on March 1, 2009 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Peppers decision to shape offseason for Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — With little salary-cap space and most of their core players under contract, the Carolina Panthers are expected to be quiet when free agency begins Friday.

Yet as long as four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers’ future remains uncertain, the Panthers will remain in the NFL offseason spotlight.

While Peppers has made it well known he wants to play elsewhere next season, the Panthers still slapped the franchise tag on him last week. That means they’re on the hook for a one-year deal worth $16.7 million that eats up a large chunk of the salary cap and makes a free agency spree impossible.

But the move also won’t allow Peppers to leave unless another team gives up two first-round picks.

With that unlikely, the Panthers could still pull off a trade for less compensation — if Peppers agrees to a new contract with that team.

Peppers’ agent, Carl Carey, and Panthers general manager Marty Hurney remained mum on the issue Thursday as it appeared Carolina won’t be a major player elsewhere in free agency.

“If you look at our situation, we’ve got our starters back from last year,” Hurney said. “We’ve got a good part of our nucleus back. I think we’re in a situation where we have a good young core that has either headed into or is heading into their second contracts. I think it’s good situation to be in.”

Counting Peppers and cornerback Ken Lucas, who has a large salary-cap figure and is being shopped, the Panthers have all 22 starters locked up from last season’s 12-4 team that won the NFC South before imploding in the playoffs against Arizona.

Still, the Panthers have uncertainty on both lines.

A day after the team released the versatile Jeremy Bridges to clear salary-cap space, fellow offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner decided to test unrestricted free agency.

“He’s going to explore some other opportunities,” agent Eric Metz said Thursday. “We’ll see where it goes from there this weekend.”

Hangartner, Carolina’s fifth-round pick in 2005, started nine games last season due to injuries, including at right guard in the NFC divisional playoff loss.

While All-Pro left tackle Jordan Gross was signed to a giant contract last week that put all of last season’s normal starters under contract, Hangartner was a valuable reserve who could get starter’s money elsewhere.

Long-snapper Jason Kyle and return man Mark Jones are among Carolina’s other unrestricted free agents. Kyle has spent eight seasons with Carolina and Jones was effective filling in for the injured Ryne Robinson last season.

The Panthers on Thursday offered starting tight end Jeff King, a restricted free agent, a one-year tender worth $1.545 million. Another team can’t sign King without giving up a second-round pick, likely securing he’ll stay with Carolina.

The Panthers offered reserve linebacker James Anderson the low tender of $1.01 million. A team would have to surrender a third-round pick to sign him.

The Panthers have also restructured the contracts of starting defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis to clear more cap space that could help Carolina get a talent infusion on defense.

If Lucas leaves — and the NFL Network reported Thursday that Lucas nixed a trade to Detroit — Carolina would need help in the secondary. And the defensive line remains an issue no matter where Peppers ends up.

But the Panthers have a history of making small, cost-effective moves instead of making a big splash in free agency.

“I think our philosophy now is what we’ve always said we’d prefer: keep your core players, keep your nucleus and hopefully re-sign your important players, your good players and draft well,” Hurney said.

The Panthers don’t have a first-round pick after last year’s trade with Philadelphia that allowed them to select right tackle Jeff Otah. They would likely demand a first-rounder in any Peppers trade, giving them an opportunity to draft a defensive end as his replacement.

The next move likely rests in Peppers’ camp. Carey can begin negotiating with other teams Friday. If a deal can be worked out with a team his client likes and with compensation Carolina is willing to accept, Peppers may be leaving town. If not, things could get ugly, with a holdout possible.

Carey did not return messages on Thursday.