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February 25, 2009
Wouldn't You Like to Be Peppers Too?

by Keith Weiland

Let’s engage in a little fantasy, shall we?

The new league year kicks off at midnight Thursday night. Teams will be allowed to consummate trades (like the one sending backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels to the Vikings for a fourth rounder) and sign other teams’ free agents. While predicting exactly what the Texans will do is something of a fool’s errand, well… this is the offseason. It’s time for a little foolery.

There have been a series of events that in nearly all likelihood have no connection to the Texans’ possible pursuit of Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, but laid out one after the next sure makes it look like something could be there if you squint hard enough. As there are two sides to every story, there are two sides to this speculation as well, the one of the Texans and the one of Peppers.

First, the Texans:
• They have cleared sizeable 2009 salary cap room in the last two weeks. Gone are Ahman Green, Morlon Greenwood, and the anticipated departures of Anthony Weaver and Sage Rosenfels. These four moves alone created roughly $8 million in additional cap flexibility, and they saved about $15 million in cash via base salaries and miscellaneous bonuses.

• Weaver’s departure in particular is telling. He plays left defensive end, and his release saved an almost negligible $800,000 in cap space. As Gary Kubiak’s first megaBuXXX free agent signing of his Texans tenure, there had likely been equal parts ego and optimism at play in keeping him around at least one more year, so his dismissal probably was not an easy one on the head coach. It also came two weeks or so after Green and Greenwood were let go, a passage of time not yet explained.

• The team tendered cornerback Dunta Robinson with the franchise tag and indefinitely stalled contract extension negotiations with linebacker DeMeco Ryans. Throw in too that the team seems likely to tender tight end Owen Daniels as a restricted free agent instead of signing him to long-term contract (at least not yet). Add it up and find that general manager Rick Smith has specifically withheld more than $30 million in guaranteed cash for the time being.

• The Texans are looking to accumulate draft picks. They are already expected to add the fourth rounder from the Vikings in exchange for Rosenfels, and there’s a report that the team might be willing to shop wide receiver Jacoby Jones for a draft pick as well.

• Kubiak has maintained that Mario Williams’ home is at right defensive end. With the release of Weaver, there is no apparent starter on the left side, other than Williams, of course.

• Kubiak has also been complimentary of the talent potentially available on the market. Ryans also seemed to imply that a major free agency move was forthcoming for the team.

As for Peppers:
• The Panthers tendered him with a franchise tag at an astronomically cap unfriendly rate of $16.683 million.

• Peppers has requested a trade, "seeking new challenges that will allow me to grow, develop and reach my personal potential on the football field".

• Peppers has reportedly given the Panthers a list of four teams for whom he would be willing to play. The Cowboys are believed to be one of them, though they lack a first round pick this year which would seemingly limit their ability to acquire Peppers in a trade. Two of the other four teams are said to be from the NFC, but the Panthers would be reluctant to trade Peppers within the conference and especially within their own division (as some seem to believe that the Bucs were one of those other teams). The fourth team was simply said to be a mystery one from the AFC.

• Peppers has said he felt that the 3-4 system might be a good fit for his abilities in an outside linebacker role, leading some to speculate that the Dolphins (or some other 3-4 squad like the Broncos or Browns) might be the other AFC team. Listed at 6'7" and 283 pounds, Peppers would be the biggest outside linebacker I can think of should he ever play the position, though visions of Demarcus Ware surely dance between his ears. Also worth noting is that Peppers is three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than Ware.

• Peppers has called Houston his second home in the past. His agent, Carl Carey, makes Houston his first home. Carey actually informed the Panthers of Peppers’ desire to play elsewhere from Houston.

• Peppers has spent much of his offseason in Houston. He is a client of Danny Arnold’s at Plex near Sugarland.

Taking a step back, it sure seems like the Texans are stockpiling cash, cap room, and trade compensation to make a major move. In the middle of the first round of the draft, the team might think they are stuck in something of a no man's land for acquiring a bonafide pass rushing left end. As for Peppers, Houston is a very comfortable place for him in spite of the Texans not employing a 3-4 defensive scheme.

Kubiak is entering his fourth year with the Texans, and without a winning season or a playoff berth, he might be feeling quite a bit of pressure to make it happen this year. He has hired a new defensive coordinator in Frank Bush and a new defensive line coach (needing to up the ante in naming him an assistant head coach), suggesting that if he were urging Smith to make a move, it would be on the defensive side of the ball. He and Smith have been willing to move desirable draft picks in the past for the right player, having sent a pair of seconds and a swap of firsts to the Falcons in exchange for quarterback Matt Schaub in 2007.

The cost to acquire Peppers would be amazingly steep. He reportedly turned down a record offer for a defensive player from the Panthers just before the start of the 2008 season. There was some speculation that Peppers wanted to be paid more than Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, who reportedly received a seven-year contract with $30 million guaranteed.

There is another comparable situation. A year ago, the Vikings signed a defensive end Jared Allen to a six-year contract that included a reported $31 million in guarantees. It took more than money to acquire Allen, too. Tendered a franchise tag by the Chiefs, the Vikings had to give up a first round pick and two third round picks plus a swap of sixth rounders to complete the transaction.

Allen though was almost 27 at the time. Peppers turned 29 in January. Teams will also only be able to amortize signing bonuses over five seasons in the last capped year of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, so it seems possible that Peppers should expect less guaranteed money in a five-year offer.

At his age, signing Peppers to a long-term contract seems even more risky, and regardless of age, any contract worth $30 million or so in guarantees at an average of at least $13 million per year is going to be inherently risky anyway. But remember that the magically terrifying age of 30 really seems to apply mostly to running backs. Some of the game’s best defensive ends were still prolific well into their 30s.

Reggie White is one such example. He recorded 104 of his 198 regular season sacks after his 29th birthday. Bruce Smith also had longevity at the position, recording 122 of his 200 career sacks after he turned 29. So, if he remains healthy, there’s certainly reason to believe that Peppers is still within the prime of his career and could perform at a level equal to his production to date.

And perhaps that level could really improve as Peppers seems to believe it might with a new team. Paired opposite of Mario Williams, who enjoyed his first Pro Bowl season last year, the two could become the most fearsome defensive end duo in the league.

So, call it an offseason dream with unlikely odds. But it is still fun to fantasize, no?

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