CHARLOTTE -- Since the day he walked in the door, defensive end Julius Peppers has been a mystery, a locked door he didn't care to share the key to.
He did nothing to dispel that image Sunday as he walked out of Bank of America Stadium for the year, and perhaps for his last time as a Carolina Panther.
The team's 2002 first-round pick will be an unrestricted free agent come Feb. 27, absent a long-term extension or the Panthers using the franchise tag (at a cost of $17 million for one year) to retain him. The other option is to use the tag to maintain leverage in trade talks, and there's a chance that could be the path this situation takes. It's too early to know now, one day after the season ended, but Peppers himself did little to shed light on what's next.
He continued to speak like an oracle Sunday, when asked simply if he wanted to be back here in 2009.
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"Ideally, I want to be in the best situation possible for myself and this organization," he said. "I'm thankful for everything they've done for me, and I don't want to leave them crippled or in a bad situation, and I don't want to do that to myself either.
"Whatever works out best for both sides is what I'm comfortable with."
In the absence of clear statements, you have to read between the lines. And what lives there is the possibility that a trade could be a potential end to this contract dance that has gone on now for nearly two years.
The Panthers offered Peppers a contract that would make him the highest-paid defensive player in the league, but no contract has been signed. It's not that he has rejected the team's advances, but he has tried to keep the issue at arm's length for some time.
The bar for a potential swap was set a year ago, when Kansas City franchised defensive end Jared Allen. He was eventually traded to Minnesota prior to the draft for the Vikings' first-round pick (17th overall) and a pair of third-rounders. That's less than the normal compensation for franchise players (two first-round picks), and it also gives the player some degree of control over his destination, as he could hold up any deal by refusing to play otherwise.
The two are comparable in some ways, for purposes of establishing value. Allen is younger (26), and slightly more productive as a pass-rusher (57.5 sacks in five seasons, compared to 70.5 in seven for Peppers). Peppers will turn 29 next week, but has avoided the kind of off-field issues that have hounded Allen, and remains a better run defender than other pass-rush stars such as Allen or Dwight Freeney.
Coach John Fox had little to offer when asked to clarify the team's position, talking about the "process" they have to go through evaluating personnel.
The Panthers can't place the tag on Peppers until Feb. 5, and have until Feb. 19 to do so.
As for Peppers, trying to gather anything about his intentions from his statements is always difficult.
He has made it clear in the past he is not concerned with the economic aspects of a new deal, and reiterated that Sunday when asked his priorities for his future.
"My future in the NFL, I want to win," he replied. "I want to win a Super Bowl. That's the ultimate goal, that's why we play. I want to be on a great team, I want to be around great guys, I want to be with a great organization.
"It's not about money. It's not about any of that kind of stuff. It's just about being happy."
Peppers was also asked if there was a part of him that wanted to branch out after a lifetime in the state of North Carolina.
A native of the small town of Bailey in eastern North Carolina, Peppers starred at UNC before being drafted by his home-state team.
However, he travels widely, spending lots of time in Houston (where his agent and mentor Carl Carey is based). He trained in the Phoenix area in the offseason, and created a mild media ripple by showing up at a Nuggets game in Denver last offseason.
"I go other places; I travel, you know," he said. "I'm not always here. I work here and I live here but I'm not always here. That's not really an issue as much as people might make it out to be."
Peppers knows that his ability to go where he wants is limited by the Panthers' ability to place the franchise tag on him, and they'd be foolish to let him go without compensation if he expressed a desire to leave.
Fox said he has spoken with Peppers about his future, conversations he wasn't inclined to share. There's obviously a high value on Peppers in Charlotte, specifically since Fox's defense is based on generating pressure with the front four rather than relying on exotic blitzes.
But the Panthers are without a first-round pick thanks to last year's trade with Philadelphia which yielded right tackle Jeff Otah, and management has re-embraced the draft as the means to building rosters.
Either way, a stay-or-go decision on Peppers will be poignant and have long-lasting effects on this franchise, which has many other questions to answer this offseason.
He has had success, and the team has long wanted to retain their own draft picks. He would also be difficult to replace on the field, as the Panthers' defensive line was one of the thinnest and weakest positions on the roster all year.
On the other hand, the economic demands it would take to keep him long-term will be steep, and could prevent them from making other moves.
"I would hope he wants to be with us next year," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. "We enjoy having him. He's a great guy, we all get along well, in our room in particular we're a close knit group, but that's going to be up to him, his agent and Marty (Hurney, the Panthers general manager). I feel comfortable that they will do whatever it takes to get him here.
"I really couldn't see him in another uniform. You know how this thing goes, though."
Peppers likewise answered most questions with a shrug, knowing the Panthers have control of the situation because of their ability to use the tag.
Asked when he thought he'd know the outcome of his situation, he shook his head as he walked to his car.
"I have no idea, man," he replied. "There's nothing I could tell you right now, nothing to talk about right now about that. I don't have anything new to say about that right now. Like I said last night, y'all will be the first to know. ...
"Really, I just need some time to get over this loss, sit back and think about my options and hopefully things are resolved soon."