Do the Carolina Panthers Have the 2009 NFL Draft Held Hostage?

Rick WeaverCorrespondent IApril 17, 2009

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 10:  Julius Peppers #89 of the Carolina Panthers walks off the field in the rain after being defeated by the Arizona Cardinals 33-13 in the NFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 10, 2009 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
The release of the NFL schedule on Tuesday is one of the first things that helps to kick off the NFL's 2009 season.  The next big step towards getting this NFL season off of the ground is next Saturday's 2009 draft. For those die-hard fans who are interested in and have been waiting on next Saturday's draft, well, it cannot come soon enough.

Even though teams prepare for the draft with scientific precision, there may just to be a 6'8" elephant, wearing a No. 90 jersey standing in middle of the room at your draft party just waiting to stir things up.

At this point in the draft process every NFL team has their draft boards completed and they have backup plans for the "just in case" scenarios.  Teams even have redundant plans just in case the backup plans go awry.

The combine, pro days and special workout visits are all over. The medical reports are in, the player background checks are done, the most recent "40" times have been reviewed and all the game film you could ever imagine someone reviewing, has been watched.

However, the 2009 draft is still up in the air for teams picking after the Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, and the Carolina Panthers and any other team that would like to have the services of a pro-bowl defensive end.

Why are those team's draft boards in possible disarray? Well, it comes down to two words, Julius Peppers.  

So, can an uncertain team with an unknown combination of potential draft picks really hold part of the NFL draft hostage?  Well, the Carolina Panthers may not hold the entire in their draft in limbo but one had better believe that teams drafting near any potential Carolina trading partners are getting a bit antsy at this point.

Things even get more hairy if any of the teams who follow the potential Julius Peppers suitors are in the draft market waiting on a top-tier defensive end or a defensive tackle and are hoping one will be left when their turn to make a draft pick comes.  A Peppers' trade could cause stomach ulcers for a few coaches and GM's who think they have their defensive tackle or defensive end picks already penciled in.

There are only a few teams who are even capable of getting close the services of Julius Peppers. Why are there not more teams in the fray, trying to make a deal with Carolina?

It would have to be because they simply cannot afford the salary cap hit, they do not have the draft picks needed to trade to Carolina or they are not a team Peppers has expressed an interest in. The two teams that do have a real shot at trading for Julius Peppers are the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.

According to Jared Allen's agent, Ken Harris, the Eagles were deep in the process of trying to sign Jared Allen last season, and the Eagles were there, right in the thick of things, trying to get a deal done and acquire Allen, all the way up until the Vikings decided to fill up a Brinks truck and back it up into Allen's driveway.

The Eagles were also very interested in acquiring Panther pro-bowl tackle Jordan Gross, earlier this season. Gross said he loved the Charlotte area and was happy raising his family there.  Though the deal went down to the wire, Gross did not hold the Panthers hostage trying to see if there was another dollar or two out there with his name on it.  As far as Gross goes, or anyone for that matter goes,  I am all for getting paid for what one's services are worth, but taking a stab at destroying the franchise in the procress is not a good idea.   What does that mean and why did Jordan Gross go ahead and make a deal, just in time for Carolina to place the franchise tag on Julius Peppers? 

Gross is a smart guy and he knows there is a point where he could probably have gotten more money out of the Panthers but I have to believe he understood the overall cost in the big picture.  Had Gross not agreed to a new contract before the free agent flood gate opened up I believe Gross knew the Panthers would have bent over backwards in order to keep him. The Panthers would possibly have bent so far over, trying to keep Gross, that it would have been detremental to the entire team. Now, I am not saying the "hometown discount" was in play with the Gross deal, but Gross knew if the compensation numbers for the first year of his new contract had  gotten any larger, then his team could possibly find themselves in a scenario where they were unable to even sign the few draft picks they will select next Saturday.

The other thing the Gross deal did was to allow the  Panthers to make an 11th hour franchise tag placement on Julius Peppers.  Had the team's hand been forced, the tag would have been used on Gross for the second year in a row. Using the tag on Gross would have opened the door for Peppers to simply walk away and ir would have left the Panthers with nothing in return for their former first round pro-bowl end. The logic for franchising Gross was two fold.

First, assuming Carolina traded Peppers after franchising him they would have had the draft picks and cap space to go after a free agent defensive and a wide reciever or they could have simply used both of the picks they would possibly had gotten for Peppers and then just tried to fill their needs in the draft.

