NFL's next big thing

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – He's 300 pounds now. Or something darn close. That is what they all keep saying/marveling about Julius Peppers.

He's 6-foot-7 and up 12 or so pounds from last year to pack more muscle for more run stopping, but he's certainly not one of those obesity candidates everyone is talking about. We are talking a ripped-up, revved-up three bills.

Didn't you see him in the preseason nearly tear off Eli Manning's arm, scoop up the ball, dance 29 yards into the end zone and promptly dunk it over the goal post?

Did he look 300 pounds to you?

"He looks about 250 and running a 4.5, 4.6," said teammate Mike Minter, whose daily bird's-eye view of Peppers on the Carolina Panthers' practice field never ceases to delight. "That is amazing when you look at it.

"You are looking at a guy who athletically is probably the best 300-pounder that has ever walked."

"I'm just filling out," offered Peppers.

Combine that freak of nature athletic ability, a work ethic that has added bulk without losing balance and a surging understanding of the game and you have a season where the potential may be on the verge of meeting performance.

Ask players, coaches and personnel directors around the NFL about who the next big thing is – the next guy capable of dominating, the next defensive megastar in the mold of Butkus, Singletary, L.T., Smith, White and Lewis – and the name invariably mentioned first is Peppers, the Panthers' fourth-year defensive end who made his first Pro Bowl last season.

That is one reason why Carolina has emerged as the chic pick to win the NFC. This could be the year Peppers, 25, becomes the best player in football.

"The guy has played what, [three] seasons?" Minter said. "He is still a baby. You don't really start to understand this game until Year 7, 8, 9. That is why you see these guys break out at those years. Reggie White at [Year] 7, 8, 9, he was killing. Michael Strahan did the same type thing. Ray Lewis started coming along around that time.

"That is when the great ones become great ones. That is why you can still talk about his potential. The Pro Bowl? That's peanuts compared to what he is going to be able to do when he starts to understand what is going on."

The physical part of the game has never been a question. Growing up in Bailey, N.C. (population 530) – "Don't close your eyes," he said, "you might miss it" – Peppers was a prep All-American in both football and basketball. He was so light on his feet he was a sprinter and triple jumper on the high school track team.

At the University of North Carolina, he not only terrorized ACC quarterbacks but also played power forward on the Tar Heels' 2000 Final Four team.

His speed and athletic ability led the Panthers to select him second overall in the 2002 draft. The only questions centered on his ability to bulk up – playing hoops in the offseason had kept his girth down – and his ability to gain the mental capacity to be more than just a physically gifted player.

"I had a lot to learn," Peppers said.

A player of Peppers' incredible natural talent can go one of two ways: One, he can rest on that ability and become a heck of a player, even a Pro Bowler. (After all, this is a player who, without having a clue as a rookie, went out and recorded 12 sacks in 12 games.) Or two, he can apply himself to be one of the truly great ones.

There really wasn't a way to know on draft day which way Peppers would go. Carolina thinks it knows now.

"He is a guy who takes a lot of pride in what he does," Panthers coach John Fox said. "He has put in a lot of time this offseason and I have said it many times – he is a guy who just continues to get better."

The progress has been steady.

"He has gotten a lot better because he is starting to realize things before they happen to him," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "Being a young guy [who was] not playing much football, there is a lot of stuff that can surprise you. Now you starting to recognize stuff and it is helping."

Peppers is now a fixture not only in the weight room, where things come easy, but also in the film room, where they don't.

"It is getting a little easier to recognize things," said Peppers, who had 11 sacks last season. "A big part of this game is mental preparation. Over the course of the last three years, I think that is where I have made big strides, watching tape and knowing opponents. Getting better from the tape. That is the best tool to learn from – watching tape in the meeting room.

"I am feeling good. It's my fourth year so I have been doing it for a little while."

There was the time in 2003 when then-Cowboys wideout Joey Galloway got loose in the secondary and appeared headed for pay dirt when he got run down from behind by Peppers.

"He chased him down like a 5-year-old child," then-teammate Omari Jordan said at the time. "It was like one of those cowboys with the bull. He just tied him up. I saw that and I said, Oh man. He just chased down Joey Galloway, one of the fastest players in the league.' "

There was the time last year when he grabbed a Michael Vick fumble with one hand and ran 60 yards for a touchdown. There was the time at Denver when he not only intercepted a pass but returned it 97 yards.

There was the game against Tampa Bay last season when he blocked a field goal, recorded a sack and returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown and all anyone wanted to talk about was how he saved a TD by running down Bucs back Michael Pittman on a 68-yard screen play.

One day, all of these highlights are going to make a great NFL Films show because, of all the amazing athletes the NFL has seen, Julius Peppers can hang with any of them.

Those exceptional skills have made Peppers the matchup problem/headache for every opponent.

"In the first preseason game, [Washington] game-planned him," Minter said. "They double- and triple-[teamed] him. Who game-plans someone the first preseason game? That is how good they think he is."

"Every time we play him," Atlanta's Michael Vick said, "I look for him [coming] off that edge, and I have to worry about protecting my back side or front side or whatever side he's on because he's going to pose a threat."

But none of that will make Peppers the best defensive player in the league, just the most exciting. That's why Fox isn't prone to gushing about his budding megastar.

He wants to take Peppers from good to great, from crazed to consistent, from highlight-reel player to someone who also excels at mundane chores such as stuffing the run.

"He'll determine that," Fox said.

Peppers just smiles at this notion. He's heard it. He's understood it. He's worked on it. It is why he is pushing 300 pounds. The extra weight will help him jam rushing lanes, deal with double teams and live up to the potential he has been hearing since his days back in Bailey.

"I feel like I am getting closer," he said. "The key is just [forgetting] about what you did yesterday or last year. I did some things last year – my first Pro Bowl, a few awards – but you have to throw those things out the door and start over.

"I feel all the tools are there. All the moves are there. Everything I need on the field is there. I just feel like I need to be a little more consistent and start fast at the beginning of the year. Individually, I didn't start fast. It has always been the middle of the season and the end of the season when I think my game starts picking up.

"But this year I want to come out of the blocks fast."

He looked like he meant it.

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