Peppers to … Patriots?

Julius Peppers could very well walk away from the Carolina Panthers as an unrestricted free agent. We’ll know for sure in 10 days, as the deadline to apply the franchise tag to players arrives on Feb. 25.

Until then, Peppers’ immediate future remains murky.

Peppers said last week he no longer wants a long-term deal with the Panthers, while his agent believes the team is no longer interested in retaining the five-time Pro Bowler. The Panthers have yet to comment, but they paid him $18 million last season, and it would cost the team roughly $20 million to use the franchise tag again in 2010. It’s widely believed the Panthers won’t use the tag, and Darin Gantt of The Rock Hill Herald points to a big reason why.

As for the potential teams in play for Peppers, Gantt also suggests not to rule out the trade scenario, where the Panthers apply the franchise tag with the intent of dealing Peppers. That would allow the teams restricted by the “Final Eight Rule” in the expected uncapped year to still be in the Peppers market.

Handicapping the race, NFL.com senior analyst Pat Kirwan names the New England Patriots as the team most likely to land Peppers.

“I still think the Patriots are the team that had the most interest in him, and they struggled in the pass rush last season,” Kirwan told fans during a live chat Monday on NFL.com. “Bill Belichick has had great success with the hybrid players, like Willie McGinest, who can play in both three- and four-man fronts. The Redskins are notorious for spending money. But I think Peppers wants to play for a playoff contender, along with making a ton of money.”
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