Secondly, had the Panthers lost Gross they would have found themselves scrambling as there were only a few "very" capable offensive left tackles in this coming draft. The team knew if they just let Gross "walk,"  they could not have gotten anywhere near a starting left tackle with the team's first draft pick coming late in the second round. 

re were really no free agents left tackles out there who were anywhere near as dominating as Gross and therer were no guarantees they could have used the money they would have spent on Gross to aquire a very good free agent in a trade due to the fact they had nothing to trade with. You can interchange offensive linemen from right tackle to guard, to center and back, but putting someone other than a left tackle in that position can be a quick recipe for disaster. So, franchising Jordan Gross was a no-brainer had he not signed a new contract.

As of this past Friday the Philadelpia Eagles took care of their very much needed tackle position after a deal with the Buffalo Bills was struck.  The Eagles are sending the Bills the Panthers' former first round pick and next year's fourth round pick and an undisclosed 2011 draft pick in exchange for tackle Jason Peters. The move does push the Eagles back, to a large extent in their quest for the ultimate defensive unit with a Julius Peppers type of player coming off of the end. But it does not close the door completely.

Things may just go as planned in next Saturday's draft and the Panthers may just go forward and try to find the best defensive lineman available with their 59th pick.  Panthers' General Manager, Marty Hurney said, this week,  he fully expected Julius Peppers to play for the Panthers this season.

If Hurney is correct and Peppers is going to play for Carolina this season then some very specific things need to occur if Panthers want a chance at a successful 2009 season.

First,  the Panthers have to strike draft "gold" and find a defensive lineman, with the 59th pick, who is a game changer (an almost impossible task on any GM's "to do" list.) 

Secondly, Jake Delhomme must restructure his current deal in order to allow the Panthers to free up some cap space to let them pick up a few viable free agent offensive linemen and find at least one, hopefully, start worthy, defensive tackle.

Finally and most importantly, if Peppers does play for the Panthers, for the $1 million plus, per-game-fee this season, then the Panthers will not have the luxury of allowing a single player to even catch a cold this season and miss a game.  That is a lot to ask, I know, but when one guy is making $17 million a year there is little room for starter capable backups to be hanging around on a 53 man roster.

Taking Hurney at face value can be a a bit tricky at this point. Just ask Denver fans and they will all tell you they "heard" their Broncos' organization talk about how they expected Jay Cutler to remain a Bronco in 2009, that, of course, was just before Cutler was traded away.   As it was for the Broncos the Panthers situation with Peppers is a high stakes poker game and there is no real tipping of the hand before the game is over.

Hurney may be genuine in his beliefs that Peppers will be around and playing hard for the Panthers in 2009, just because of the money and the draft picks it would cost another team to make a run at Peppers makes it a hard thing for most teams to even consider. 

I am completely sure that Marty Hurney and John Fox saw this day coming. They both knew Peppers had walked around all season with a new cotract extension in his pocket that would have made him the highest paid defender.  But Peppers did not take the deal and couple that with the this post season fiasco and you can see exactly how the Panthers knew they had no shot at filing their most needed position with an Albert Haynesworth type, free agent defensive tackle deal.  They had to know something was up when Peppers agent, Carl Carey, would not talk finances while the season was in process.  Now the immediate future of the team may just rest on the Carey's shoulders and the kind of deal he can broker with a potential trading partner for the Julius Peppers.

Another thing that does not bode well for an 11th-hour draft-day deal is the fact Peppers has yet to sign the $17 million tender offer that is currently on the table.  Until that document is signed nothing at all can happen. No other team can "officially" even try to negotiate with the Panthers until Peppers signs the current offer.  Again, this only leaves Peppers' agent, Carl Carey, to be the only person who can officially talk to any other teams about his client's services.

New England Patriot officials have made it clear they are very interested in Peppers possibly becoming a Patriot, but they want him to sign his current tender offer so any possible deal can be discussed and possibly struck with the Panthers.     

Before last year's draft the Philadelphia Eagles did not get Jared Allen, but they tried. As much as the smothering Eagles' defense covets a super quick, devastatingly hard hitting pass rusher coming off of the end of the line, they missed making the deal for Allen. But this year is different.  

