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Peppers will become free agent after Panthers opt not to tag him

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers have decided the price is too steep to keep their all-time sacks leader. Therefore, five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers is about to become one of the top prizes in free agency.

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney announced Tuesday that the team will not place the restrictive franchise tag on Peppers for a second consecutive year at a cost of at least $20.1 million.

"With the magnitude of the contact, the tender that it would take to franchise him and how it fits into the big picture with our team, we made the decision to not franchise him," Hurney said. "Obviously, it's a very difficult decision because he's a tremendous player."

The announcement came two days before the tag deadline. Peppers will become an unrestricted free agent March 5, meaning the Panthers likely will lose their top defensive player without compensation.

"Last night, I learned that the Carolina Panthers would not restrict my availability during the upcoming free-agency period," Peppers said in a statement released by his agent, Carl Carey, on Tuesday. "I feel good about having the opportunity to visit with other teams. My goal will be to find the right match for my skill set.

"I am thankful for the eight seasons I have spent in the National Football League thus far and am looking forward to beginning this new phase of my career."

The decision is an about face from a year ago, when the Panthers went against Peppers' wishes to be allowed to leave in free agency and gave him a one-year franchise tender worth $16.7 million. He made another $1.5 million for making the Pro Bowl after recording 10.5 sacks.

Using the franchise tag again would have meant a 20 percent raise, with a guaranteed base salary of $20.1 million, not counting a $1.5 million Pro Bowl bonus and $250,000 for each playoff victory.

Even though there is scheduled to be no salary cap next season in the final year of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, the Panthers decided against committing that much money to one player.

"We franchised him last year in hopes of being able to get a multiyear contract done," Hurney said. "We made what I would term a very aggressive effort to do that and did not get it done.

"I think we have some very talented players and their futures will have to be addressed at some point. All those factors come into play. It's a hard decision. It's one that we took time on."

While the Panthers still could sign Peppers in free agency, Hurney acknowledged that "when a player of Julius' caliber gets to this point, I think seldom does it happen that they return."

Added Carey: "He is convinced that with this move he will thrive and develop fully into the player he was destined to become. He is excited about his future and looking forward to the process of selecting his next destination."

Peppers, 30, has recorded 81 sacks in eight years with Carolina. But while he was voted a member of the NFL's all-decade team, he also has been criticized for inconsistency.

It's under that scenario that Peppers becomes one of the biggest defensive free agents to hit the open market in years.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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