As a Panthers follower (OK, probably fan), I’ve been thinking about what the Panthers can do to solve the stalemate with franchise free agent Julius Peppers. The defensive end wants out of Carolina, preferring to go to a team that plays a 3-4 defense. But the Panthers want to keep him and so used a franchise tag that guarantees Peppers a one-year deal worth more than $16.6 million in ’09. That tag has clogged the Panthers’ cap so much that Carolina had less than $25,000 under the cap before cutting CB Ken Lucas last week. They still barely have enough to sign draft picks, and they won’t be able to address any other team issues (quarterback, wide receiver, defensive line depth among them) until they do something with Peppers.
What are their options? And what prediction (however outlandish) do we make? Read on.
1. Keep him – This is the Panthers’ preference, but Peppers isn’t amenable at all. Unless some sort of major deal is worked out (and that appears unlikely), it seems the only way this happens is if the Panthers wait Peppers out until about the beginning of training camp. At that point, Peppers wouldn’t really have any options in free agency, and his only way to play in ’09 would be with Carolina. A holdout would be likely, but eventually Peppers would take the $16-plus million and play the year. The problem with this scenario is that the Panthers would be in salary-cap purgatory all the way through the offseason, which would inhibit the team’s ability to improve elsewhere. This is not an appealing option, although the Panthers might be stubborn enough to try it.
2. Let someone else sign him – Peppers isn’t an “exclusive” franchise player, which means another team could sign him. But a team would have to give up two first-round picks to sign Peppers. That would give the Panthers an out, but it’s unlikely. Most of the time, when a franchise player changes teams, it’s because teams work out compensation. (That’s what happened with Matt Cassel this offseason, for example.) I’d cast this as unlikely as well.
3. That leaves one option: Trade him – Peppers wants out, and there is reportedly a list of 3-4 teams that he wants to be traded to. (The only details we’ve gotten are Dallas, two other NFC teams, and an AFC team.) So what trades are possible? Let’s delve into four theoretical/hypothetical options to see if they make sense. (Note: These are my ideas, based on analysis but not on reporting, inside info, or even rumors.)
Peppers to Dallas for Greg Ellis and picks – Dallas, the one named team, doesn’t make sense because the Cowboys have DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in the outside ‘backer spot that Peppers would fill. Dallas is trying to re-sign Ware to a multi-year deal, and it would be hard to imagine the Cowboys giving big bucks to both Ware and Peppers despite Jerry Jones’ penchant for collecting big names. If a deal were to happen, the Cowboys would probably want to trade Greg Ellis, who has played down lineman and has a decent-sized salary. Ellis is a North Carolina product (like Peppers), so a move to Carolina would probably be OK with him. But the Panthers would have to get more than Ellis, because a 33-year-old defensive lineman doesn’t have a long shelf life. The Panthers might even prefer Anthony Spencer, a former first-round pick who hasn’t yet panned out. Either way, Dallas would have to include some draft picks, but they don’t have a first or a third this year because of the Roy Williams trade. This deal seems very unlikely.
Peppers to Green Bay for Aaron Kampman and picks – The Packers are one of 4 teams moving to the 3-4 defense as their primary defense for next season. (You’ll see two more of those teams below.) The Packers have some players who fit the scheme perfectly (DE Cullen Jenkins, ILB A.J. Hawk), but one who doesn’t seem to is DE Aaron Kampman. Kampman’s dimensions remind you of Shawne Merriman and DeMarcus Ware, but does he have the same athleticism? It might make sense for Green Bay to trade for Peppers to fill that marquee slot. That would be a big departure for the Packers in terms of organizational philosophy, but it could work. Kampman, who had 9 1/2 sacks and has 37 over the past 3 years, would be an acceptable replacement for Peppers in Carolina. He’s a very good defensive end (almost Pro Bowl level at his best) and would soften the sting of Peppers’ loss a little bit. Kampman plus a second-round pick wouldn’t be a terrible haul for the Panthers in exchange for Peppers. It wouldn’t be equal value, but it would be 80 cents on the dollar, which is probably all the Panthers can hope for given the leverage Peppers has via the salary-cap situation. This move would make sense for Carolina if Green Bay wanted to do it.
Peppers to Denver for QB Jay Cutler – And now the wild-goose chase of ideas really starts to get far afield. The Broncos and Cutler are in a disagreement that is quickly turning into an all-out war. It appears now that trading Cutler, which would have been unimaginable at the end of the season, is now at least a 50-50 proposition. Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels has said he’s not trading Cutler only for draft picks. But would they trade him for Peppers? Like Green Bay, Denver is moving to a 3-4 defense this offseason. But the Broncos don’t really have dynamic pieces in their front seven. So Peppers would definitely fit in. This would also be a fair value trade. Cutler would allow the Panthers to say goodbye to Jake Delhomme and start a new quarterback era that’s coming in 2010 if it doesn’t happen this offseason. Delhomme is a loved Panther, but his abominable performance in the playoffs last year likely portends the end of his tenure in Carolina. If the Panthers could get Cutler, the pain of losing Peppers would at least be worth it because it meant a major step forward elsewhere.
Peppers to Arizona for WR Anquan Boldin – This is wild-goose chase part deux. Arizona is another team moving to a 3-4 defense this year, at the behest of head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who is trying to get back to his Pittsburgh roots. But there’s not a clear outside pass rusher on the Cardinals’ roster, especially after Antonio Smith departed via free agency. Enter Peppers. He would add a pass-rush capability the Cards haven’t had in years and make that defense better. Peppers, DT Darnell Dockett, LB Karlos Dansby, and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would be four pretty good building blocks for any D. So who would the Cardinals give up in return? Bolding makes the most sense. He’s never going to be happy as the second banana in Arizona because of the contract situations he and Larry Fitzgerald have. While a move to Carolina would mean again teaming with a high-profile receiver, the Panthers are probably better able to match Boldin’s salary to Steve Smith’s. Boldin would be the complement to Smith the Panthers have been looking for, for a long time. The move would make both teams better, at least in the short run.
So in summary, what is our outlandish prediction? The trade that’s most likely to happen is the Green Bay move for Aaron Kampman. While that doesn’t sound sexy at all, it would address the issues the Panthers have and allow Peppers the defensive system he wants. It’s a move the Panthers wouldn’t want to make, but it appears more and more that it’s a move they’ll have to make. Patience is a virtue, but patience alone isn’t going to bail the Panthers out of this situation.