Even after the Peters' trade the Eagles still have the draft picks needed to make a run at Peppers if they want to do so. The Eagles also have the salary cap space to pay Peppers. It also does not hurt that the Eagles are contenders and they do play the kind of defense Peppers wants to play in. Donovan McNabb has said he wanted to see what the Eagles would do to better themselves before he committed to them for the long term. Now he is seeing it come together.  A defensive end would be a very nice addition and but a chain moving power runner or a wide receiver could be even better.

The Eagles and Bills deal begs the question, are the Bills a potential bidder in the  Peppers' circus or are they now desperate for a tackle?  Julius never mentioned anything about loving cold weather and how he would like to play on a team with T.O., other than he was willing to play for Dallas. However, the Bills are trying to right their football ship and it would only take one of their first round picks to find a worthy offensive tackle, to replace Peters, and they would still have that other first round pick in their hip pocket needed for a trade to aquire a defender like Peppers. Peppers may be the missing link in the Bills' chain and the final piece of the puzzle the Bills have needed to finally take down their rivals, the New England Patriots. 

The Bills are making moves to get better, yet now they need to find a very good tackle, but Friday they also signed running back, Dominic Rhodes, to backup Marshawn Lynch. This was a much needed transaction as Lynch will be serving out an early season suspension and the Bills were already very thin this coming season in their run game. However, to be a complete team there are other areas the Bills desperately need to address and one is the need for a top notch pass rusher. The money looks to be available for a player like Peppers. However, it seems there is really only one team in the AFC that Peppers has expressed an interest in. That team of course, is a Bill's team and I do not mean Buffalo or Parcells either. The team he has shown interest in is Bill Beichick's Patriots' team. This seems like the one place a deal for Peppers may just occur.

If a deal does happen it will impact this year's draft and the teams who are looking for top quality defensive ends and defensive lineman who are drafting after New England's first round pick.  Of course any teams who pick anywhere near the teams involved in a possible trade with Carolina will have to adapt.

When it comes to a deal, the Eagles stock dropped a bit after giving up one of their  first round picks today.  On the flip side, for Panthers' fans, the Eagles still have the better of their two, first round picks left and they have a nice third rounder as well. The Eagles have something in their corner that New England does not have. The Eagles have a few veteran pass rushers on their roster that the Panthers would love to get their hands on and a trade could always contain a first rounder and a combination of a player or players in order for Peppers to become an Eagle. It is not set in stone that a first and third round pick are a must for making this deal happen.  

For one thing, the Eagles have linebacker, Omar Gaither, a Charlotte native and a very popular fellow in the Charlotte area and he has most impotantly been a very productive football player just tucked away on the Eagles' bench due to depth at his position. Carolina also has a few extra linebackers, but veteran Na'il Diggs is no spring chicken and some fresh blood may be what new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks needs to have in place in order to get this Panthers' defense back to a top ten status.   

The Panthers had success making their last deal with the Eagles. The 2008 draft day trade turned out to be brilliant as Jeff Otah was arguably the best rookie tackle to play in the NFL last season.

Many believe had Otah been part of the 2009 draft that he may well have been the top pick or at least taken in the top five.  So, the Panthers have to feel good about their past dealings with the Eagles.

Will the Eagles use their last remaining first round pick to go after Peppers? It may not seem that way after Friday's pickup of Jason Peters. The Eagles have pressing needs in their run game and a very good tight end is very much needed as well. But there is another way to look at what that the Eagles did by getting Peters. The Peters' deal may have  signaled Andy Reid does not want to be in the business of trying to turn a rookie offensive tackle like Michael Oher or a similar pick, into the next John Runyan. 

Reid knows he and his quarterback are not getting any younger and he knows they were very close to an NFC Championship game last season. Even though his team's rushing attack is hurting, especially with their former "second" running back, Correll Burkhalter now in Denver and with Brian Westbrook now showing some real signs of wear and tear. Andy Reid knows the formula for his success has been winning by winning "dirty" or winning close games by using a smothering, hard hitting, grinding defense and Julius Peppers would help him keep that game plan together.  The Eagles may not need to use their first round draft pick on trying to find a running back or wideout if Reid does not want to try and roll the dice on the hopes a solid college player will be as beneficial as a pro-bowl defensive end would be. 

Andy Reid knows, no matter how spotty his team's offense may be at times,  a superior defense will keep any game close and from there, well, that is why Andy Reid has David Akers.  One just has to look back at this past January's NFC Divisional playoff game between the Eagles and Giants is a good reminder of this philosophy.  The final score was 23-11.  The Eagles won that game due mainly to a swarming defense, but the three field goals and two extra points David Akers posted were big keys as well in the Eagles win. 

