Peppers eyeing fresh start

Sometimes, players take gambles that fail. Other times, players take gambles that work.

Julius Peppers took a calculated gamble last year when he turned down a four-year contract worth a little more than $52 million to stay with the Carolina Panthers. He elected to stay in Carolina with an $18.2 million franchise number and see whether the Panthers would franchise him in 2010 or let him become a free agent.

As it turns out, Peppers, who wasn't franchised and will leave the Panthers after free agency starts, is in a no-lose situation even if he doesn't get significantly more than what the Panthers were willing to pay him from 2009 through 2012.

Here's why.

According to sources, six to eight teams are interested in signing Peppers when free agency starts. He needs to get $34 million over the next three years to equal the money the Panthers were willing to pay him, and that, according to sources, seems easy to obtain.

So why leave?

Apparently, Peppers feels as though he needs a new start. His first eight years have been pretty good. He's been to five Pro Bowls. He's had 81 sacks. He was selected to the NFL's All-Decade team.

But at age 30, Peppers wants to show that he can be great, not just very, very good. That could be a challenge. History shows it's hard for a 30-plus-year-old pass-rusher to do better in his 30s than his 20s.

Among the teams expected to show interest in Peppers are the Eagles, Patriots and Bears. A mix of teams with 3-4 and 4-3 schemes are interested.

Peppers' departure from Carolina isn't about the money. Even if he signs for the same money as he would have with the Panthers, Peppers wants to take his game to another level.

From the inbox

Q: For years, something has really bothered me about the draft strategies of NFL teams. If a club has a big, glaring weakness on its roster, why doesn't it use multiple draft picks to address it? I think the Rams should draft two or three quarterbacks, the Bills should draft three or four offensive linemen, the Bears should draft two or three safeties, etc. Sure, you're sacrificing depth, but at least you're taking a bold step to solve a major problem. What gives?

Nathan in Coralville, Iowa

A: Some teams get into trouble by reaching for players to fill needs. To reach twice might be even more dangerous. It may not be a bad idea if the position is deep enough that when the "need" player is available, he ranks among the best players available to a team. Often, that isn't the case. You've seen in recent drafts that safety has been a position without much depth. Drafting two for need could make a team go 0-for-2. It's rare that a draft is deep enough for a team to take two quarterbacks and hope to be successful. The team is at the mercy of the talent that is available.

Q: With the Bears underachieving in Jay Cutler's first year, their lack of high picks in this year's draft and the death of Gaines Adams, it seems like making a run at Peppers makes a lot of sense. In your opinion, are the Bears a big contender for landing Peppers?

Colin in Louisville, Ky.

A: I agree 100 percent. Last year, the Bears traded down and drafted a lot of players, and those players were virtually on scholarship. Many spent the season on the inactive list. With no draft choice until the third round, the Bears should be aggressive in their pursuit of Peppers instead of being budget-conscious and going for someone such as Aaron Kampman. If the Bears sign Peppers, he would be their first-round pick.

Q: Would it be logical or even possible for a Michael Bush-for-Michael Vick trade because the Raiders need a quarterback and the Eagles released Brian Westbrook? Also, is there any possibility of Peppers going to the Raiders? Peppers and Richard Seymour on the D-line with Nnamdi Asomugha in the secondary would be a scary defense.

Greg in Florence, Ky.

A: It makes sense for the Eagles, but it doesn't make sense for the Raiders. They have enough projects going on at quarterback. Al Davis likes a vertical stretch offense, and he's banking on JaMarcus Russell working hard this offseason and trying to show he isn't a bust. As for Peppers, it wouldn't surprise me if the Raiders look into the possibilities. They have a lot of money tied up in Seymour, but he's under a one-year franchise tag. Peppers would add more pass rush, which is needed. You get the feeling things won't work out well on offense. If that's the case, why not bid for Peppers on defense?

