Ayers, a five-year veteran with the Broncos, picked up a career-high 5.5 sacks last season along with 29 total tackles.
A former first-round pick out of Tennessee, Ayers started in 27 of a possible 72 games for the Broncos, including three last season. The Cowboys can upgrade the defensive line by signing Ayers to become the starting right defensive end, Ware's side, or getting another player in the NFL draft.
The Cowboys are not expected to be major players in free agency and will only make a move if it makes sense financially. At the start of free agency on Tuesday, the Cowboys had roughly $1.1 million in cap space. But after Ware was cut, the team has nearly $9 million in space Wednesday.
Once a team stocked with enough players to field a softball team in an over-30 league, the Cowboys are getting young.
With the releases of DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin, the Cowboys have three starters over 30 years old in Tony Romo, who turns 34 next month, Jason Witten, who turns 32 in May and Doug Free, who turned 30 in January.
The only other thirty-somethings on the roster are backup quarterback Kyle Orton, who is 31, and long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur, who turns 33 on Thursday.
Not included on the list are free agents Anthony Spencer (30) and Jason Hatcher (31).
Ware turns 32 in July and Austin turns 30 in June.
The Cowboys have refused to use the word "rebuild" over the last three seasons but they have re-tooled their roster moving away from Leonard Davis, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode and Marc Colombo on the offensive line and Ware, Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman on the defensive line.
They have made the decision to not restructure the contracts of Witten and Brandon Carr, who turns 28 in May, unless absolutely necessary so they do not push more money into the salary cap in future years.
For years people have called the NFL a young man's game. The Cowboys are moving to a younger man's team.
It's one thing to cut a player, like a DeMarcus Ware or a Miles Austin, when the salary-cap figures outweigh the on-field production.
It's another to replace that production on the field, especially with a player such as Ware.
Now Jones has to find multiple players for a defense that needs a lot of help with that money created by the release of Ware. There is a lot the Cowboys can do with $7.4 million of salary-cap space with just that one move. They can spend a lot on a little or a little on a lot.
It looks like they are more prepared to spend a little on a lot, which is the right way to go about their business.
They just need to make sure they get the guys they want and have true upgrades on that defensive line and not hoping they get better than George Selvie or Nick Hayden.
With Jason Hatcher visiting the Seattle Seahawks, Ware gone and Anthony Spencer in limbo, Selvie is the most accomplished defensive lineman on the roster. The Cowboys don't play a game that matters until September, but they can't have a repeat of what happened on the defensive line in 2013.
They overvalued their hand along the line, suffered an inordinate amount of injuries and were unable to cover themselves with the right pieces.
There is no doubt the Cowboys have a plan. Part 1 was letting go of Ware. Part 2 will be much more important.
That’s a good thing because with the release of DeMarcus Ware on Tuesday, Lee will have to bear the weight of being the face of the Cowboys defense.
From just about the day Ware arrived in 2005 as a first-round pick through 2012, he was the Cowboys' best player on offense or defense. He could do -- and probably will show people this year he still can do -- anything he wanted.
It is their right and their salary-cap woes made the decision even easier.
But now Lee will be the face of the defense.
The Cowboys signed him to a six-year extension worth $42 million last summer that could accelerate to $51 million if he can stay healthy.
Those five words shadow Lee the way Ware shadowed quarterbacks. He missed five games in 2013 with hamstring and neck injuries. He missed 10 games in 2012 with a serious toe injury. He missed one game in 2011 with a dislocated wrist but played the bulk of the season with it wrapped up like a club. He missed two games as a rookie in 2010.
Lee is everything Jason Garrett wants in a player. He is tough, accountable, unselfish and talented. He knows the score. He knows he has to stay on the field for the Cowboys to have a chance to make the playoffs.
He can change games like Ware can, just in different ways. He has 11 interceptions in his career, two returned for touchdowns. He is a tackling machine. He is the brains of a defense. He can make sure other defenders are lined up in the correct spot. He can cover up their mistakes, too.
