Bucky Brooks
Thursday August 14th, 2008

After watching Julius Peppers dominate in the Panthers' preseason debut against the Colts with a sack, forced fumble and a hurry that resulted in an interception, scouts are expecting the three-time Pro Bowl defender to reclaim his status as one of the game's top pass rushers.

Peppers' reputation as a premier pass rusher took a severe hit after he mustered only 2.5 sacks last season. For much of the season he struggled against a host of inferior offensive tackles.

"He wasn't very good last season," said an NFC scout. "Teams didn't do anything to account for him on the edge. He saw a lot of single blocks near the end of the season, but didn't dominate or produce like he had in the past."

But Peppers' impressive first quarter against Indy signaled that he might be back on top of his game, and the key factor for his resurgence may be the team's decision to move him to right defensive end.

"He is so talented that sometimes you try to do too much with him," said a Panthers' official. "He is at his best when he puts his hand down and rushes the passer. The move to the right lets him do what he does best."

The move is part of head coach John Fox's plan to rebuild a defense that only generated 23 sacks a season ago. In addition to Peppers' position change, the Panthers are going with more five- and six-man pressures, and less of the "read and react" principles. With more rushers, Peppers should have a chance to make more of an impact.

As the left defensive end, Peppers faced the bulk of the opponents' running game (most teams use a right-handed philosophy when running the football), and that eventually wore him down. Although Peppers has gradually improved as a run defender, the move to the weak side allows him use his speed to chase down runs from behind. Thus, he becomes a more effective run player without compromising his ability to be a dominant pass rusher.

The presence of such an explosive athlete on the quarterback's blindside is an intimidating thought for offensive coordinators. "He is such an amazing athlete that is scary to think about the damage that he can do from the backside," said a Panthers' official.

The Titans were roundly criticized for not drafting a potential big play receiver in the first round, but their selection of running back Chris Johnson looks as if it will pay big dividends this season. The 5'11, 200-pound speedster from East Carolina has been dazzling during training camp, and his preseason debut was nothing short of spectacular.

Johnson rushed for 77 yards on six carries, including a 66-yard touchdown run, and added another reception for 13 yards against the Rams. Scout are raving about his big play ability.

"He has the ability to change the complexion of the game whenever he touches the ball," said an NFC scout. "As a runner, receiver or returner, he is capable of making special things happen from anywhere on the field."

Last season, the Titans only produced 47 plays over 20 yards and ranked 21st in scoring (18.8). But Johnson's speed and explosiveness gives them a chance to improve on those sub-par numbers.

Although Johnson's speed and versatility makes it tempting to use him as a multi-positional weapon, the Titans have immediate plans to use him in the backfield. "I am just looking at him as a tailback," Titans' offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger told The Tennessean. "What we do outside of turning and handing him the ball is a bonus."

With Johnson receiving 15-20 touches a game, expect the Titans' offense to be far more explosive than last season.

After watching Jacob Hester fill many roles for the Chargers during their preseason opener, it appears the rookie will be a far more valuable backup than Michael Turner. Though Turner averaged 5.5 yards per carry and ripped off 16 runs over 20 yards during his four-year stint as LaDainian Tomlinson's backup, he was a one-dimensional player who failed to contribute anything in the passing game. He only had 11 career receptions, and his suspect hands prevented him from playing a larger role in the Chargers' offense.

In Hester, the team gets a versatile performer who displayed a solid array of skills during his four years at LSU. Not only did Hester rush for 1,780 yards and tally 60 receptions, but also he made 38 tackles while anchoring the Tigers' special teams unit.

"He is a solid role player," said an NFC scout. "He isn't spectacular in any area, but he is good enough to contribute in a number of ways."

Although Hester lacks Turner's explosive running skills, he is capable inside runner with superior hands and receiving skills than his predecessor. In addition, Hester's ability to float seamlessly between fullback and tailback gives Norv Turner the ability to pair him with Tomlinson in certain packages. Thus, it adds another weapon to an already potent lineup that features Antonio Gates, Chris Chambers and Tomlinson.

"He is a good player," said a Chargers' official. "You can't underestimate his versatility, and he should play an integral role in what we do offensively."

While the loss of Turner was significant, the addition of Hester makes the Chargers' offense diverse and more difficult to defend in 2008.

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