The following NFC Championship game saw the Eagles lose to the red hot Arizona Cardinals in  touchdown throwing contest.  A big difference in the games outcome were the four touchdown passes Kurt Warner was able to complete. Though Eagles' defensive end Trent Cole had one sack during the game he did not get the four sacks that his team really needed for him to make. That would have been nice for the Eagles if Cole could have gotten one sack on any of the plays that resulted in the four touchdown passes completed by Warner. Not to take anything away from Trent Cole but he could have used some pressure from the opposite defensive end's position in order to slow down Warner's quick release. A real dominating defensive end could have been a game changer and Andy Reid knows it. So, it may not be too far fetched to think Julius Peppers may be on Reid's mind just about as much as Knoshown Moreno probably is.

Whether the Eagles even consider a deal with the Panthers is another thing altogether. But Andy Reid does know his defense has to stay very fast and able to get penetration and pressure on opposing quarterbacks, no matter how good or bad his team is at the running back's, tight end's or wide receiver's position.

There are a handful of scenarios that could happen this coming Saturday as it relates to the Panthers' trading Peppers away and that kind of move could change the face of the draft.

One has to remember, when it comes to these types of deals taking place there always seem to be that one quite team, lurking in the tall grass, that has the ability to spring up and make a trade happen thus sending several unsuspecting teams, waiting their turn to draft, into a tailspin.  It will all unfold next Saturday.

For the conspiracy theorists out there: There is one little straw for you to grasp at, if you are so inclined. The thing that may just be a tip of the Carolina Panthers' draft game plan is all about scheduling. I know the Panthers feel they owe their fans something for last January's loss to Arizona in the playoffs and that is probably all this "draft party" is.

So, why does the Panthers' weekend "draft party" at Carowinds Amusement Park seem a bit peculiar? I know it is a stretch and the whole thing looks like it is nothing more than corporate goodwill and  marketing combined in an attempt to promote the team and to attract Panthers' fans back into the fold but after January's devastating  playoff loss.  However there is something that just does not sit right about having a draft party with no draft picks.

Seriously, when your favorite team gets to the point where they are making a top five pick then it is a time worthy of sitting in the sports bar with other fans waiting to see what will happen. It is also a time worthy of splitting a six-pack and sitting on some  sofa, speculating with another fan about what your team will do, until your team makes its' pick. But when your team picks at the bottom of the second round, well, there is nothing very special to see.

No casual football fan cares about draft picks being made by other teams after their team has chosen and very few people care about the draft picks that are taken long before their team has its' turn.  Most fans like to see where the top five or ten players wind up but after that, unless your team is close in line to making a pick, or unless you are a die-hard, there is not much to see.

So, what is the big deal with next Saturday's Panthers' draft party? Remember, this is a party which is specifically for the Carolina Panthers' draft and having Panther fans join together at an amusement park, in order to have a good time but also to see just who the Carolina Panthers will select with their pick.  With that in mind it all comes down to when this "draft party" is held. It may not seem like anything special, except one look at the scheduling of the event reveals an obvious logical flaw. 

The event the Panthers are sponsoring ends at 8:30 EST. What does that have to do with anything? Well, one has to consider the Panthers draft pick and when it comes up.  The Panthers are scheduled to make their first pick at the 59th spot of the second round.

The funny thing is, according to the draft day "clock" and the past NFL drafts the 59th draft pick will come at approximately 9:30 EST. The pick may actually come closer to 9:45 if more teams take more time making their picks.

What does this scenario mean? Either someone is a lousy planner and scheduler or someone at the Carolina Panthers organization knows a whole lot more about something that may happen with the Panthers and their ability to make a draft pick before the 8:30 shutdown occurs.

How many birthday parties have you been to where the person having the birthday does not show up?  How many times have your friends rented a grand ballroom on New Year's Eve to celebrate the ringing in of a new year and yet telling everyone, "Oh, by the way, the party is over at 10:30?"  That would be a bit odd to say the least.  When you are a one billion dollar organization, like the Panthers are, and you plan an event and set it to end at 8:30 pm when the biggest part of the whole event, that involves your team, happens at 9:30, seems, at best, a bit strange.

We will all have to wait and see if anything "big" happens this Saturday. But for now, all we know is, there is a pro-bowl defensive end who wants out of Charlotte, NC and a General Manager who believes that same end will play for him next season.

