By Ross Tucker
February 19, 2010

Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers will be one of the biggest names available when free agency begins on March 5. He'll have plenty of suitors, and will likely land a hefty contract. But that contract may not be quite as large as Peppers is hoping, at least not if teams see the same things from Peppers that I do.

I started against Peppers in his first NFL appearance, a preseason game in 2002, and was amazed by his natural gifts. He stood 6-foot-7 and weighed 290 pounds without seemingly an ounce of fat on his body. He had wildly long arms and was so quick I literally whiffed when I went to cut block him on one play.

By most standards, he has had a great career since then. Eighty-one sacks over eight seasons, 309 tackles, 30 forced fumbles, six interceptions. He's played in a Super Bowl, been selected to five Pro Bowls. Made a ton of money -- $16.7 last year as the NFL's highest paid defensive player -- with more to come.

But he could have been so much more. He could have been a once-in-a-generation dominator, a first ballot Hall of Famer who we'd talk about for years to come.

Now, such an end appears unlikely. His career has been marked by good seasons and bad seasons, big games and games where he was nowhere to be found. That's because Peppers is so gifted, he has gotten away with taking off more than his share of plays.

He's not the only player who takes plays off. Far from it. Plenty of oversized defensive tackles do so to compensate for their lack of conditioning and the physical exertion that it takes to play the position. Some defensive linemen do so as a ploy, attempting to lull offensive linemen into complacency so they can beat them when it matters most. Wide receivers more or less do the same thing against cornerbacks; Randy Moss is a prime example of a skill guy who picks his spots.

But Peppers takes plays off simply because he can get away with it.

In October, one of his teammates made headlines when he told a Charlotte radio station he wanted more out of the former North Carolina standout. "The pressure is what you want to see ... the intensity," said linebacker Jon Beason. At the time, Peppers had one sack and the Panthers were 0-3. He finished with 10.5 for a team that went 8-8.

Peppers' production has been significant enough that the Panthers have tolerated his inconsistency over the years, but now that he's up for a big contract, that tolerance should fade. Just think: This could be the last contract Peppers signs. With no contract year looming down the road, who knows what kind of production he'd deliver under this deal.

Fans often wonder why teammates or coaches don't get in a player's face and demand he give his all-out effort for the good of the team. A message like that only sinks in if it comes from a fellow star, or a team leader who carries weight in the locker room.

Here's hoping, both for Peppers' sake and the sake of his soon-to-be new team, that his next team has vocal leaders capable of getting the best out of Peppers. Clearly, he isn't always capable of getting the best out of himself.

Mail time...

It's because of guys like you that the union is weak. You are nothing more than a water carrier for the owners. It's a disgrace what the owners have done to the players AND former players. But you got yours -- so now criticize all you want. Can you not see how well off the owners are? Now they want the players to help pay for the stadiums? Oh, and by the way, the owners let players sustain head injuries for years before acknowledging [wink wink] them. Geez.-- JD Byrd, Waco

I'm always a bit confused when I get a random e-mail like this amid dozens that accuse me of being a mouthpiece for the players union, or inform me that fans don't want to read about the plight of guys who make big money playing a kid's game. My point is simply that the CBA standoff which has led to these uncharted, uncapped waters will be a life-altering experience for the players missing out on the opportunities almost all of their predecessors had.

Ross: Does a guy like Ray Edwards realize that Roger Goodell is essentially the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company? This is the equivalent of a factory worker at GE calling out the CEO because he is in a more dangerous situation in the factory, and directly touches the product being made. It is absurd.-- Josh, Chicago

I can't speak for Ray, but your analogy is a fair one. It is kind of like executive compensation, if you ask me. If a new CEO improves a company's bottom line by a couple hundred million, I have no problem with him being well compensated for his performance. As for Edwards, the inclusion of his quote was an example of the frustration this large crop of restricted free agents is feeling.

@SI_RossTucker what Winter Olympic sports do you think an NFL lineman could compete in?-- Joshelberg, via Twitter

Something where the player's considerable weight would be an advantage. Maybe bobsledding or luge, to fly down the track faster? If not, it would have to be something like curling, because I can't see an NFL offensive lineman being too successful as a snowboarder or speed skater.

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