Panthers have more to worry about than finding Peppers' replacement

The HeraldJanuary 17, 2009 

CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers offseason is a week old, but they've been through a year of heartache in the last 72 hours.

And while many of them spent the last week ducking their heads, trying to push through the shame of last weekend's playoff loss to Arizona, the decisionmakers have put their heads down and gotten back to work. That work increased Thursday night, when agent Carl Carey told general manager Marty Hurney that defensive end Julius Peppers had no interest in returning.

Hurney has been on the road scouting for weeks, despite the fact the team doesn't have a first-round pick (for now). And while the coaches got to put their feet up for a few days before leaving for the Senior Bowl on Monday, the work never stops.

They've already made a handful of small moves, and had one bombshell explode in their laps, but the heavy lifting is ahead of them.

The immediate speculation after the season that defensive end Julius Peppers had played his final game in Charlotte came to fruition Saturday, when his agent said Peppers wanted to leave, and even if franchised would never sign a long-term deal with the Panthers. It was hardly a shock, as he had already been offered but not responded to a multiyear deal which would make him the league's highest-paid defender.

Now that he's made his call, the Panthers have the option to get something for him. By placing the franchise tag on him by Feb. 19, they'll retain his rights, and can trade him. The market value, established by Kansas City last year when they shipped out Jared Allen, was a first-rounder and two-thirds, less than the two firsts it would cost a team to sign Peppers to an offer sheet under ordinary circumstances.

Regardless what happens there, it would help to have left tackle Jordan Gross signed to a long-term extension prior to that time, since you can only use the tag on one player per year. That gives Gross' agents more leverage than they already had with which to squeeze money out of the Panthers.

The Panthers and Gross' agent worked on a long-term deal most of last winter, but were unable to iron out some small details before the deadline to tag him. Gross' price hasn't gone down, specifically because he played well on the left side this year, earning his first Pro Bowl invite while compiling the most votes of any tackle in the league in All-Pro balloting.

The Panthers have worked for years to get an offensive line they can trust, and the Panthers would be loath to break it up after one season.

With left guard Travelle Wharton signed through 2013, and young starters Ryan Kalil (2010) and Jeff Otah (2012) also in place, doing a deal for Gross would keep the line together for the practical lifespan of this set of offensive skill players.

But again, Gross will cost more this year than a season ago, and if there was a hang-up on one portion of the language of the deal (Gross has said it wasn't the dollars and cents, but the structure), this could drag on.

The Panthers, who abhor rookie holdouts, let linebacker Jon Beason miss the first eight days of camp because they wouldn't budge from their stance of not offering a nonrefundable option bonus. If they take a similarly hard line with Gross' agent on whatever held it up last year, it could send their homegrown left tackle into the market.

With so many teams flush with cap space (the Panthers are in a manageable position, given their needs, and would have plenty if they traded Peppers and cleared $17 million) and a year away from the specter of no salary cap, that's a situation the Panthers hope to avoid at all costs.

They take great pride in building through the draft and keeping their own young stars. But while keeping both Peppers and Gross is possible, it's also far from a sure thing, and will take some scrambling by Hurney and cap specialist Rob Rogers in the next month to accomplish.

But even if they keep Gross, and trade Peppers, the Panthers still go into the offseason with a number of clear needs.

They simply must find more help on the defensive front, which would have been the case even if Peppers chose to return. While they got good work out of Tyler Brayton this year, and Charles Johnson showed more potential, they needed a legitimate playmaking end before Peppers' announcement. And as the last two weeks of the season proved, they need to improve their depth inside. Free agent pickup Darwin Walker was no help, and they even deactivated him for their playoff game in favor of a rookie (Nick Hayden) who was on the practice squad two weeks prior.

They can get by with starters Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis, but they lack any kind of depth, and need a pass-rusher who teams actually have to worry about.

Then there's the matter of the secondary.

Cornerback Ken Lucas' play dropped off, perhaps not coincidentally around the time his future came into question because of Chris Gamble's lucrative extension. The fact he's turning 30 next week and his salary cap number's north of $9 million makes him a clear candidate for a restructure or release. But if the Panthers let him go, they would need more help there, since Richard Marshall backslid this year, specifically down the stretch.

They also need to augment their offensive line -- since key depth pieces Geoff Hangartner and Frank Omiyale are free agents. Special teams will be a factor as well, since longtime long snapper Jason Kyle is also able to hit the market on Feb. 27.

But you can pardon them if they're still reeling.

The shock of their playoff loss to the Cardinals was still stinging, and then came the Peppers news.

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