All the facts we actually know are minimal.  Marty Hurney says Peppers is expected to play for Carolina next season. We know Julius Peppers says he wants out and there are four teams he would like to play for and that he wants to play in a 3-4 defense.

That  sort of narrows the list of options, especially since one of the two teams, that have been leaked by the Peppers' camp as teams on Peppers' preference radar is not really in a position to accommodate Peppers on their roster.

The Dallas Cowboys, a destination where Peppers would like to land, do not have the draft picks to get close to a deal with the Panthers and the only other team that has been announced as a team Peppers would like to play for is the New England Patriots.  The Patriots have seemed receptive but they do not pick until the bottom third of the first round and the Patriots have a pressing need for an inside linebacker to pair with Jerod Mayo. 

Finally, it would a dereliction to overlook all of the teams picking in the upper tier of the draft, who just happen to need a defensive end.  Peppers may snub other teams that do not fit his particular model but there may be a point over the next week when money and reason change his mind. 

With that said, the team with the very first pick in the 2009 draft needs almost every position on their roster filled. The Carolina Panthers picking first overall, no way, right?

Call me crazy but the Detroit Lions could really use a proven defensive end and a proven NFL superstar pass rusher is a lot more appealing than a college player who may possibly have had just one productive season before winding up as a first round pick.

The Kansas City Chiefs, picking third, are still stumbling after trading away Jared Allen and have yet to get anywhere close to filling Allen's shoes.

The Green Bay Packers desperately need a defensive end and the Panthers just completed a trade with the Packers for long snapper, JJ Jansen, earlier this week.  The Packers have the ninth draft pick, and defensive end, Tyson Jackson, looks like a natural fit fot the new 3-4 Green Bay will use this season.  However, if the Packers really want to pair a true pass rusher up with Aaron Kampman, then Tyson Jackson may not be the man to step in and hit the ground running. If the Packers can obtain the services of a true pass rushing defensive end, then the 2009 season may turn out a lot better for those living on the frozen tundra than the 2008 season did.

I wonder if all the the Panthers and Packers talked while about trying to put together this week's trade was only about a backup long snapper or if a particular defensive ends name happen to pop up? Now, the odds of the Panthers getting anywhere near the top ten in the first round of this draft is very unlikely.

Another team that could use a defense end is the San Francisco 49er's.  If the Niner's can get their collective minds around the idea that one of the quarterbacks they now have in their corner can be their starter next season and if they the team does not want to gamble their tenth pick to go after a player like Brian Orapko who may or may not turn out to be a game changer then a run at Peppers may be an option.

The Denver Broncos have already shown they are ready to do almost anything in this off season.  Could they be a player in the Peppers' affair?  Well, they have the draft picks, the money and Mike Nolan is installing the all important 3-4 defense that Peppers is wanting to play in, in order to "further himself as a well rounded player and maximize his athletic abilities."

Let us not forget that exactly one year and one month ago that Peppers' Alma Matta, the UNC Tarheels, were playing in the "all important" ACC tournament in Charlotte, NC. On March 17th, 2008 Peppers was in Denver, watching a Nuggets' game while his old college team were playing in a tournament just one minute away from the field were Julius Peppers works. 

The odds of the Panthers getting anywhere near a top five or 10 draft pick is about as unlikely as  Julius Peppers' comments were after cleaning out his locker the morning after the Panthers' stunning loss to the Cardinals. 

Who would have ever guessed this home-state, fan favorite whose hometown is just a relatively short drive away from his Lake Norman estate would ever say he wanted to leave the only team he has ever played for and a team where he was about to become the highest paid defender in the history of the sport.

Who could have guessed Peppers would leave the place where he is arguably the face of the franchise and is adored by the team's owner and by a huge portion of the team's fan base? 

Peppers did toss out that one bit of hope for Panthers' fans and that was his comment about not crippling his team. This Saturday will be the first big sign if there was any validity to the "not cripple" part of Peppers' comments.

My best guess for the Panthers' future, as of right now, is just accepting things at  at face value. Peppers will probably play one last season in Carolina and be the highest paid player on the block earning over a million dollars a game.

I feel the Panthers will restructure Delhomme's contract so they can sign their second round defensive lineman and so they can acquire a few free agent defensive linemen and another possible defensive end who may just pop up as training camp ends and cuts approach. 

However, ask me my opinion tomorrow afternoon and the answer may be 180 degrees different.


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