NFL free agent whispers: Vol. 8

Packer Report's Bill Huber puts a Packers slant on some hard-hitting free agent storylines. The focus today is the franchise tag, including breaking news involving Julius Peppers that will be of interest to Packers fans.

The franchise dominos are beginning to fall.

The deadline for teams to designate a free agent as their franchise player is Thursday afternoon. On Friday, the Giants named running back Brandon Jacobs their franchise player, joining New England quarterback Matt Cassel and Atlanta punter Michael Koenen.

Others surely will be tagged by Thursday, and that will severely impact the quality of this year's free agent class.

For Packers fans, the story to follow will be in Carolina, which must choose between All-Pro left tackle Jordan Gross and disgruntled defensive end Julius Peppers.

The Panthers can't afford to lose either, but Peppers has stated he wants out of Carolina so he can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Obviously, his 14.5 sacks in 2008 would be attractive to a Packers defense transitioning to a 3-4 and in need of playmakers.

The Panthers would like to sign Gross to an extension before Thursday so they can franchise Peppers at a cost of $16 million. If they can't sign Gross, the Panthers must decide whether to tag Gross (and certainly lose Peppers) or tag Peppers (and possibly lose the NFL's best young left tackle). If Peppers is franchised, he wants out.

"If they decided to use the tag on me, the first thing that I will be doing is requesting a trade," Peppers told reporters via a conference call on Saturday. "(Beyond that) I don't know what would be the course of action. We'll deal with that when that time comes."

Peppers, with 70.5 sacks in his seven seasons, didn't back away from his wish to play linebacker in a 3-4. Simply, the 29-year-old is seeking a new challenge.

"If you were being held back at your job, and you fulfilled your contract, if you did everything you were supposed to do and worked seven years at that contract and it was time for that contract to expire, and you were told you did all of that, basically, you've still got a say," Peppers said. "I don't think people would be willing to live under the same standards that they're placing on me. Put yourself in my shoes and look at the situation instead of being emotional about it.

"Seven years is a long time, and since I've been here, I've given everything I had. There's never been a time that I wasn't giving my all. It's a situation where I feel I'm at the point in my career where I want to do different things. It has nothing to do with anything that happened with me and coaches or me and the owner. There's nothing that happened. I just feel like personally, for me and my career, it's time for a change."

There are key decisions looming elsewhere, too.

— Arizona must decide whether to tag stud inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. The Cardinals are more than $40 million under the cap, and Dansby told the Arizona Republic that he wants more than the $20 million guaranteed that the Jets gave Calvin Pace last offseason. The franchise tag for a linebacker is $8.3 million.

— Baltimore must choose between four standout free agents: linebackers Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Bart Scott and young center Jason Brown. The linebackers all would have appeal in Green Bay because they've played in the Ravens' 3-4. Because of Suggs' youth (just completed his sixth season) and productivity (53 career sacks), he'll likely be franchised, and the Ravens will take their chances with the others.

— Cincinnati must decide what to do with receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "I can't speak for them but I haven't heard from them, which would lead me to assume that I'm out of there," said Houshmandzadeh, who has had three straight seasons of 90 receptions or more. The franchise charge for a receiver is $9.88 million. If the Bengals don't use the tag on Houshmandzadeh, running back Cedric Benson — the former Bears bust — is a possibility.

— Indianapolis reportedly is leaning toward tagging top cornerback Kelvin Hayden. Colts general manager Bill Polian told the Indianapolis Star that discussions with Fletcher Smith, Hayden's agent, are "not going well. That's probably a charitable way to categorize it. There's still a long way to go, but I'm not optimistic at this point." The franchise tag for a cornerback is $9.96 million.

— Oakland's Nnamdi Asomugha, one of the top cornerbacks in the league, almost certainly will be given the exclusive-rights franchise tag for a second year in a row, which bars him from talking to other teams. His franchise charge would be $11.97 million (120 percent of last year's franchise tag).

— San Diego must figure out what to do with aging star running back LaDainian Tomlinson and free agent Darren Sproles. The Chargers can't afford them both, especially at Tomlinson's current $8.8 million cap charge. The franchise number for a running back is $6.62 million.

— Seattle has a decision to make with standout linebacker Leroy Hill, who was arrested on Jan. 24 and charged with marijuana possession. "Was it a mistake? It was certainly a mistake," new coach Jim Mora said on a local radio station. "So, we have to decide the depth of the mistake and if we can overcome it."

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.


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