CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Julius Peppers grew up in North Carolina, starred in college in the state and made five Pro Bowls in eight years with the Carolina Panthers.
Now, after a decision based on finances, Peppers is almost certainly leaving home and about to be the test case for how much NFL teams are willing to spend on an elite player in a season without a salary cap.
General manager Marty Hurney announced Tuesday the Panthers won't place the restrictive franchise tag on the team's career sacks leader for a second consecutive year at a cost of at least $20.1 million.
"With the magnitude of the contact, the tender that it would take to franchise him and how it fits into the big picture with our team, we made the decision to not franchise him," Hurney said. "Obviously, it's a very difficult decision because he's a tremendous player."
The 30-year-old Peppers will become an unrestricted free agent. Teams wanting a 6-foot-7 pass rusher with freakish athletic ability and questionable consistency can start the bidding on March 5.
"I feel good about having the opportunity to visit with other teams. My goal will be to find the right match for my skill set," Peppers said in a statement released by his agent, Carl Carey. "I am thankful for the eight seasons I have spent in the National Football League thus far and am looking forward to beginning this new phase of my career."
The decision ends an unpredictable and often rocky two years of negotiations, declarations and uncertainty for the Panthers and Peppers, the second overall pick in the 2002 draft out of North Carolina.
Peppers acknowledged in a radio interview this month that he turned down a contract offer after the 2007 season that would have made him the NFL's highest-paid defensive player.
A year later, the Panthers ignored his public pleas to be allowed to leave in free agency and slapped him with the franchise tag and a one-year, $16.7 million tender.
Peppers eventually softened his stance and began negotiating on a long-term contract. No deal was struck, however, and Peppers collected a salary cap-busting $18.2 million in 2009, including a $1.5 million bonus for making the Pro Bowl after recording 10½ sacks.
Using the franchise tag again would have meant a 20 percent raise, with a guaranteed base salary of $20.1 million, not counting a $1.5 million Pro Bowl bonus and $250,000 for each playoff victory.
Even though there is scheduled to be no salary cap next season in the final year of the collective bargaining agreement, the Panthers decided against committing that much money to one player with linebacker Thomas Davis, cornerback Richard Marshall and quarterback Matt Moore all to be restricted free agents.
"We franchised him last year in hopes of being able to get a multiyear contract done," Hurney said. "We made what I would term a very aggressive effort to do that and did not get it done.
"I think we have some very talented players and their futures will have to be addressed at some point. All those factors come into play. It's a hard decision. It's one that we took time on."
While the Panthers could still sign Peppers in free agency, Hurney acknowledged that "when a player of Julius' caliber gets to this point, I think seldom does it happen that they return."
Added Carey: "He is excited about his future and looking forward to the process of selecting his next destination."
Peppers recorded 81 sacks in eight years with Carolina. But while he was recently voted to the NFL's all-decade team, he's also been criticized for seemingly disappearing at times in games.
It's under that scenario that Peppers becomes one of the biggest names to hit the open market in years — and the Panthers must contend with replacing a big hole on their defensive line.
"I don't think you ever replace Julius with one player," Hurney said. "I think you try to make the group as strong as you can."
It's one of many pressing issues for Hurney and coach John Fox, who are entering the final year of their contracts. Hurney said Tuesday they haven't decided if Moore or Jake Delhomme, coming off a miserable 2009, will open the season as the starting quarterback.
Meanwhile, Peppers will test an uncertain market. New England, Philadelphia and Atlanta could make a run at Peppers, who was seeking about $15 million a year from the Panthers in the past.
"He has had a very accomplished career thus far," Carey said, "but he is convinced that with this move he will thrive and develop fully into the player he was destined to become."