gonna lay out. Because obviously we’re up against the cap. But I think he’s done a really good job.”

As for Lelito, the former undrafted free agent told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune while at a charity event Wednesday that he appreciates that the Saints “think so highly of me,” but he insisted any talk of starting is still premature at this stage of the offseason.

“Nothing in the NFL is a for-sure thing,” said Lelito, who also had a strong chance of starting at center last year before the Saints signed veteran Jonathan Goodwin later in the summer.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith confirmed Wednesday that the team has been fielding phone calls about trading quarterback Mike Glennon.

The Bucs are poised to use the first overall pick in the draft on a quarterback -- either Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota. Whichever rookie comes in is likely to be an instant starter.

That means Glennon, who has started 18 games over the past two seasons, is destined for the backup role and that has other teams thinking he's expendable. Glennon potentially could land the Bucs a mid-round draft pick. The Bucs then could bring in another veteran to be the backup.

But I would be cautious about letting Glennon go. He might not be spectacular, but you could do a lot worse than Glennon as a backup.

You know what you're getting with Glennon. He's dependable and doesn't make a lot of mistakes. More importantly, Glennon is a good locker room guy and could be a good influence on a young quarterback.

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New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton spent a lot of his time shooting down speculation during his hour-long sit-down with the media Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix.

He rejected the notion that the Saints would consider trading quarterback Drew Brees, while spending a lot time critiquing the new wave of "speculative reporting."

And when asked if the Saints' decision to trade Jimmy Graham stemmed from discontent over Graham's high-profile franchise-tag dispute last summer, Payton said, "No, no, that really had nothing to do with it. Zero."

Payton also said he felt reports were overblown that the Saints were willing to trade just about everyone on the roster this offseason -- though he did acknowledge the amount of trades the Saints made was abnormal this year, especially one that involved a player of Graham's caliber.

Payton said the Saints really had just four or five discussions with teams about players such as Graham, receiver Kenny Stills and guard Ben Grubbs (all of whom were traded) and guard Jahri Evans (who wasn't dealt). He mentioned the Buffalo Bills as one team they had limited discussion with, even though no deal was made with Buffalo.

Payton said the motivation behind the Graham and Stills trades was to use assets in an area of strength to address more pressing needs on defense and the offensive line. The Grubbs trade was more financially motivated since the Saints felt they couldn't afford to invest so much in both Evans and Grubbs at the guard spot.

[+] EnlargeBrees & Payton
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsSaints coach Sean Payton insists all the offseason movement has been about finding ways to improve the offense around QB Drew Brees.

"I think when the season's over with, Mickey [Loomis] and I sat down and looked closely at, 'All right, here's some musts that we've gotta accomplish between now and when the draft ends.' And you've gotta look at every way that you can possibly fill those musts," Payton said. "There aren't a lot of players that get traded. So I think going into the process, skeptical's not the word, I just would have been, 'Are we gonna be able to get value, where we consider equal value for a certain player?'

"With regards to Jimmy, [we received] a pick that's later in the first round and a player that we identified (center Max Unger), so it's kind of two checks there. You're getting an interior lineman, which is one of these musts that we're discussing. You're also getting a first-round pick that you can hopefully help put towards one of your other needs or musts. Obviously we've gotta get better on defense. So there's a give and take there, and obviously there's that challenge in parting with a real good football player like Jimmy."

The Saints have beefed up their interior offensive line with Unger and invested heavily in running backs Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller this offseason. Payton said it's not part of a specific plan to change the offensive philosophy. But Payton and Loomis have both stressed that the Saints have been confident in their consistent ability to generate a top offense, even while many of the playmakers have changed around Brees.

"I know for certain this wasn't about going in a different direction philosophically," Payton said. "This was, 'Hey, I think we will move the football in 2015, but let's find a way that we don't have to score 35 points to win the game.'"

PHOENIX -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn't worried about going into the 2015 season without quarterback Cam Newton signed to a long-term deal.

"I don't," Rivera said Wednesday during the NFC coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meeting. "Our quarterback is a smart, savvy, young man. He understands the dynamics of the game. He's the kind of guy who is able to focus on certain aspects of the game and put things aside."

Rivera described negotiations between Newton and the Panthers as a "work in progress." He's also confident that general manager Dave Gettleman and Newton's representatives will get "something positive done."

A deal likely won't happen until after Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson signs to set the new market for franchise quarterbacks. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said those negotiations are progressing, but there's no timetable for finalizing a deal.

It's hard to imagine Newton's deal getting done before the summer.

Rivera said personally he'd like to see Newton's deal done before the season.

