CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers placed their franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers on Thursday, setting up a potential nasty showdown with the four-time Pro Bowl defensive end, who wants to play elsewhere next season.
The move came moments after the Panthers signed All-Pro left tackle Jordan Gross to a six-year deal that's worth more than $30 million in the first three seasons. Having locked up Gross, the Panthers then placed the non-exclusive tag on Peppers, who had said he would request a trade under that scenario.
"Julius was expecting to be franchised," Peppers' agent, Carl Carey, wrote in a text message. "We will continue to work toward a resolution that is in line with his professional goals."
Under the non-exclusive franchise tag rules, Carolina offered Peppers a one-year guaranteed deal worth $16.7 million that will immediately count against the salary cap. While Peppers can still solicit offers from other teams, any club signing Peppers would have to surrender two first-round draft picks to the Panthers.
Placing the tag on Peppers theoretically allows the Panthers to trade him for something less than two first-rounders and receive some compensation instead of letting the cornerstone of their defense walk away in free agency. But Peppers has power because no team likely would trade for him without first securing a long-term contract agreement.
A person close to Peppers on Wednesday said the defensive end would agree to be traded to only four teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, who do not hold a first-round pick. So the Panthers face the prospect of not being able to work out a trade and then having Peppers either hold out or be disgruntled while eating up a giant portion of the salary cap.
But while Peppers has been adamant that he won't sign a long-term deal with Carolina, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney wouldn't rule out Peppers returning and said the team will not immediately seek a trade.
"We've said many times how many times we value Julius," Hurney said. "We would like him to play here."
NFL teams can place the franchise tag on just one player, so the Panthers were scrambling to come to terms with Gross before the Thursday afternoon deadline.
Gross, Carolina's first-round draft pick in 2003, played last season under the franchise tag in a one-year, $7.45 million deal. His new contract makes him one of the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman.
"Jordan is one of the top left tackles in our league, and our offensive line was one of our strong points of our team last year," Hurney said. "Jordan's a very big part of that. ... We're so glad we were able to come to an agreement and be able to have Jordan here for another six years."
Gross, who made his first Pro Bowl and was voted a first-team All-Pro last season, had said he wanted to stay in Carolina, and he was the key cog in an improved offensive line that helped running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have breakout seasons.
Thursday's moves mean that all five starters on the offensive line are locked up in long-term deals. The defensive line, meanwhile, is in flux -- and Gross' contract allowed the Panthers to play hardball with Peppers.
"He actually texted me congratulations after I signed and said you deserve it," Gross said of Peppers in a brief phone interview Thursday night. "I think it was much easier on the team dealing with him."
Peppers, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft, is a freakish athlete and Carolina's career sacks leader. But Peppers also has been criticized for inconsistent play -- he had a career-high 14.5 sacks this past season but a career-low 2.5 in 2007.
Even in 2008, Peppers didn't record a single tackle against the Denver Broncos and was shut down in Carolina's divisional-playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Peppers, who turned down a lucrative contract extension before the start of last season, has said he would like to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense instead of staying in Carolina's 4-3 alignment.
There is precedent to slapping the franchise tag on a player and then dealing him. The Kansas City Chiefs traded defensive end Jared Allen to the Minnesota Vikings last year for a first-round pick and two third-round choices. But Allen and the Vikings first agreed to a six-year contract that included $31 million in guaranteed money and could be worth $74 million if he meets certain incentives.
"You guys know how I feel about all this speculation and stuff," Hurney said, when asked if the Panthers could pull off a similar deal. "We franchised him, and that's where we are right now."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press