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Len Pasquarelli

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Updated: August 21, 12:51 PM ET
Peppers has bulked up, improved footwork

By Len Pasquarelli

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On the second defensive series of last Friday night's preseason game here, Carolina Panthers strong-side end Julius Peppers, despite being blatantly held by New York Giants right tackle Ian Allen, still managed to get a big left paw up and swat away Kerry Collins' would-be swing pass as if it was a nettlesome mosquito buzzing around his head.

A couple plays later, Peppers, the NFL's defensive rookie of the year in 2002, ran down Giants tailback Tiki Barber on a sweep, and almost effortlessly ragged-dogged him to the ground. And then, on the ensuing series, Peppers took a quick jab-step to the outside and upfield, cut back sharply inside on Allen, lowered his shoulder to power his way past the flat-footed tackle, and dumped Collins for a sack.

Nothing out of the ordinary, right, for Peppers, the second prospect chosen overall in the 2002 draft, and a player who quickly carved out a niche as one of the most dominant left ends in the league?

Julius Peppers
Peppers helped the Panthers finish second in total defense last year.
No, not really, since Peppers authored similar performances last year, before having his rookie campaign truncated by a four-game league suspension.

But it was the way in which Peppers made those three plays on Friday night, on each occasion relying more on newfound power than trademark quickness, which should deliver this cautionary message to wary right offensive tackles around the league: If you think Peppers was good in 2002, when he posted a dozen sacks, he's even better in '03.

"Oh, yeah, he's the same player in a lot of ways, but different in many ways, too," noted Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "He's bigger. He's smarter. He understands that you can't just get by with natural talent. He knows that, if you don't get better, then people catch up to you. And so he went out and got better. Maybe that doesn't seem like it's possible, but he's ready to take another (step) forward, so look out."

No one doubted that, with a full offseason in the weight room, Peppers would mature physically and add some bulk to his frame. In fact, a year ago in training camp, coach John Fox suggested that Peppers was still a work in progress, a youngster getting by on raw talent alone, one who would prosper when he matured physically and mastered the game's nuances.

Fox's assessment certainly looks to be prophetic.

Neither the Panthers nor Peppers are saying just how much bigger the former North Carolina star is in his second year, but suspicion from scouts around the NFL is that he is approaching 300 pounds now, rare tonnage even at the left end position. And if Friday was any kind of indication, Peppers hasn't sacrificed his explosiveness, and he still gets quickly up the field.

On a defensive line that suddenly has emerged as one of the league's best young units, but still doesn't get the attention it really deserves, Peppers is the linchpin.

It can't be, one Carolina official acknowledged, mere happenstance that, once the club acquired Peppers, the people around him became instantly better. Buckner has always been a more solid player than he was given credit for, but his career was resurrected in 2002. Fellow tackle Kris Jenkins was a late addition to last year's NFC Pro Bowl squad. Right end Mike Rucker got more pass rush opportunities, and posted a career-best 10 sacks, when Peppers began to occupy blockers.

The Panthers' starting front four registered 34 sacks in 2002, the third-best total in the league for a starting unit. More remarkably, Carolina skyrocketed from last in the NFL in total defense in 2001 to No. 2 in 2002. It would be crazy to attribute all the improvement to Peppers, but he is the kind of player who forces opponents to be aware of where he is on every snap, and who thus frees up teammates to make plays.

I want to show people this year, that I don't need any supplements, any kind of artificial stuff, to play well. This is me, pure and simple and with no (additives), so you have to deal with me. I don't want anybody thinking last year was a fluke.
DE Julius Peppers

Raved Fox after Friday night's game: "Man, he's a monster, isn't he?"

Certainly added strength is a factor, because Peppers was, and will increasingly be, forced to fight through double-team blocks much of the season. On the tackle of Barber, he used speed to break to the point of attack, but Peppers also muscled through one blocker. The pass deflection was brute force, because Allen had actually pinned Peppers' arm as he bear-hugged him, but Peppers was able to rip it free and made the natural move to simply throw his hand into the general direction of the passing lane.

But it was the sack on which Peppers graphically demonstrated why he will be more than just a speed-rusher in 2003. The jab-step to the outside got Allen back on his heels, but it was the lowered shoulder and a half-swim technique that enabled Peppers to squeeze the inside angle, and to compress the pocket.

"To me," said one NFC scout in attendance, "that was the play that sent up flares. Maybe last year, (Peppers) just takes the outside lane, and keeps going upfield. But he sensed that he had (Allen) back on his heels and spun back inside. If he starts doing that kind of stuff on a regular basis, he's going to be really tough."

There is, of course, an NFL adage which suggests that any player makes his most progress between his rookie season and his second year. That said, a player still has to work to get better, because the quantum leap isn't a guarantee. Peppers clearly worked in the weight room, where he improved his maximum bench press by about 100 pounds, but also on details such as footwork and hand placement.

And he worked with a purpose, since Peppers feels some of the accomplishments of last year are seen as tainted, because of the suspension. The four-game sanction, which came after Peppers tested positive for using a dietary supplement that contained the banned substance ephedra, ended his season and kept him from challenging the league's rookie sack record. It might also have cost him a Pro Bowl berth.

"I want to show people this year," said Peppers, "that I don't need any supplements, any kind of artificial stuff, to play well. This is me, pure and simple and with no (additives), so you have to deal with me. I don't want anybody thinking last year was a fluke. There's only one way to do that, and it's to be even better, and I plan to be just that."

The early indications are, to the consternation of league tackles, that the plan is working.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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