CHARLOTTE -- Julius Peppers is ready to stretch his legs.
But it's not just that the Carolina Panthers defensive end wants to leave his home state for the first time in 29 years. From the words of his agent Saturday, the reason Peppers is looking to cut ties with the Panthers has more to do with his desire to make plays standing up as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, something that wasn't available to him in Charlotte.
Peppers' agent communicated the player's clear desire to leave the Panthers, who have spent nearly two years in negotiations to keep him.
"The front office has been informed of my desire to explore opportunities with other NFL teams following the expiration of my contract next month," Peppers said in a statement released by agent Carl Carey. "At this point in my NFL career, I am seeking new challenges that will allow me to grow, develop and reach my personal potential on the football field.
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"I strongly feel that making a move at this time is in my best interest. I appreciate the entire Panthers organization and am thankful for the seven seasons I've spent with the team."
The Panthers still retain the right to use the franchise tag on Peppers, keeping him for one year at a cost of $17 million. But while Peppers said last week he wouldn't hold out if tagged, it's now clear he wants, and wanted, to be moved. That would necessitate a trade, and there was a clear precedent set there last season. That's what Kansas City did with defensive end Jared Allen, moving him to Minnesota for a first-round pick and two third-rounders.
Still, Peppers' hard stance puts the Panthers in a difficult spot, since he's just one of the high-end free agents they want to retain, along with left tackle Jordan Gross. Without a franchise tag, both would be unrestricted free agents come Feb. 27.
"They're in a dilemma because of the number they have to pay," Carey said. "They have to decide whether to pay Julius this astronomical number for one season -- realizing he will not sign a long-term deal, now or in the future."
That stance shakes the Panthers to their core. Throughout the administration of general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox, the emphasis has been on drafting well, selecting players of high character as much as high ability, specifically on defense. They then want to keep those players at home once they flourish, often jumping too quickly to retain their own, but preferring that to letting players they groom get away.
So now that the embodiment of what they aspire to be has spurned them, they're at a loss for words.
Hurney didn't return phone calls Saturday, but issued a statement through a team spokesman that seemed to hold out hope.
"Obviously, Carl's comments are disappointing," Hurney said in the statement. "We have consistently reiterated to Carl in a number of ways how much we value Julius and we plan to continue having ongoing communications."
While it doesn't sound like Carey or Peppers are interested in hearing it, Hurney's lack of other comment leaves one big question unanswered.
The decision to tag Peppers seems obvious, so the team doesn't lose a premier player with no compensation. But admitting as much gives incredible leverage to Gross' agents, and drives his price higher than it already is. Since those contract talks have also dragged out for more than a year now, it's clear the Panthers are stretched thin fighting a two-front war -- with little hope of winning more than one of them, if that many.
Because they won't win the one with Peppers.
Carey said it in a number of ways during a lengthy phone interview Saturday morning -- there are irreconcilable differences between his client and the team. While he refused to go into specifics, he said there were "a handful" of destinations Peppers has in mind.
"His preference at this point is to be in a 3-4," Carey said. "Right now, it's about trying it a different way. I want to be clear on one thing. Julius never tried to legislate what the Panthers needed to do. He has tremendous respect for the coaching staff, and never tried to convince them to do anything different.
"We know the Panthers have made some adjustments in the past season to free him up some, to allow him more freedom. And as well as he played with the opportunity to do some different things, he still didn't get the results he's personally looking for."
There has been a sense among his confidantes that he'd prefer to land in a 3-4 scheme, where he could roam the field rushing the passer like a Shawne Merriman or DeMarcus Ware. At the very least, there's a part of him -- the part that initially shrunk from the leadership role thrust on him by Jerry Richardson -- that wants to be part of a team with multiple threats.
In seven seasons, all with the Panthers, he has notched 70.5 sacks, and was just elected to his fourth Pro Bowl after a bounce-back season. Following a disastrous 2007 campaign in which he recorded just 2.5 sacks, he came back with 14.5 this season.
His leaving, which seems inevitable, creates an immediate need for more pass-rush help.
At this point, 2007 third-rounder Charles Johnson is the likely starter at right end, with solid but unspectacular veteran Tyler Brayton on the other side. The Panthers also have Hilee Taylor and Casper Brinkley on the roster, but both are projects.
There won't be much available in free agency, as the top option besides Peppers is Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who could also play end in a 4-3 set. Otherwise, players such as Arizona's Bertrand Berry and Antonio Smith (who certainly wreaked havoc on the Panthers last week) might be the best options, and they're solid players, but not the kind you build around.
Then again, the Panthers might be looking to fill the void with several players of different descriptions.
Last year, they made runs at undersized rushers Travis LaBoy and Chris Clemons in free agency, and they still like the potential of Taylor. But the reality is there's no replacing Peppers with one player.
The more likely path toward filling that spot would be through the draft.
The top rushers available in the draft include Texas' Brian Orakpo, Florida State's Everette Brown, Georgia Tech's Michael Johnson and Utah's Paul Kruger. It's doubtful any of them would be available to the Panthers without picks they don't own at the moment, since they traded this year's first-rounder to Philadelphia last April so they could get right tackle Jeff Otah.