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Peppers could bring spice to new team in 2010

The Carolina Panthers have until Feb. 25 to decide whether to place a franchise tag on Julius Peppers, but multiple observers around the NFL believe they've already made their decision.

It goes as follows: Goodbye Carolina, hello free agency.

To put a franchise tag on Peppers, the Panthers would be committed to paying him more than $20 million guaranteed for one year. They obviously could do so with the intention of trading him, in order to get something for the best defensive end in the league, but it is a tremendous risk. If no deal is worked out, the Panthers would have all of that money tied up in one player. Even with the expectation that the NFL won't have a salary cap in 2010, resulting from the absence of a collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association by March 5, that is still a substantial amount of cash and it would likely have a negative impact on their ability to address multiple areas of a roster that produced a disappointing 8-8 finish in 2009.

Who is wooing Peppers?

Pat Kirwan chatted with fans Monday and he has some other ideas about where Julius Peppers could spend the 2010 season. **More ...**

The Panthers placed a franchise tag on Peppers last year that cost them $16.683 million, and although he performed well, it was, according to NFL sources, an uncomfortable amount for team owner Jerry Richardson. And, sources say, Richardson has no intention of being on the hook for roughly $5 million more this year. Other teams in the league would be equally turned off by the $20-plus-million cost associated with the franchise tag, which would remain with Peppers if no long-term deal could be worked out after a trade. Therefore, it makes sense that any club wishing to acquire him would only do so if he were a free agent and hammer out a contract that wouldn't be as onerous as a one-year, franchise-tag agreement.

Peppers would easily become the most prominent player on what figures to be a fairly thin unrestricted free-agent market, again on the presumption that no CBA in place by March 5 would mean that more than 200 players due to become unrestricted players after four years of NFL service would now have to wait until after their sixth season.

Despite the fact a capless year also would put rules into play that could temper the market for Peppers' services (such as limitations on free-agent shopping by the final eight playoff teams and the removal of a spending floor; the minimum expenditure by teams was $111 million in '09), he could still expect to attract some substantial offers.

We reported in this space a year ago that it was likely the Panthers would trade Peppers to the New England Patriots after he signed his one-year, franchise-tag contract. The deal never happened, but sources say the Pats, whose inability to consistently pressure the quarterback was their biggest drawback last season, remain very interested in acquiring Peppers. They're encouraged that they could gain some leverage if the field for bidders is reduced by possible restrictions on the final eight playoff teams to sign free agents.

However, New England faces a challenge in putting together a strong enough contract to land Peppers while also being able to re-sign nose tackle Vince Wilfork and signing quarterback Tom Brady to a long-term contract in the near future. The Patriots could place a franchise tag on Wilfork for $7 million, although he would clearly be unhappy by such a move.

Other teams being mentioned as having possible interest in Peppers are the Philadelphia Eagles, who believe he would put some much-needed teeth into their pass rush, and the New York Giants. The Giants have made it clear that, given the NFL's uncertain economic future as they prepare to open a new stadium, they would not be inclined to do a whole lot of heavy spending this year. However, their hand could be forced if defensive end Osi Umenyiora is serious about wanting to leave the team.

Marshall plan in Denver

The Denver Broncos ultimately got away with shipping Jay Cutler to the Chicago Bears last year because, even though their up-and-down season ended with another non-playoff appearance, there was no compelling evidence that Cutler could have done much to make them better. Just ask the Bears, who hired Mark Martz as their new offensive coordinator to try and salvage what so far looks like a bad investment in a presumed savior.

The Broncos won't get away with going through this offseason without resolving another lingering headache from 2009: Their strained relationship with Brandon Marshall. Like Cutler, Marshall wanted out of Denver. Unlike Cutler, his primary reason had less to do with an inability to get along with new coach Josh McDaniels than it did with the fact that he was playing below market value. The Broncos never gave him the raise he sought, he did some public pouting, and then proceeded to play at a high level.

Marshall has clearly established himself as one of the best receivers in the league. He might very well be the best. Certainly, any team looking for an upgrade at the position would do no better in the draft.