Ware could (can?) change games with his burst off the line of scrimmage and by pressuring the quarterback. He could (can?) do things athletically men his size should not be able to do. He was (is?) the perfect combination of speed and power.
For nine seasons with the Cowboys, nobody did it better than Ware. He helped Greg Ellis, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher reach the Pro Bowl because he drew so much attention from offenses.
Tuesday marked the end of an era with the release of Ware and the beginning of another in a way with Lee.
Hatcher is coming off a career year with the Cowboys, earning his first Pro Bowl berth after a career-high 11-sack season.
The Cowboys have the necessary funds to make a play for Hatcher. However, his age -- Hatcher turns 32 in July -- could push them to a younger player at his position such as Henry Melton, who is 27.
The Cowboys will designate Austin a post-June 1 cut, which will free up $5.5 million against the cap in 2014. The Cowboys will not have access to the room until June 1 and likely will need it to sign their draft picks. Austin will count $5.236 million against the salary cap in 2015.
Austin will be the second former Pro Bowler the Cowboys have cut ties with in as many days, joining DeMarcus Ware, who was released Tuesday, saving $7.4 million against the cap.
Austin, who turns 30 in June, joined the Cowboys in 2006 as an undrafted free agent from Monmouth and returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown in the wild-card loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He did not become a regular offensive player until 2009, when he burst on the scene with a franchise-record 250 yards on 10 catches against the Kansas City Chiefs. Austin scored two touchdowns, including the 60-yard game winner in overtime.
Austin finished the season with 81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns, and was named to the Pro Bowl.
The Cowboys signed Austin to a six-year, $54 million contract in 2010 that included $18 million in guaranteed money. He was named to the Pro Bowl again after finishing with 69 catches for 1,041 yards and seven touchdowns.
The NFL, however, penalized the Cowboys $10 million in salary-cap room over two seasons in part because of how the deal was structured in what was an uncapped year.
Last season for the Chicago Bears, Melton played in just three games before suffering his knee injury. In 2012, Melton was selected to the Pro Bowl while playing for then-defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Now Marinelli is the Cowboys defensive coordinator, and if Melton's health checks out it could be a good fit.
Melton, a Dallas native, played college ball at Texas.
But could the Cowboys end up seeing Ware twice a year?
ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick wonders if Ware could end up with the Philadelphia Eagles.
I would bet Philly is working hard to get Demarcus Ware. Very hard.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) March 11, 2014
Now wouldn't that be a kick to the Cowboys and their fans to see Ware end up in Philadelphia?
The Eagles play a 3-4, which might be a better fit for Ware than playing defensive end in a 4-3. They have Trent Cole playing outside linebacker and he had eight sacks in 2013, but he seems to be more of a defensive end playing outside linebacker than a true outside linebacker.
Cole has been solid. Ware has been special.
According to a source close to Ware, the seven-time Pro Bowler will be selective in where he looks and would like to make a decision quickly. The Eagles have cap space. They have a team that looks to be on the rise with Chip Kelly.
It might be something to keep watching.
It will be hard for the Cowboys to stomach because there will be noise from here, there and everywhere if Ware has a 15-sack season and is as dominant as ever, but it would not necessarily mean they made the wrong move in letting their all-time leader in sacks go. If anything, the Cowboys decided to make a move a year too early rather than a year too late by releasing Ware.
"I want to be quiet," Ware said almost a month ago before undergoing elbow surgery. "I just want to let my actions speak for themself. But I do chuckle a little bit because I know there’s a tornado coming."
When he arrived from Troy in 2005, there were some doubts that he could not only make the jump from that level of football to the NFL but from defensive end to outside linebacker. Bill Parcells did not have many doubts, even if he wanted Marcus Spears with the No. 11 pick. Parcells quickly mentioned Lawrence Taylor after the Cowboys took Ware, so I wouldn’t say he didn’t want Ware.
He had seven straight seasons with at least 11 sacks. He had seasons of 20 and 19.5 sacks.
But injuries knocked him down in 2012 and ’13. The Cowboys did not view this from only a 2013 prism only. Even though Ware had 11.5 sacks in 2012, they felt the decline had started.
