A couple of accomplished NFL pass rushers suddenly became available when DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers were released to create room under the salary cap in two of the biggest moves at Tuesday’s start of the free-agency signing period.
The Bears cut ties with Peppers, who has 118½ sacks in 12 seasons, as part of a series of moves aimed at improving their defense, including a five-year contract with former Raiders end Lamarr Houston.
The Cowboys let Ware and his 117 sacks go.
“A decision like this, involving a man who is a cornerstone player in the history of your franchise, is extremely difficult,” Dallas owner Jerry Jones said. “We were also in very strong agreement that playing for the Dallas Cowboys would be one of the options we would both be exploring.”
With the cap rising $10 million to a record $133 million, a crop of players quickly found new homes as soon as the market officially opened Tuesday afternoon — and safeties and offensive linemen were popular commodities.
About 5½ hours after free agency began, one of the top players available, three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, agreed to terms with the Saints, part of a merry-go-round of moves at his position. Other safeties swapping clubs: Michael Jenkins, from Saints to Eagles; Donte Whitner from 49ers to Browns; Antoine Bethea from Colts to 49ers; T.J. Ward from Browns to Broncos; Mike Mitchell from Panthers to Steelers; Ryan Mundy from Giants to Bears.
In addition to jettisoning Peppers and adding Houston and Mundy, Chicago agreed to one-year deals with linebackers Jordan Senn and D.J. Williams.
Two of the most sought-after cornerbacks also were on the move. Alterraun Verner, who had five interceptions for Tennessee last season, agreed to a four-year contract with Tampa Bay and Aqib Talib left New England for a six-year deal with Denver.
Verner, 25, could wind up being a replacement for Darrelle Revis, who might be traded or cut to create more salary-cap room for the Buccaneers.
Deals for offensive linemen were highlighted by Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert’s five-year contract with the Dolphins. Albert left Kansas City to take over the position played at the start of last season by Jonathan Martin, whose exit from Miami in October led to an NFL inquiry into bullying on the team.
Late Tuesday, Martin was traded by the Dolphins to the 49ers.
Left tackle Jared Veldheer and the Cardinals agreed to a five-year contract worth up to $35 million. Veldheer left the Raiders, who replaced him by giving former Rams lineman Rodger Saffold a five-year deal. Another left tackle, Eugene Monroe, agreed to a five-year contract to stay with the Ravens.
Former Jets right tackle Austin Howard agreed to a five-year, $30 million contract, with $15 million guaranteed after starting every game the last two seasons in New York.
Guards switching teams: Zane Beadles was joining the Jaguars from the Broncos, pending a physical; the Falcons agreed to terms with Jon Asamoah, who left the Chiefs; the Washington Football Team struck a deal with Shawn Lauvao, who left the Browns. The Washington Football Team also agreed to terms with Cardinals receiver Andre Roberts and special teams standout Adam Hayward and scheduled a visit with cornerback Corey Graham.
The Jaguars also were busy, including a trade that sent quarterback Blaine Gabbert to the 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick, an agreement with former Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, and re-signing cornerback Will Blackmon to a two-year deal.
Kick returner and receiver Dexter McCluster went to the Titans from the Chiefs; defensive end Arthur Jones joined the Colts from the Ravens; defensive end Tyson Jackson and defensive tackle Paul Soliai joined the Falcons; and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell left the Texans for the Dolphins.
Amid it all, the Ware and Peppers departures might have been the most significant developments.
The 31-year-old Ware, who went to seven Pro Bowls while in Dallas, was set to count $16 million against the salary cap. By releasing him now, the Cowboys, who were right up against the cap, saved more than $7 million. Ware had a career-low six sacks last season, his ninth in Dallas. He missed time with a thigh injury, then had offseason elbow surgery.
Others released included Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb (who failed a physical), Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud, Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley, 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers, Eagles safety Patrick Chung, and Bengals center Kyle Cook.
Among players staying put:
—RB Darren McFadden was given a $4 million, one-year contract by the Raiders.
—KR-WR Brandon Tate re-signed with the Bengals.
—PK Adam Vinatieri, the 41-year-old with four Super Bowl rings, agreed to a two-year contract with the Colts. Other PKs getting new contracts: Nick Folk (Jets), Phil Dawson (49ers), Dan Carpenter (Bills).
—CB Vontae Davis re-signed with the Colts.
—RB Joique Bell is now signed with the Lions for $9.3 million over three years, with $4.3 million guaranteed.
—LB Perry Riley and WR Santana Moss re-signed with the Washington Football Team.
—DT Jonathan Babineaux got a three-year contract from the Falcons.
—TE Anthony McCoy got a one-year deal from the Super Bowl champion Seahawks after he missed all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon.
—WR Andre Caldwell got a two-year contract from the Broncos.