Slim pickings expected following latest cuts

His eight-year NFL career has included a chronically bad back, several bad relationships and, some former head coaches might suggest, a bad attitude. So when Daryl Gardener is officially released by the Denver Broncos this week, ending his short tenure with a third team in three seasons, it will represent the continuation of his bad streak, right?

Not quite.

Gardener, you see, is one of the lucky ones among the contingent of pending post-June 1 salary-cap casualties soon to be cast into the limbo of the NFL unemployment line. He is the well positioned square peg, already penciled in by the Cincinnati staff to snugly fill the yawning square hole in the middle of the Bengals defensive line, set to sign the deal to which he agreed about two months ago in one of the league's worst-kept secrets.

Per the arrangement with the Broncos and head coach Mike Shanahan, with whom he battled last year in a public display of soiled laundry that led to Gardener's suspension, the defensive tackle will be quickly released. And then he will sign a four-year contract, worth roughly $9.3 million, with the Bengals.

There he will be reunited with head coach Marvin Lewis, who as defensive coordinator at Washington in 2002, coaxed a Pro Bowl-caliber performance out of Gardener that year.

Most of the veterans released this week, and certainly the few franchises still seeking to add a key player before training camps begin, won't find such an expeditious marriage of convenience. Oh, there will be a few other prearranged couplings -- quarterback Kurt Warner figures to sign with the Giants shortly after he is cut by the St. Louis Rams and it will be an upset if Vinny Testaverde doesn't bolt quickly from the New York Jets to the Dallas Cowboys -- but for the most part, the post-June 1 activity figures to be pretty slow.

That is because, both in terms of quantity and quality, the post-June 1 market has changed dramatically in the last few years. What once was an annual roster purge, a time to dump the contracts of a lot of overpaid underachievers, is now a relative pittance. Teams trying to plug in one more veteran piece may have to leave the puzzle unfinished.

Truth be told, the magic of June 1 was always more of a myth, one in which expectations far surpassed reality. But over the last few springs, the post-June 1 pickings have become slim, and this year they could be anorexic. The rationale of waiting until after June 1 to cut a veteran, of course, is that teams were able to ameliorate the impact on the salary cap.

By delaying the release of Warner, for instance, St. Louis will carve out $4.85 million in cap room. The Rams will still have to count $4.61 million against their 2004 cap for him, but get to defer the $6.7 million balance of Warner's cap hit until 2005. It's a maneuver for softening the blow of having to release a two-time MVP who suddenly was beset by injuries and hasn't won a game as a starter since the 2001 season.

"It's not nearly as big a deal as we once made it out to be," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome of the post-June 1 cuts. "Even when it was a big deal, to tell the truth, it was probably overrated."

Indeed, those teams who have felt they might enrich their rosters significantly after June 1 have basically been panning for fool's gold. There are some excellent examples of players signed after the June 1 cuts who have made considerable contributions -- Tampa Bay, for instance, might not have won Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002 had the Bucs not snatched up wide receiver Keenan McCardell after Jacksonville released him -- but such cases clearly are becoming rarer.

That's essentially because teams have done a much better job of cap management and there isn't quite as much "contract dumping" necessary to create wiggle room to sign a club's draft choices. Although the number is skewed a bit, because there are eight clubs with more than $7 million apiece in cap room, the average franchise will enter June with about $4.8 million in cap space.

The cap-whittling process that once was reserved for June, now comes more often in March, when teams must be in compliance with the spending limit. Teams regularly now build March roster bonuses into the contracts of borderline veterans. That forces a team to make an earlier decision, perhaps three months prior to when they used to decide, on that veteran's future. The maneuver has helped stanch the transfusion of players into the post-June 1 free agency, because most of them are already in the market.

Said one personnel director: "Basically, the June 1 date has been kicked forward by three months or so. If you're holding your breath waiting for a lot of (quality) to be dumped into free agency in June, well, you'd better exhale, (because) it's not going to happen. I don't see this year as being much different from recent ones. For the most part, everyone knows the names (of players who will be released). There won't be many surprises."

For sure, the names of pending cap casualties have been kicked around for months, it seems. Several teams signaled their intentions by requesting that players on the chopping block not participate in offseason conditioning programs. Other clubs afforded veterans, such as Gardener, permission to begin shopping themselves early.

Veterans certain to be whacked, as early as 4:01 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, include Gardener, Warner, Testaverde, Atlanta cornerback Tyrone Williams, Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon, San Francisco free safety Zack Bronson, Washington middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and Green Bay defensive end Joe Johnson.

The player who recently has garnered the most publicity, Titans tailback Eddie George, isn't likely to be an immediate cap casualty. After a week of public posturing, there is still a chance, albeit slim, that the two sides will stumble onto some middle ground that seems to satisfy everyone's concerns, and allows George to finish his career with the only club for which he has ever played.

Before a divorce, Titans officials have to be convinced they have a viable replacement for George, likely second-year veteran Chris Brown. For his part, George, who is due a base salary of $4.25 million, has to understand the market, to make sure some team will pay him the $2 million-$2.5 million to which Tennessee wants him to slash his salary. Make no mistake, though, there figures to be a decent market for George if he is released. Ditto former Cleveland starting quarterback Tim Couch, who is also not expected to be cut for at least another few weeks, as the Browns continue to explore potential trades for him.

Not every post-June 1 cap casualty can be so confident.

For every Warner and Testaverde, who know they have roster spots reserved with other teams, there are players who will be thrust into uncertainty this week. And for many of those players, relocating means lowering one's financial expectations, since the majority of veterans released after June 1 will end up signing minimum salary contracts.

So who are some of the more serviceable veterans who figure to be on the open market in the next few days? Well, despite age and declining production, Gildon might still catch on somewhere as a situational pass rusher. If defensive lineman Bryan Robinson is cut by Chicago, he will have at least modest value, given his ability to play both end and tackle. Trotter is a two-time Pro Bowl performer and, while his creaky knees have slowed him, there are still a few teams in need of a middle linebacker run-stuffer. Bronson should have no trouble finding a home, perhaps in Atlanta, where former 49ers coordinator Jim Mora is now the head coach.

The post-June 1 list could also include a pair of former 2001 first-round selections, wide receiver David Terrell of Chicago and Tampa Bay offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker, who might attract suitors.

In three seasons, Terrell has started only 15 games and has just 86 receptions. But there are teams, such as Miami, looking for a No. 3 wideout and perhaps willing to provide the speedy Terrell the chance to see if a change of scenery helps. Walker has averaged 14 starts a year, lined up at both tackle spots, but been largely inconsistent. He has never been a favorite of coach Jon Gruden but, at only 24 years of age, there remains plenty of time for him to develop his skills.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.