Patriots appear primed to make a deal with Panthers for Peppers

The trade that sentMatt Cassel and Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs appears to be only the first phase of some major wheeling and dealing by the New England Patriots this offseason.

The second phase, NFL sources say, is likely to involve a trade that would send Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers to the Patriots in exchange for the second-round pick (34th overall) they received from the Chiefs on Feb. 28.

Patriots' offseason moves

Acquired:
TE Chris Baker
LB Tully Banta-Cain

CB Leigh Bodden

WR Joey Galloway

LS Nathan Hodel

C Al Johnson
WR Greg Lewis
CB Shawn Springs

RB Fred Taylor

Retained:
LB Eric Alexander

OT Wesley Britt

P Chris Hanson

G Russ Hochstein

S James Sanders

S Ray Ventrone
S Tank Williams

Departed:
QB Matt Cassel
FB Heath Evans

WR Jabar Gaffney

LB Larry Izzo

WR C.J. Jones

RB LaMont Jordan

LS Lonie Paxton

LB Darrell Robertson

According to league sources, the Patriots and Panthers are hoping to complete the deal at some point between the March 22-25 NFL owners meetings and the start of the draft on April 25. However, a deal must be brokered by Peppers' agent, not Carolina, because the player hasn't signed the $16.68 million franchise tender the team gave him last month.

Peppers would be converted to outside linebacker in New England's 3-4 defense.

The Patriots already were looking ahead to the possibility of acquiring Peppers when they shipped Cassel and Vrabel to Kansas City, NFL sources say, because they wanted to clear the salary-cap space necessary to sign Peppers to a new contract that would put him among the higher-paid defensive players in the league. After signing Cassel to a one-year, franchise-tag tender contract worth $14.65 million, New England had nearly $30 million in cap money devoted to two quarterbacks (including $14.62 million for Tom Brady).

Once the Patriots were convinced that Brady would be fully recovered from the season-ending knee injury he suffered last year, they were comfortable with trading his replacement to the Chiefs and putting the wheels in motion to bolster a defense that has gotten particularly old at linebacker. Vrabel and fellow linebacker Tedy Bruschi are well into the twilight of their respective careers.

NFL sources say the Panthers would welcome the chance to unload Peppers for a second-round draft pick, even though it would be well below his market value, because it would be less costly than signing a first-rounder. The Panthers already have made some belt-tightening financial moves within their front office.

This, in part, could help answer the lingering question of why the Patriots were willing to take only a second-round pick for Cassel and Vrabel rather than possibly go for a higher choice as part of a three-way deal involving the Denver Broncos, who were ready to give up Jay Cutler for Cassel. Without an additional second-round pick, the Patriots might not be able to pursue Peppers.

League sources also point out that the Panthers don't have a first-round choice after trading it to the Philadelphia Eagles and aren't scheduled to draft until 59th overall (near the bottom of the second round). The 34th spot would give Carolina the second pick of the second round and a chance to land a player with a first-round rating who was pushed down to that spot for whatever reason.

Word from the Carolina camp

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney says the team is "not aware of any such conversations" that would lead to a trade of DE Julius Peppers to the Patriots. More ...

Also, according to NFL sources, there is a third phase to the Patriots' offseason strategy. They would like to further beef up their linebacking corps by adding an inside linebacker in the draft. They are known to believe that USC's Rey Maualuga would be a great fit for their scheme, especially when paired with Jerod Mayo, their 2008 first-round pick who was the NFL's top defensive rookie. However, some early projections suggest it might be a long shot for Maualuga to be available for the Patriots with the 23rd overall pick.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is known for making excellent decisions when it comes to acquiring players, but at least one NFL player-personnel evaluator questions whether Peppers would be a good fit in New England.

"This is a guy who totally went on strike two years ago because he wasn't happy with his contract," said the player personnel source, who requested anonymity. "He's also very long (in the torso), which is not ideal for a 3-4 outside linebacker. And he can't drop into coverage. He's very stiff.

"But one of the things (the Patriots) are looking at is the fact that, in passing situations, they can have Peppers up front with (Richard) Seymour and (Jarvis) Green. That makes it easier for them to take (nose tackle Vince) Wilfork out of the game in (passing situations) and just play him on running downs."

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