"Personally, yeah, I would," Rivera said. "But they have a time table, both sides do I imagine. Both sides have a plan. Hopefully, we get everything worked out together."

Meanwhile, Rivera is excited to see Newton in upcoming offseason workouts after the first pick of the 2011 draft missed organized team activities last year after undergoing ankle surgery.

While Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly are expected to complete their credits for graduation -- Newton from Auburn and Kuechly from Boston College -- this semester, Rivera expects both to participate in OTAs.

PHOENIX -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera made it clear from the beginning of Wednesday's NFC coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meetings that he didn't want to talk about one of his former players, defensive end Greg Hardy.

That didn't stop the questions.

Sprinkled between questions about free agency, the draft and current players on the roster, Rivera was asked about Hardy and the type of player he would be for his new team in Dallas.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesWhen the Cowboys asked Ron Rivera about Greg Hardy, the Panthers coach said, "On the football field, you've got a heck of a young man."

Many of the questions focused on a conversation Rivera had with Cowboys coach Jason Garrett during these meetings. Some insinuated that Rivera recommended Hardy. Rivera refuted that.

"It was just answering the question about what they were getting in terms of a football player," he said.

Hardy faced domestic violence charges stemming from an incident with his former girlfriend last May. The charges were dropped in February, but Hardy remains on the commissioner's exempt list while the NFL determines whether he violated the league's personal conduct code.

Rivera has moved on from Hardy. This was one of the final times he will get a heavy dose of questions about his 2013 sacks leader.

Rivera is focused on preparing second-year player Kony Ealy and others to replace what Hardy did on the field. He is targeting the leadership of center Ryan Kalil and linebacker Thomas Davis that enabled Carolina to recover from a 3-8-1 start last season to make the playoffs.

Rivera believes, as does general manager Dave Gettleman, that the roster is better now than it was at the end of last season.

Still, questions about Hardy came. Here are a few samples of how Rivera handled it:

Have you talked to Hardy personally in the last few months?

Rivera: I'm not going to get into that.

Do you think Hardy can be successful in Dallas?

Rivera: Again, I'm not going to get into it. He's on another team right now. Greg did a nice job for us. We're very happy for him as we go forward.

Did you talk to anybody with the Cowboys about Hardy?

Rivera: I just told Jason, "On the football field, you've got a heck of a young man." And we'll leave it at that.

Can you discuss your personal feelings on Hardy?

Rivera: For the most part, it was a tough set of circumstance we went through. It was a tough situation. We handled it the best we could and we went forward.

Did you recommend Hardy to the Cowboys?

Rivera: The specific questions we got, that we answered for the most part, was really about him on the football field. And that was it. I'm going to be very vague about this. We don't want to talk about players that are no longer with us. I'm sorry. I'm just going to be very vague.

Was it awkward talking about one of your former players to another NFC team?

Rivera: I don't think so. He's not the only player we've talked [about] amongst other coaches. Whether it's him or anybody else, if somebody calls me and asks me about a player, I'm going to answer it honestly.

These are young men that are just trying to live their lives and find jobs and find work. I'm not going to bash anybody. I'm going to answer the questions as honestly as possible. I'm going to move on, whether it's him or anybody else. It's only fair to the players that that coaching staff that calls and inquires gets an honest answer.

How did Hardy improve from the time he joined the Panthers?

Rivera: For the most part, he had a good career for us and did some good things for us on the football field. I don't want to get into it because it wouldn't be fair.

The New Orleans Saints have been in talks with defensive end Cameron Jordan about a long-term contract extension, according to coach Sean Payton.

No deal is imminent, but Payton told reporters at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix that the team considers Jordan part of the “solution” going forward . And the team would like to work something out long term since the former first-round draft pick is heading into the final year of his deal.

An extension also could offer some salary-cap relief for the Saints, since Jordan is playing under a one-year, $6.969 million contract that all counts against the 2015 cap. That’s the amount of the fifth-year option the Saints chose to extend last year.

Jordan, 25, had a slightly down season in 2014 compared to the lofty standard he set during his first Pro Bowl season in 2013. He dipped from 12.5 sacks in ’13 to 7.5 sacks in ’14, while the Saints’ overall pass rush was too spotty.

But the 6-foot-4, 287-pound has remained highly valued for his versatility as a standout run defender as well as pass rusher, who has been used at both end and tackle in 4-3 and 3-4 fronts over the years.

Among many other tidbits Payton shared with reporters during the hour-long sit-down on Monday, he said the Saints are committed to right guard Jahri Evans, though his contract could still be changed at some point. He said linebacker David Hawthorne will slide over to replace Curtis Lofton at the middle linebacker spot. And he spoke highly of young tight end Josh Hill and receivers Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones, among others.

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