Panthers face tough offseason decision on Peppers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - He was so good a topflight left tackle got benched and Minnesota's coach feared for Brett Favre's safety.


Julius Peppers' dominant game for the Carolina on Sunday also might make the Panthers' offseason decision on the impending free agent defensive end even more difficult.

Three days after the $16.7 million man manhandled Favre and the Vikings' offensive line in a stunning 26-7 upset of the Vikings, there was still a buzz in the Carolina locker room about the four-time Pro Bowl pick's performance.

"He was playing possessed," linebacker Na'il Diggs said Wednesday.

Added safety Charles Godfrey: "That's the best I've seen him play, all-around game, pressuring the quarterback, playing the run, just demolishing people."

Peppers had just one sack and was credited with five quarterback hurries by the coaching staff But he was so disruptive Vikings coach Brad Childress wanted to take the immobile Favre out of the game in the third quarter with Minnesota up 7-6, leading to what Favre called a "heated discussion" on the sideline.

That came after Childress benched Bryant McKinnie, a well respected tackle who was overwhelmed by Peppers.

"I felt the pressure on a lot of plays," Favre said after the game. "Peppers played a great game."

It didn't lead to an end to Peppers' nearly season-long silence. Despite a league rule that all players must be available to the media after games, Peppers was nowhere to be found.

"Not right now," Pepper said Wednesday when approached by reporters before bolting to the weight room.

The 6-foot-7 Peppers provided the type of game-changing performance the Panthers had banked on when they gave him the NFL's highest-single season salary of more than $1 million a game. It came after the Panthers placed the restrictive franchise tag on him in the offseason, defying Peppers' wishes to leave in free agency.

The Panthers face a big decision in the offseason. They could restrict his movement by placing the franchise tag on him again, but that would come with a 20 percent raise and a salary of more than $20 million.

Because Peppers gets a $1.5 million bonus for making the Pro Bowl, his salary cap figure this season is more than $18 million. It forced the Panthers to get cheap alternatives for depth this season, leaving holes at defensive tackle and other areas.

The Panthers, who made Peppers a lucrative contract offer in 2008, could go that route again. But it's likely Peppers would again demand to be the NFL's highest-paid defensive player, which could cost in upward of $15 million a year in average salary, counting bonuses.

The Panthers could also place the franchise tag on him and then try to trade him. But a team taking Peppers would almost certainly have to get him to agree on a long-term contract.

Peppers agent, Carl Carey, declined comment in an e-mail on Wednesday.

If a new collective bargaining agreement is not reached and next season is played with no salary cap, the Panthers wouldn't have to worry about Peppers taking up about 14 percent of the cap like he is this season. But there are still concerns about Peppers' consistency.

While he was dominant against the Vikings, he did little a week earlier against New England, recording one tackle and no sacks. While he returned an interception for a touchdown against Arizona, he didn't have a single tackle against Atlanta, when he was nursing a broken hand.

His 9 1/2; sacks, but is unlikely to match last season's career-high of 14½. He also turns 30 next month.

Still, when Peppers is on, his combination of speed, size and athleticism makes him perhaps the most feared defensive end in the NFL. Since entering the league in 2002, only Miami's Jason Taylor (88) and Dwight Freeney of Indianapolis (82) have more sacks than Peppers (80).

"I think he's had as good a year as he's had, at least that I can remember," coach John Fox said. "He had a little setback with his hand, that set him back a little bit as far as being able to play both sides and find ways to rush the passer. It limited him, but in a big spot, he had a very good game."

NOTES: WR Dwayne Jarrett's disappointing three-year career perhaps reached a new low when he was a healthy scratch Sunday. "I feel like my time is going to come, whether it's here or somewhere else," Jarrett said. "I'm not worried about that. I just have to keep working on my skills and I'll be all right." ... Fox remained vague when asked if QB Jake Delhomme, who has missed the past three games with a broken finger, is getting closer to being able to throw a football. "It's how you define closer," he said.


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