The move to the 4-3 might have quickened the fall, but there are images of Ware I can’t get out of my head.
It is of Ware in Oxnard, Calif., in training camp. Day after day he repeatedly beat Tyron Smith. He did it in one-on-one pass-rush drills. He did it in team drills. He was the best player in training camp almost every day. Better than Dez Bryant. Better than Sean Lee. Better than Jason Witten. Better than Smith.
He had four sacks in his first three games but then the injuries piled up. Ware's practice time became limited and his production sank.
There is good football left in Ware. He showed it last summer against one of the best left tackles in football.
The Cowboys will only see it if the next team he signs with his is on their schedule or if they pay attention to the highlights.
This is how important DeMarcus Ware was to the Dallas Cowboys:
Remember that Sunday afternoon in Detroit when Dez Bryant was yelling and screaming and the team was telling you it was all productive criticism? It was, and it wasn't.
Bryant was angry about what was happening on the field. He kept yelling and yelling until another of the Cowboys' leaders, tight end Jason Witten, told him to head to the locker room if he didn't like how things were going.
Bryant stepped up to Witten just as the tight end put on his helmet to get ready for work, but Ware -- who was sidelined by a quad injury -- jumped in. He grabbed Bryant and gave him that stare. It was the look your mom and dad gave you if you messed up.
Bryant shut it down, and after the game hugged Witten, and all was forgotten.
If not for Ware snatching Bryant and telling him to calm down, who knows what might have happened that Sunday afternoon at Ford Field.
The Cowboys lost one of their professional football players on Tuesday afternoon.
This is what Ware meant to the Cowboys. He was their elite pass-rusher, their top defensive player, and in some years their top player overall. He was also their leader in the locker room.
Ware would show the younger players about his pass-rush moves because that's what you do when you grow up under Bill Parcells. You teach the young players how to be a pro.
But the seven-time Pro Bowler, the franchise's all-time sacks leader, a man who never missed a game in his first eight seasons, is gone.
Ware took the correct stance by declining a pay cut. With his years of service, he didn't deserve one. Of course, the team thought differently and decided to release him. The team will save $7.4 million. A replacement isn't on the roster currently, the Cowboys need one, and this year's draft is not one where pass-rushers are a strength. Last year, they could have had one, but messed up in the war room.
Ware played with elbow, shoulder, quad, back and neck issues. Prior to the 2013 season, Ware wore a shoulder harness because of surgery. He played last season with nerve damage in his elbow that eventually forced him to get surgery.
Team officials are still stunned he continued playing.
In 2009, he was carried off the field at then-Cowboys Stadium because of a severe neck injury. There was no way Ware was supposed to play the next week at New Orleans.
But he did. He came off the bench and recorded two sacks as the Cowboys knocked off the then-undefeated Saints. Ware was so good in that game that his replacement, Victor Butler, was benched to start the second half.
Ware wasn't perfect; his body started to break down too much, he compiled just six sacks in 2013 and missed three games. At some point, veteran players become ex-veterans because the team needs to save cap space and find younger talent.
While owner and general manager Jerry Jones said it was extremely difficult to release Ware, he didn't believe it was important enough to have him retire as a Cowboy, the way the Pittsburgh Steelers are trying to do with Troy Polamalu and what the Baltimore Ravens did with Ray Lewis last year.
It's hard. I understand the salary cap has to be managed and sometimes there will be sacrifices to create room for other personnel. But I think somehow, the Cowboys should have made this work.
And because they didn't, they have lost a leader on and off the field.
IRVING, Texas -- Now that the Dallas Cowboys have decided to part ways with DeMarcus Ware, their all-time leader in sacks, they must figure out a way to replace his production and more than just the six sacks he recorded in 2013.
The Cowboys will gain $7.4 million in salary cap space by releasing Ware, which will give them enough room to add whoever they want to add on a defense that is in need of even more help without Ware.
As a point of reference, the Cowboys signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal in 2012 and his first-year cap number was $3.2 million.