Q: If the Steelers can't re-sign Ryan Clark, what are their chances of signing Darren Sharper to fill the void for a year while they develop a safety?

Sean in Pittsburgh

A: It's not a bad thought. Clark hopes to land one of the biggest safety contracts in the league, but I don't think that will happen. If they lose him, the Steelers might as well go for a playmaker because the price won't be too bad.

Q: Being a Giants fan, it's obvious that we have holes on defense. Given our great WR depth, do you think we could trade Mario Manningham to the Dolphins for the No. 12 pick? We could even add in Jonathan Goff. The Dolphins would get a receiver with great potential, not to mention Chad Henne's primary target from Michigan. Then the Giants could draft Rolando McClain.

Leo in New York

A: Come on, do you really think Manningham would be valued at the 12th pick in the draft? Clearly, that's overvaluing a receiver who is becoming a backup. At best, he might net a fourth-round choice. By having Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith move ahead of him, Manningham lost trade value, but I do think the Giants could trade him. I will be interested to see how the Karlos Dansby negotiations go. I think the Giants and Dolphins will battle to get Dansby. The loser could end up putting McClain as a priority in the draft.

Q: I am a big fan of your work, but I disagree with your belief that the Bills need to draft a quarterback (specifically Jimmy Clausen) this year. You stated the Bills' front office destroyed its O-line, so why would it be wise to put a rookie passer behind one of the worst lines in the league? Tom Brady behind the Bills' line would stink. That is why they need to draft an offensive tackle first, stink again in 2010 (while their young O-line grows up together) and draft Jake Locker in 2011. Thanks for hearing me out.

Zach in Tampa

A: You're right about the offensive line problems being a factor, but why would the Bills have to start Clausen immediately? They could use Trent Edwards as a bridge to Clausen. I don't think you have to worry about it, because I don't think Clausen will drop that far. If that's the case, the Bills need to draft an offensive tackle.

Q: With all the labor issues in the NFL, do you think that putting restrictions on rookie contracts would help? Rookies who get drafted in the first round haven't even proved themselves yet get close to $50 million. Also, wouldn't this let teams be able to draft good players and be able to go after big-name free agents without having to worry about cap space?

Jaden in Munising, Mich.

A: If there is ever a new deal, it will include a hard rookie wage scale somewhat similar to the NBA's. Rookie contracts for the top 10 draft picks have gotten out of control. The prices are so high for top-five picks that no one wants to trade into the top five. It would help the horrible teams in the top five to have the luxury of trading down and gaining more picks. First, the league needs to get a new collective bargaining agreement. Once it does, a saner rookie pay scale will be implemented.

Q: What do you think the best-case scenario is for the Eagles this year at quarterback? Do you ride Donovan McNabb out for one more year? As an Eagles fan, I would try to trade him for the most possible value. Kevin Kolb doesn't seem like a good fit as a starter, even though he hasn't had a chance to really prove himself. Vick is a question mark. Is it possible for the Eagles to look at the draft? Maybe someone like Tim Tebow?

Joe in Lindenhurst, N.Y.

A: The best scenario is to keep McNabb and continue to groom Kolb. The Eagles believe in Kolb, and he will be their quarterback of the future. Vick doesn't have much, if any, trade value, so I think he will get cut. I don't see Tebow doing anything for the Eagles.

Q: My question relates to the likely cap-free year. All the focus I have seen so far has been on the cap portion. I'm more interested in the floor aspect. I can see many teams that will lower spending greatly in the event of a cap-free year. What are your thoughts in relation to this?

Les in Perth, Australia

A: The salary-cap floor last season was $111 million. I predict you may see more than a dozen teams not spend to that level. In fact, I predict payrolls in general will drop $20 million to $30 million per team. There isn't much to spend on in free agency. I also think it will be hard to get the usual number of contract extensions. More than half the unrestricted free-agent deals will be one-year deals for less than $1 million. Owners will be pocketing a lot of money this season.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.