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Peppers resembling dominant self once again

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In less than the span of an NBA quarter, Carolina Panthers end Julius Peppers proved why he could soon be the highest paid defensive player in the NFL. Pretty impressive for a guy other players believe still would rather play on the hardwood rather than the gridiron.

Peppers' latest one-man show came Sunday against New Orleans during a 14-play stretch in three possessions overlapping the first and second quarters.

It started with a play so sublimely athletic it caught Drew Brees, the most productive quarterback in the league so far this season, off guard. Then came a sack of Brees, Peppers' fourth of the season. Finally, there was the forced fumble against tough-guy tight end Jeremy Shockey as Peppers changed the X's and O's New Orleans coach Sean Payton had so expertly drawn.

While those three plays helped spark a dominating defensive performance as Carolina improved to 5-2, Peppers was not done. He ended his fine day with a fourth-down, goal-line tackle in the fourth quarter that helped seal the victory.

"I've seen him play well, but I have not seen him take over a game like that," Panthers second-year linebacker Jon Beason said of Peppers. "I don't know what the numbers are and I really don't care what the numbers are. But I know for a fact he was out there playing with everything he had on every play."

For his part, Peppers didn't make himself available after the game and wasn't available to talk during the early part of this week. Peppers has always been shy, playing the role of understated standout rather than over-the-top superstar.

Or as he put it earlier in his career: "It's not important for me to be a star, but it is important for me to be one of the better players. I won't feel comfortable with not living up to my potential. I don't want to be spoken of as the player who had potential who never reached it, so I am going to work extra hard to try to be the best I can be."

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Peppers works against Stinchcomb on Sunday.
(US Presswire/Paul Abell)

And if you're Carolina management right now, it's pretty clear that Peppers is back to the form – after a disappointing 2007 campaign – that made him one of the dominant defenders in the league. That means that the price tag on a new contract for Peppers is going up again after Peppers slumped to 2½ sacks in 14 games and finished last season on injured reserve. He was derided for inconsistency all season, to the point that the media even wondered if Peppers was hiding an illness.

Now, Peppers appears back to making opponents feel sick and making Carolina management wonder just exactly how much it's going to cost to keep him. Will it be $74 million? Will it be more?

In large part, the parameters of what Peppers can expect have been set over the past 16 months. During that time, defensive ends Dwight Freeney of Indianapolis (six years, $72 million), Jared Allen of Minnesota (six years, $73.26 million) and Will Smith of New Orleans (six years, $70 million) have all signed new deals.

The funny part about the contract comparisons is Peppers is a far better physical specimen and athlete than the undersized Freeney, the all-effort Allen and the somewhat stiff Smith. Even in his seventh year in the NFL, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound Peppers still looks more like the basketball player he once dreamed of being when he went to North Carolina.

"He still can fool you as a player because he doesn't look that big, but he plays like he's 320 pounds," said Saints offensive tackle Jamaal Brown. "He can run around you all day if you don't watch him, and then he can come up and pound you if you're not careful."

Those attributes and more could make for a pretty nice contract in free agency if Carolina doesn't re-sign him beforehand.

"The negotiations have all been really positive," a league source said. "It has been pretty quiet, not at all contentious. But there's going to come a point where the team has to get really serious and everybody knows it. It's going to be a lot of money, probably the most of all those guys."

Peppers might be the most spectacular athlete in the NFL at the league's premium defensive position. Peppers had double-digit sacks in four of his first six seasons, and put that ability on display against the Saints. He has been a key to making Carolina the fifth-rated defense.

Moreover, Peppers was stunning in ways that sometimes go unnoticed. Start with his first significant play. After New Orleans had quickly driven to the Carolina 48-yard line, the Saints faced a second-and-10 play with a little more than six minutes remaining in the first quarter. New Orleans called for a quick throw to the outside to wide receiver Lance Moore. Peppers was in full pass-rush mode, his right shoulder dipping into Brown as he tried to get to the corner. Peppers then read the play quickly and changed his move suddenly to bat the pass.

"Not many guys can make that play because I feel I'm taking the snap and just firing it out there as fast as I can," Brees said, his eyes widening with obvious respect for the move. "Most of the ends are so focused on rushing up the field … and then all of a sudden throw that hand up, that takes some ability."

Subsequently, New Orleans punted two plays later. Two possessions after that, with the Saints leading 7-3 and again at midfield, Payton called for a screen to Shockey. The play looked to have plenty of room ahead, but Peppers destroyed it by catching Shockey from behind while he was still 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Peppers stripped the ball and Carolina recovered, setting up the go-ahead touchdown and setting the tone for New Orleans' struggles on offense.

"He made a lot of plays. In the run game, the one where we got stopped at the 2-yard line, that was him knifing in front of the tight end and hitting (running back Aaron) Stecker at the line of scrimmage and preventing him from getting the first down," Brees said. "He obviously had the only sack and some pressures; he forced a couple of holding penalties along the way. He's a freak athlete. Nothing surprises me with him … You have to know where he is, you have to have a plan for him and you have to understand with those long arms, he's going to bat balls and be very active."

Oddly, the criticism of Peppers last year was that he wasn't very active; that he'd often get caught out of position and stop running after plays. The Carolina media got to the point that there was a play-by-play breakdown of Peppers' performance after at least one game.

Even opposing players joined the fray. The word among some players was that Peppers was little more than a disinterested participant.

"He really doesn't even like football," said an anonymous player.

Some of that perception may be a result of appearance. As Peppers has said in the past, he puts a priority on being under control.

"You've got to be disciplined. You have to be under control going in there but be aggressive at the same time," he said in an earlier interview.

Again, the game against the Saints was an example. During Peppers' run of plays in the first half, there was another moment when, after lining up on the left side, he broke inside and seemed ready to sack Brees again. New Orleans right tackle Jon Stinchcomb grabbed enough of Peppers' jersey to stop him, but didn't get flagged for holding.

"That's putting it politely," Stinchcomb said with a sly grin when asked about what was a "possible" hold. "Hey, if they don't call it, it's not a penalty, right? Look, that's just how it is when you face (Peppers). He's amazing the things he can do. … And he doesn't lose his cool, that's exactly right. He's under control all the time. He doesn't give you much to attack, mentally or physically."

Ultimately, as Stinchcomb sees it: "Whatever they pay him, he's worth it."