You could argue that Carolina's best big-play threat last season didn't line up at wide receiver or in the backfield. He was on the defensive line, in the form of 6'7", 290-pound end Julius Peppers. That's part commentary on the injuries that bedeviled the Panthers in 2004--they played most of the season without receiver Steve Smith and running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster--but it also tells you something about Peppers's athleticism. Against Tampa Bay he returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown; against Atlanta he snatched a Michael Vick fumble out of midair with one hand and went 60 yards for a score; and against Denver he returned an interception 97 yards before being dragged down just short of the goal line. No other Carolina player had as many plays of at least 45 yards.
You could write that off as a case of Peppers's being in the right place at the right time; or, more accurately, you could say that Peppers, who also led Carolina in sacks (11) and forced fumbles (four), is redefining the defensive end position. "I'm always trying to be around the ball, and when it comes out, I'm ready to get it," says Peppers, who in an Aug. 20 preseason game against the Giants was up to his old tricks, sacking Eli Manning, picking up the ball and running 29 yards for a touchdown.
Here's another way that Peppers gets himself ready: When the Panthers do off-season running drills, he doesn't participate with his linemates. Rather, he runs his gassers with the defensive backs. No wonder the coaching staff doesn't hesitate to drop him into pass coverage. "He's a D-back in a D-tackle's body," says fellow lineman Mike Rucker. Defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac says Peppers's big-play abilities are related to his basketball skills. The second pick in the 2002 draft, Peppers played forward for two seasons at North Carolina; it's natural for him to go for the steal and head the other way.
This season the Panthers won't have to rely on Peppers to make all the big plays. They should much more closely resemble the 2003 squad that advanced to the Super Bowl than the banged-up unit that finished 7--9 last year. In addition to Foster (broken clavicle) and Smith (broken fibula), Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins is also coming back from an injury (dislocated shoulder) that sidelined him for most of the season. ( Davis, who is attempting to rebound from microfracture surgery on his right knee, went through his first contact drills last week.) The return of Smith along with the acquisition of 6'2" Rod Gardner in a trade with the Redskins should help offset the loss of free agent Muhsin Muhammad (league-leading 16 touchdown catches), now in Chicago.
Carolina also made its biggest payouts to free agents since coach John Fox was hired in 2002, signing guard Mike Wahle (five years, $28 million) from Green Bay and cornerback Ken Lucas (six years, $36 million) from Seattle. Lucas's acquisition means Carolina will start the two corners ( Chris Gamble is the other) who tied for the NFC lead in interceptions last year. "This is probably the most talented team in my tenure," Fox says.
The return of Jenkins, who went down in Week 2, raises the possibility that Peppers could be freed up to have an even bigger season. Plus, it will help that Peppers, who never played spring football in college because of his basketball commitments, better understands how to attack NFL offenses. When Peppers was a rookie, Fox and Trgovac decided not to overload him with information. "We didn't want to do that to him because then he'd be thinking too much, and we didn't want him to do that," Trgovac says. "Now he can react to things faster, without thinking."
When that happens, Peppers's physical abilities take over. "Everyone always makes the mistake of saying who is going to be the next this or the next that," says Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, a 12-year veteran. "Before you put a label on someone, saying he'll be the next Julius Peppers, do your homework. Those come along once in a lifetime." --B.S.
Ask a Panthers coach how Steve Smith has looked in the preseason, and he'll reach for the nearest piece of wood to knock on. After breaking his leg in the first game of 2004 and missing the rest of the season, the speedy wideout appears ready to pick up where he left off in '03, when he had 1,514 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches (regular season and playoffs combined). Smith will also resume returning punts; he has brought back four for touchdowns in his three full seasons.
AN OPPOSING SCOUT'S VIEW