The only way Julius Peppers is guaranteed to return to the Carolina Panthers is if they slap the franchise tag on him, a costly proposition that will run general manager Marty Hurney $17 million for 2009.
$17 million for one season.
Peppers wants no part of it. The defensive end announced through his agent Friday night that he has no desire to return to the Panthers.
"Julius is firm in his decision that he needs a change," agent Carl Carey told ESPN.com. "He feels that he can thrive in another system. While he has been selected to four Pro Bowls and designated as an All-Pro during his career, he feels that he has yet to develop to his full potential. This is the case of a great player who seeks to become an elite one."
What we have here is another player with his eyes set on the prize--the $72 million, seven-year contract extension Dwight Freeney landed from the Indianapolis Colts. That contract included $30 million guaranteed. That is the figure defensive tackle Tommie Harris set out to get when he launched into contract negotiations. Harris wound up receiving $10 million guaranteed.
Peppers, who looked headed nowhere in 2007, might be aiming a little high. Nonetheless, he'll be one of the top players on the open market. He had a career-high 14 1/2 sacks this past season, the fifth time in seven years he had at least 10 1/2 sacks. General manager Jerry Angelo would be entering a new frontier in pursuing a player with a deal even close to the Freeney contract. Lance Briggs received $13 million guaranteed in his $36 million, six-year contract. Devin Hester was guaranteed $15 in his $40 million, four-year extension. The Bears are expected to have around $26 million in salary-cap space, more than enough room to take on Peppers and whatever other needs the team has.
Yes, the Bears might have the coach in Rod Marinelli that Peppers is seeking to become "elite'' and Angelo and coach Lovie Smith are known to covet pass rushers. Peppers turns 29 on Sunday. You have to consider how many seasons of top play you'll be able to get out of him before deciding if he's worth pursuing.
Sometimes you don't get bang for your buck when shopping for a pass rusher. The Bears acquired Adewale Ogunleye when he was 27 and was coming off a 15-sack season with the Miami Dolphins. Ogunleye received a $34.6 million, six-year deal. He's given the Bears 35 1/2 sacks in five seasons and is entering the final year of his contract. It hasn't been a bad contract for Angelo, but Ogunleye hasn't been a premier pass rusher either.
Before the Bears got involved with Ogunleye, they made a play for Jevon Kearse in free agency in 2004. He was leaving Tennessee at the age of 27 after having 45 1/2 sacks in four full seasons with the Titans (Kearse was limited to four games in 2002). Philadelphia secured his services with a $66 million, eight-year contract. The Eagles reached the Super Bowl in his first season there. After four years and just 22 sacks, they cut him loose and he returned to Tennessee in 2008.
Then again, there's Joey Porter. He left Pittsburgh after 2006 and eight seasons of being one of the Steelers' most consistent performers. Porter has 23 sacks the last two years in Miami.
It just goes to show you never know what you're going to get in free agency.