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Thursday, February 19, 2009
Panthers franchise Peppers

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers have placed the franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers, setting up a potentially nasty showdown with the four-time Pro Bowl defensive end who wants to play elsewhere next season.

The move on Thursday came moments after the Panthers agreed with All-Pro left tackle Jordan Gross on a six-year deal. Having locked up Gross, the Panthers placed the restrictive tag on Peppers, who had said he would request a trade under that scenario.

"Julius was expecting to be franchised," Peppers' agent, Carl Carey, wrote in a text message. "We will continue to work toward a resolution that is in line with his professional goals."

If he somehow remains with the Panthers under the franchise tag, Peppers would be paid $16.683 million. No other team can sign Peppers without giving up two first-round picks to Carolina.

Placing the tag on Peppers theoretically allows the Panthers to trade him and get some compensation for the cornerstone of their defense. But Peppers has power because no team would likely trade for him without first securing a long-term contract agreement.

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"We've said many times how many times we value Julius," general manager Marty Hurney said. "We would like him to play here."

Gross, who was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, agreed to a six-year deal that had the biggest first-three-year payout to an offensive lineman in NFL history -- $30.5 million over the first three years of the contract.

The signing of Gross takes the level of pay for offensive linemen to a higher level. Last March, the New York Jets made guard Alan Faneca the first $8 million-a-year offensive lineman by giving him a five-year, $40 million contract.

Gross, Carolina's first-round pick in 2003, played last season under the franchise tag in a one-year, $7.45 million deal. Gross, who made his first Pro Bowl and was voted a first-team All-Pro last season, said he wanted to stay in Carolina and was the key cog in an improved offensive line that helped running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have breakout seasons.

"We are very pleased to have Jordan signed for the long term," Hurney said. "He has developed into one of the premier tackles in the NFL and enables us to develop continuity along the offensive line. We are extremely pleased that he will remain a Panther."

The moves mean that all five starters on the line are locked up in long-term deals. The defensive line, meanwhile, is in flux.

Peppers, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft, is a freakish athlete who is Carolina's career sacks leader. But Peppers has also been criticized for inconsistent play -- he had a career-high 14½ sacks this past season, but a career-low 2½ the year before that.

Even in 2008, Peppers didn't record a single tackle against Denver and was shut down in Carolina's upset loss to Arizona in the playoffs.

Peppers, who turned down a lucrative contract extension before the start of last season, has said he would like to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense instead of staying in Carolina's 4-3 alignment.

There is precedent to slapping the franchise tag on a player and then dealing him. Kansas City traded defensive end Jared Allen to Minnesota last year for a first-round pick and two third-round choices.

But Allen first agreed to a six-year contract with the Vikings that included $31 million in guaranteed money and could be worth $74 million if he meets certain incentives.

"You guys know how I feel about all this speculation and stuff," Hurney said, when asked if Carolina could pull off a similar deal. "We franchised him and that's where we are right now."

The Associated Press and ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton contributed to this report.