September 07, 2017

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Panthers aren't exactly sure what they'll get from 37-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers this season.

But teammate Charles Johnson has a pretty good inkling.

''I expect Pep to be Pep,'' Johnson said with a smile. ''I expect him to be the person he's always been.''

Peppers is Carolina's career sack leader despite splitting the past seven seasons between the Bears and Packers. He left Carolina over a highly-publicized contract dispute in 2009.

He hasn't spoken to The Associated Press about his decision to return to the Panthers since signing a one-year deal with the team in March. He was nowhere to be found this week in open locker room as the Panthers prepare for their season opener on Sunday against San Francisco.

But taking a low-key approach is nothing new for the quiet Peppers, who has more sacks than any active NFL player.

''With us, he's just Pep,'' Johnson said. ''He doesn't do all the rah-rah. That's what y'all are looking for, but that's not that guy.''

Johnson, linebacker Thomas Davis and others politicked for management to re-sign Peppers following his eight-year hiatus. The North Carolina native was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft and spent nine seasons with the Panthers.

Now he's back to finish his career where it began - and possibly earn that Super Bowl ring that has eluded him for 16 seasons.

How much he'll contribute remains a mystery.

He's still productive, getting 25 sacks the past three seasons with Green Bay, including seven last season.

But while Peppers has been an All-Pro three times and has been to nine Pro Bowls, he's not expected to start. Coach Ron Rivera said Peppers will likely see just as many reps as starter Charles Johnson.

''It doesn't matter who starts,'' Rivera said. ''At the end of the day it's who is going to make the plays.''

Davis said Peppers is still capable.

''He's still a dominant player,'' Davis said. ''He's still a guy that's going to go out and be successful. He's going to command a lot of attention. If you don't, then shame on you.''

The 6-foot-7, 295-pound Peppers remains as stout as ever.

And, based on practice, hasn't lost any of his quickness that has resulted in 143 sacks.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn still calls the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Peppers the biggest football player he's ever seen.

''Compared to me, it's like wow, he's a giant,'' Munnerlyn said.

It may be his size or his 17 years of NFL experience, but teammates say Peppers commands immediate attention when he walks in the room.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said the mere presence of a likely Hall of Famer such as Peppers has had an impact on the locker room, particularly the young guys on defense.

''You don't get a lot of opportunities to play alongside guys like that very often,'' Olsen said. ''If you don't take advantage of those moments, take advantage of those lessons you are cheating yourself, you are cheating your development. ... They may not be able to do everything that he does on the field, but you can emulate his approach his attitude, his preparation.''

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