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Even as second pick, Peppers might be best


David Carr makes perfect sense as the top overall pick of next month's NFL Draft. For that matter, so does Joey Harrington.

As the Houston Texans prepare to launch their inaugural season, they want and need a rookie quarterback to be their cornerstone player, someone with whom the franchise can grow and be identified for many years to come. Carr and Harrington look like the best candidates from this year's college crop. The Texans won't say which will be the chosen one, even though all signs point to Carr, and Carr points to himself.

But under different circumstances, we might very well be talking about a different player at a different position -- someone like Julius Peppers, the sensational defensive end from the University of North Carolina.

If the Texans weren't an expansion club and, therefore, didn't have the number one pick, then that spot would belong to the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers drafted a quarterback last year, Chris Weinke, whom they hope will be their starter for a long time. Now, what they need is some major help on defense. And, with the second choice in a year when the top pick is reserved for a quarterback, the Panthers have a chance to land Peppers, perhaps the most dominant college prospect of them all.

Peppers, who is forgoing his final year of eligibility to enter the draft, finished his Tar Heels career with 30½ sacks. That is the second-highest total in school history despite the fact he played only three seasons. As a sophomore, Peppers led the nation with 15 sacks.

Although they didn't get to see him work out at last weekend's combine in Indianapolis -- Peppers is saving that for March 26 in Chapel Hill, N.C. -- a number of NFL talent evaluators believe the dominating he did in college will continue on the professional level. Peppers won't go so far as to agree with them, but he knows his capabilities.

"I think it's possible," Peppers says. "I want to maximize my potential as a player. I want to get as good as I can possibly be. If I do that, I think I could be one of the best players ever."

He is gifted enough athletically to have been a forward on North Carolina's basketball team before giving up hoops this year to devote himself to preparing for the NFL.

He has drawn favorable comparisons to the most recent star defensive end to emerge from the college ranks, Jevon Kearse, the Tennessee Titans' first-round choice from Florida in 1999. With a 4.6 clocking in the 40-yard dash, Peppers is nearly on a par with Kearse in terms of speed. He also can jump as high as the three-time Pro Bowl selection.

Plus, at 6-foot-6, Peppers is two inches taller and, at 283 pounds, nearly 20 pounds heavier than Kearse.

Peppers also has been mentioned in the same breath as another former Tar Heel, Lawrence Taylor.

In fact, John Bunting, North Carolina's coach, suggests Peppers might actually raise the bar on what Kearse has done in his short NFL career and what Taylor did on the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame by calling him "a powerful Jevon Kearse ... a powerful Lawrence Taylor."

Besides getting to the quarterback, Peppers has shown astonishing skill in pass coverage, which isn't supposed to be high on a defensive lineman's list of credentials. Last season, he led North Carolina with three interceptions.

"How many down linemen lead their team interceptions?" Bunting asks, already knowing the answer. "Not many."

It isn't simply the number of interceptions that is impressive. It is how Peppers has made them. There was the one against Oklahoma when he shed a block before making a leaping catch of a screen pass that he returned 29 yards for a touchdown. Then, against Florida State, he dropped into coverage, made another leaping grab, and nearly scored a second time.

But the one that teammates, coaches, and fans will be telling their grandchildren about came against Clemson. That was when Peppers separated himself from a blocker, spun, got away from another blocker, jumped, swatted the ball, dived, and grabbed the deflection before it hit the ground.

That's the kind of play superstars make -- the kind that prompts comparisons with Kearse and Taylor.

But if you think you're flattering Peppers by calling him "another Kearse" or "The next Taylor," you are badly mistaken.

"I want to be my own player," Peppers says. "I want to be Julius Peppers. I don't want to be the next Lawrence Taylor. I don't want to have to live with his legend. I want to be my own person."

Bunting, a former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker and assistant coach with the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints, has done his part to help prepare Peppers for the NFL. Periodically, he shows him videotape of defensive linemen from the Saints and Rams, pointing out various techniques they use to escape blocks and make plays.

But even more valuable, according to Peppers, is listening to Bunting stress the importance of having the highest level of confidence and mental toughness on the field.

Some of Peppers's critics -- and there aren't many -- think he needs to heed all of the advice he can get about having the right mentality on the field. They say that, while he has exceptional talent, he doesn't play at full intensity on every snap.

Peppers challenges the criticism.

"I didn't take any plays off this year," he says. "I had games where I had better stats than others, but it wasn't because I wasn't playing hard. I gave the same effort every game. It was just different situations. Different teams put me in different situations."

The Panthers don't seem too concerned about any reputation Peppers might have for occasionally taking plays off. For one thing, they realize it is not something that one can definitively conclude from watching a player on videotape. For another, they recognize that Peppers is young and, because of basketball, has less football experience than other top prospects.

"He's a junior coming out of college and hasn't played a lot of spring ball because of basketball," new Panthers coach John Fox says. "But he has great, great athletic tools and has been very productive at North Carolina. He has a lot of big-play capability.

"Nobody that's a junior is probably as consistent as they would be as a senior. If you look at a guy that's a four-year player versus a three-year player, that's another year to mature. But I don't think he's way behind considering where he is in his maturation process."

During the combine, Fox had a lengthy and wide-ranging conversation with Peppers. He liked what he heard, concluding that Peppers is a "bright young man that's going to do very well."

Peppers seems smart enough to understand that, despite his eye-popping numbers and the lofty praise he has received, he has not achieved perfection as a player.

"I've still got a lot of improving to do," Peppers says. "I think my main thing is to get stronger in the weight room, so I can improve on stopping the run and becoming a complete player."

That's a scary thought when you consider that, right now, he's good enough to probably end up as the second overall pick of the draft and arguably ranks as the most dominant college prospect of them all.

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