The best way to replace Ware is with a number of players. The key to the Cowboys' 4-3 scheme is sustained pressure with their front four. Bringing those players in waves is what works best. With Ware scheduled to make $12.75 million in base salary and offseason workouts in 2014, the Cowboys have to re-configure that money to multiple players.
The chances of re-signing Jason Hatcher have improved, but he will receive interest from other teams and will want to check out what others have to say.
If the Cowboys can get a veteran pass-rusher at the price that teams paid Dwight Freeney and Osi Umenyiora a year ago (two years, a little more than $4 million annually), then that is a route they will go.
If they want to spend a little more, then keep an eye on Willie Young of the Detroit Lions. He is something of a forgotten man on the Lions' defensive line, but he has had his moments against the Cowboys.
This point, however, has to be perfectly clear: the defensive line has gone from a need to a must for the Cowboys.
It is quite possible George Selvie will be their top returning defensive lineman in 2013, and he did not join the roster until training camp started.
Somebody send Jones a bottle of vintage port. He deserves it. Finally, he is behaving like a general manager instead of a fan.
Jones made the difficult decision after the 31-year-old Ware refused to have his salary slashed from $12.25 million.
As good as he has been since the Cowboys made him the 11th player selected in the 2005 draft, Ware shouldn't have felt compelled to take a pay cut. Last season was the first time in his career that he recorded fewer than eight sacks. Just so you know, Jason Hatcher in nine seasons has had just one year with more than six sacks, and Anthony Spencer has done it once in eight seasons.
Spend some time on social media, and detect an undercurrent of anger directed at Ware because he declined a pay cut. Some folks believe it exhibits a lack of loyalty to the franchise that drafted him.
Salute the man. He has been exemplary on and off the field. There's no need for either side to be bitter. This is a business decision by both parties.
Actually, if the Cowboys had done a better job of drafting and developing players so they didn't get into a salary-cap pinch, then Ware wouldn't have had to decide where to end his career. It's the Cowboys, with their poor salary-cap management and yearly restructures, that pushed Ware's 2014 cap figure to $16 million.
IRVING, Texas -- DeMarcus Ware is no longer a Dallas Cowboy.
The Cowboys have released their all-time leader in sacks, saving $7.4 million against the salary cap but creating the need to find a pass-rusher for a defense that struggled to get to the quarterback in 2013.
According to a source close to Ware, he will look to make a decision on his playing future quickly and will be selective about where he goes.
The Denver Broncos have emerged as the favorite to sign Ware, league sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
Ware will fly to Denver on Wednesday to visit with the reigning AFC champions, sources told Schefter and ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins.
More than a dozen teams are interested in Ware, including multiple playoff contenders. But Denver is being aggressive on Ware and wants him to form a tag team with Von Miller, the way the Broncos previously had it with Elvis Dumervil, sources said.
Ware put up 117 sacks in nine seasons with the Cowboys, earning Pro Bowl honors every year from 2006 to 2012, but he had a career-low six sacks in 2013 and missed the first three games with a quadriceps strain. Ware, who turns 32 in July, was set to count $16.003 million against the cap with a $12.25 million base salary.
"A decision like this, involving a man who is a cornerstone player in the history of your franchise, is extremely difficult," said Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' owner and general manager.
The Cowboys selected Ware in the first round of the 2005 draft, No. 11 overall, and then-coach Bill Parcells immediately compared him to Lawrence Taylor
The Cowboys have declared Ware will not remain on the roster at his current salary of $12.25 million and have proposed a reduction that would enable him to continue his career in Dallas.
It is unknown what salary the Cowboys have proposed for Ware -- the franchise leader in sacks -- or whether they intend to honor his request. Because the team is under the salary cap, it does not have to release him for a savings of $7.4 million to be in compliance.
Theoretically, the Cowboys might gain leverage if they retain Ware beyond the early part of free agency, allowing teams to spend money on players at his position and creating a depressed market for Ware if he doesn't consent to their proposed pay cut.
Ware had a career-low six sacks and missed games because of injury for the first time in his career last season, when he played defensive end in what was one of the worst defensive seasons in franchise history.