Scott Fowler

Will Julius Peppers return to Carolina Panthers in 2017?

Cam Newton (left) and Julius Peppers were on opposite sides in this 2015 game, but could they team up in 2017 for the Panthers? Peppers, 37, is about to become a free agent.
Cam Newton (left) and Julius Peppers were on opposite sides in this 2015 game, but could they team up in 2017 for the Panthers? Peppers, 37, is about to become a free agent. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

While researching my column about the Carolina Panthers’ Hall of Honor and who is likely to gain entrance into it in the next decade or so, I came across these three items that rank somewhere between “absolute truth” and “informed rumor.” Let the speculation begin.

1. A Peppers return? I think Julius Peppers, who at age 37 is about to become a free agent again, will consider coming back to the Panthers to end his career with his original team during the free-agency period in March. That’s assuming the Panthers want him, that Peppers will offer his services at a very reasonable price and that “Pep” doesn’t suddenly decide to retire.

I believe that a return to Charlotte for Peppers is quite possible, however. The wanderlust he had in 2010 – when he left Carolina for Chicago despite the Panthers offering to make him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL – has abated. Coming back home to North Carolina is a possibility.

Whether that comes to fruition, though, is debatable. General manager Dave Gettleman wasn’t in Charlotte for any of Peppers’ eight seasons, and he won’t let emotions get in the way of this decision. Peppers did have 7.5 sacks for Green Bay in 2016 – a number that would have ranked second on Carolina’s team to Mario Addison – and would have value as a situational pass rusher at the least. And Gettleman has signed pass rushers at the tail end of their career before (see Allen, Jared).

2. Smith in Carolina’s Hall? It sounds like Steve Smith is more likely to become a member of the Panthers’ “Hall of Honor” in five or more years – sometime after general manager Dave Gettleman leaves the team – than he is to sign a one-day contract with the team in 2017 so he can officially “retire as a Panther.”

I doubt Smith will participate in any sort of major ceremony with the Panthers while Gettleman remains the GM. The parting in 2014 was just too hurtful from Smith’s point of view.

3. Silver Anniversary Celebration: While the Panthers have installed only one of their former players in the Hall of Honor at the moment, there will be a push to induct several more former players by or before the 2019 season – which will be Carolina’s 25th in the NFL. That season will be one in which the Panthers celebrate their past in a variety of ways.

The Panthers plan to keep in place the “You Must Be Retired For At Least Five Years” rule to make their Hall, however. By 2019, that means that players such as Jake Delhomme and John Kasay would be eligible – Delhomme, in fact, is eligible now – but recently retired players such as Smith would not be.

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