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Peppers, Gross may be wearing Panthers helmets for last time

After a week of fun in the sun, Julius Peppers and Jordan Gross will slip on Carolina helmets Sunday in Hawaii and play in the Pro Bowl. It's possible it'll be the last time either player is seen in Panthers colors.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After a week of fun in the sun, Julius Peppers and Jordan Gross will slip on Carolina helmets Sunday in Hawaii and play in the Pro Bowl.

It's possible it'll be the last time either player is seen in Panthers colors.

Coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney face difficult decisions with the impending unrestricted free agents, complicated by Peppers' desire to play elsewhere next season and the impact the two will have on the salary cap.

The biggest obstacle now is time, with a Feb. 19 deadline looming.

The conventional wisdom is the Panthers will try to sign Gross, their left tackle and a key cog in their resurgent ground game this season, to a long-term deal before the deadline to place the franchise tag on a player. If so, the Panthers could then place that tag on Peppers, their four-time Pro Bowl defensive end.

While it would require offering Peppers a one-year deal worth a whopping $16.7 million, the move would likely be used as leverage. Since teams can only sign a player with a franchise tag if they give up two first-round picks, the only likely way Peppers would play for another team next season is through a trade.

A deal would allow the Panthers to get something in return for their all-time sacks leader. And there is precedent. Kansas City placed the franchise tag on defensive end Jared Allen last season, then traded him to Minnesota for a first-round pick and two third-round choices.

But signing Gross won't be easy. He was picked as an All-Pro for the first time a year after the Panthers couldn't work out a deal and placed the franchise tag on him, giving him a one-year, $7.45 million contract. Gross' agent, Ethan Lock, didn't return phone and e-mail messages this week seeking comment on the negotiations.

If the Panthers can't sign Gross by Feb. 19, they face a quandary. Would they use the franchise tag on Gross for a second straight year to ensure he's not lost in free agency? If so, that would mean Gross gets a one-year deal for salary cap-gobbling $8.45 million -- and they'd lose Peppers without meaningful compensation.

Peppers' agent, Carl Carey, announced last month that his client wouldn't sign a long-term deal with Carolina and wanted to a play in a 3-4 defense instead of Carolina's 4-3 alignment.

Peppers, who had a career-high 14.5 sacks this season, released a statement saying he was "seeking new challenges that will allow me to grow, develop and reach my personal potential on the football field."

Since then, Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac left and was replaced by Ron Meeks. Peppers' line coach, Sal Sunseri, also stepped down.

Whether that could change Peppers' thinking is uncertain. He said after a Pro Bowl practice Friday that he's been advised not to answer questions about his future. Carey has not returned phone and text messages.

Hurney did not return a phone message Saturday. Even Peppers' current -- and maybe soon former -- teammates are saying little.

"That's Julius Peppers' situation," said receiver Steve Smith, also in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. "That's not my situation."

The Panthers face other offseason decisions, but big changes at quarterback are unlikely -- even after Jake Delhomme's six-turnover performance in an NFC divisional playoff loss to Arizona.

The 34-year-old Delhomme, entering the final year of his contract, remains a favorite of Fox. However, he does have a large salary-cap figure next season, leaving little wiggle room for upgrading the defensive line if Peppers leaves.

If Gross bolts, too, the Panthers would face even more trouble shoring up key positions.

It's why Feb. 19 is circled as a key date for the franchise.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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