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What is Peppers worth as a free agent?

A pot of gold awaits, but will the team that signs him get value? Andrew Brandt

Print This March 02, 2010, 06:55 AM EST

NFL free agency begins Friday with the start of the new league year. Given the virtual certainty of an uncapped 2010, teams are entering unchartered territory in the way they do business. This week, we’ll take a look at free agents who may or may not benefit from this new era of free agency. Today: Julius Peppers.

Background

Julius Peppers is certainly the cream of the diluted group of unrestricted free agents in the 2010 class. He was able to talk his way out of Carolina placing another franchise tag on him (that and the $20-million price tag it would have taken from the cost-conscious Panthers). As the premier defensive lineman in a year when half the franchise tags went to players at that position, it will earn him tens of millions of dollars; nothing accelerates price faster than scarcity of product. With the simple economic concept of supply and demand at work, Peppers should garner the largest contract of the free-agent group, and it should happen quickly, with terms of a deal agreed to by early Friday.

Cost

This will obviously depend on the number of teams involved. However, with word that the perennially aggressive Redskins and selectively aggressive Patriots, Bears and Eagles are involved, there will be some heavy bidding. My sense is that the cost will rival the Terrell Suggs contract of less than a year ago. That contract had a total value of $63M over six years, with $38M guaranteed. Suggs was coming off two franchise tags and would have been an unrestricted free agent this season – along with Peppers – had the Ravens not locked him up. He had been given the tag twice already, and doing so a third time would have cost the Ravens the quarterback tag ($16M). In the event Peppers becomes a Redskin, however, the price may escalate past that of last year’s bonus baby, Albert Haynesworth, with the guarantee moving north of $40M.

Value

Peppers certainly plays a high-impact position and is capable of playing it at the highest level. The question, of course, is will he? My worry would be that if scouts and coaches wondered whether Peppers played with constant motivation before he was rewarded with long-term financial security, that issue certainly would not disappear once he has that security. It will only get worse. My experience, and the experience of countless front office people in the NFL, is similar: Any question marks about a player don’t evaporate when the player gets paid.

The fear about Peppers is not that he’s a bad guy or has off-the-field issues. The fear is motivation to match the talent. If that hasn’t been there while he has played on essentially a one-year deal, it will not get better with a long-term mega-deal.

Obviously, if there was a way to incentivize Peppers throughout the deal – multiple options and rolling guarantees, etc. – that would be preferable to the team that signs him. However, the leverage he has as a result of being the prize of the UFA class will make it hard for a team to put those types of pay-as-you-go mechanisms into the contract.

Peppers will get the pot of gold that all free agents – including the frustrated ones who are now stuck in restricted free agency – dream about. Time will tell if the short-term euphoria of the team that signs him will last through the contract.

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