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Posted: Thursday February 19, 2009 2:02PM; Updated: Thursday February 19, 2009 6:36PM

Panthers place franchise tag on Peppers, sign Gross to 6-year deal

Story Highlights

Tagging Julius Peppers sets up potential battle for Panthers

Move came moments after Panthers signed Jordan Gross

Gross is expected to become one of NFL's highest-paid linemen

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- The Carolina Panthers placed the franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers on Thursday, setting up a potential nasty showdown with their 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 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 Carolina.

Placing the tag on Peppers theoretically allows the Panthers to trade him for something less than two first-rounders and get some compensation instead of letting the cornerstone of their defense walk away in free agency. But Peppers has power because no team would likely trade for him without first securing a long-term contract agreement.

A person close to Peppers on Wednesday said he 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, 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.

Carolina's first-round 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.

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 was the key cog in an improved offensive line that helped running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have breakout seasons.

"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."

The moves mean that all five starters on the line are locked up in long-term deals. The defensive line, meanwhile, is in flux.

Peppers, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft, is a freakish athlete and Carolina's career sacks leader. But Peppers has also been criticized for inconsistent play -- he had a career-high 141/2 sacks this past season, but a career-low 21/2 the year before.

Even in 2008, Peppers didn't record a single tackle against Denver and was shut down in Carolina's upset loss to Arizona in the playoffs.

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. Kansas City traded defensive end Jared Allen to Minnesota last year for a first-round pick and two third-round choices.

But Allen first agreed to a six-year contract with the Vikings 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 Carolina could pull off a similar deal. "We franchised him and that's where we are right now."

 
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