As a restricted free agent, Marshall could end up staying with the Broncos for $3 million, which is far below what he has produced and can still offer. It seems to make sense for McDaniels and the rest of the team's hierarchy to come up with a long-term deal that would remove any doubt from Marshall's mind that he has his rightful place of prominence with the Broncos. The Broncos clearly have a far better chance of being a contender with Marshall than without him.

T.O. back in the B-Lo?

Terrell Owens is on record as saying he is open to remaining with the Buffalo Bills for a second season under the right circumstances. By "right circumstances," it is safe to assume that he is talking, first, about his contract and, second and third, about an upgrade at quarterback and a scheme that would attack more aggressively through the air than it did during his first year with the team.

The contract will be the tricky part. It seems highly unlikely that the Bills would again be willing to pay Owens what he received to join them after he was released by the Dallas Cowboys: a guaranteed $6.5 million for one season. The deal surprised many NFL club executives because there were no other bidders, but the Bills were convinced they would get a strong return on the investment, which they did in robust season-ticket and merchandise sales.

Owens' on-field impact was far less dramatic, leading to heavy speculation around the league that the most he could expect in another contract, from the Bills or any other team, is around $3 million. Even if he were OK with that sort of offer from Buffalo, he would likely have trepidation over the fact that it is entirely possible that the Bills will go back to Trent Edwards as their starting quarterback on the hope that new coach Chan Gailey, known for his expertise in getting maximum production from mediocre players at the position, could do plenty to help improve his game. Also, it isn't necessarily a given that Gailey will employ an aggressive passing game. His history is tailoring his offense to his personnel, and the Bills' question marks at quarterback and on the offensive line could very well prompt him to go with a more conservative approach.

Wilfork still waiting on Pats

Vince Wilfork might not like the idea of receiving a franchise tag from the Patriots because, in six NFL seasons, he has established himself as arguably the best nose tackle in the league. He believes he should get a long-term contract that would be worth far more than the one-year, franchise-tag deal for his position worth a guaranteed $7 million.

It's a different situation for another standout nose tackle entering free agency, the San Francisco 49ers' Aubrayo Franklin. Although he has spent seven years in the NFL, the first four with Baltimore, his breakout year didn't come until 2009. ESPN has reported that the 49ers are ready to place a franchise tag on Franklin by the league's Feb. 25 deadline, and there is every reason to believe he is wise to accept it, put together another strong season in 2010, and go after bigger money in San Francisco or elsewhere after that. He told the San Jose Mercury News that he and his agent would "look at the possibilities of a franchise tag," which didn't sound like someone who was terribly upset over that possibility.

Buffalo's special move

So far, the best move the Bills have made this offseason is hiring Bruce DeHaven as their special-teams coach. DeHaven has long been regarded as one of best special-teams coaches in the game, a reputation he built while working for the Bills from 1987 to 1999.

After DeHaven's departure, the Bills' kicking game slipped badly. But it was restored to prominence after Bobby April became their special teams coach in 2004. At the end of the '09 season, April, uncomfortable with the uncertainty of working with the full-time replacement for head coach Dick Jauron and unhappy he had been passed over for the head-coaching job, asked to be released from his contract. He promptly joined the Eagles.

Finding a replacement even approaching April's caliber seemed unlikely, but the Bills lucked out when DeHaven suddenly became available after his previous employer, the Seattle Seahawks, replaced head coach Jim Mora with Pete Carroll.

The Bills fired DeHaven after their '99 season ended with the Tennessee Titans winning a wild-card playoff game on a kickoff return forever known as the "Music City Miracle." Then-Bills coach Wade Phillips made him a scapegoat, which didn't seem fair to many close observers of the team. DeHaven had no problem landing on his feet. He joined the 49ers and also worked for the Dallas Cowboys before ending up in Seattle.

He is, by far, the star of the Bills' assistant-coaching staff. He no doubt relishes the idea of atoning for the "Music City Miracle," something that seems quite possible given the great shape in which April left that part of the team. But DeHaven doesn't want to focus on the past, recently telling reporters in Buffalo, "As the great sage and poet and great passer rusher as well, Bruce Smith, once said, 'That's kind of water under the dam.'"

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