CHARLOTTE -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers doesn't have any more answers now than he did a few weeks ago, but he has a clear idea of his market value.
Peppers said Thursday he's as mystified and disappointed as anyone at his three-sack season -- "There's no explanation for it," he said -- but as he reaches a critical year regarding his future, he's not about to admit it lessens his value.
"I don't think so," Peppers said. "I'm still the same guy. The numbers are just not the same. If I come back next year and have 25 sacks, then it'll be a different story."
He was asked if having his worst season put owner Jerry Richardson in a difficult spot, since a long-term extension could still make him the highest-paid defensive player in the league.
"The business side is tricky," Peppers said. "I know guys in the past that have come back and gotten contracts who didn't have the best numbers that year. It's just one of those things that we'll see when we get there."
That's a direct reference to Indianapolis pass-rusher Dwight Freeney, who had posted 51 sacks in his first four years before generating 5.5 in 2006 before the Colts gave him a six-year, $72 million pact, with $30 million guaranteed.
Peppers grinned when that situation was alluded to, since he's long rejected comparisons.
"I don't really even know who you're talking about," he said, unable to keep a straight face as he said it. "I just know my situation and what's going on with me. I can't compare the next man who got this for doing that. I'm just trying to worry about me."
Peppers is under contract through the end of 2008, but his salary cap number for next year has swollen to more than $16 million. It went up another tick last week when the team shuffled some money between the final two years of his deal, but at this point, the number was already so large that it dictates they do something with it this offseason.
His agent, Carl Carey, said he didn't want to delve into the particulars of the situation but pointed out they had done two similar restructurings in the past to help the team. But he said he "didn't want to discuss" progress toward the long-term deal he's seeking, one which the Panthers need to create cap room in the future more than Peppers needs for financial security.
In that respect, Peppers has the Panthers over a bit of a barrel, since they need to address his cap number so they can pursue other needs.
Panthers officials likewise didn't want to comment on the future of the deal, or how this year was changing the dynamics of the negotiations. As to whether a disappointing season changed things, general manager Marty Hurney would only say, "Obviously, we know what kind of player Julius is."
What they are extremely concerned about is he hasn't been himself.
Of his three sacks, half came in one game at Arizona. He's never had fewer than seven in a year and has 56.5 in his six seasons. He said earlier this year he's expected breakout games, but they haven't happened.
He has done more in recent weeks, with 10 of his team-high 19 pressures coming in the last four games. But he's still quick to acknowledge this year has been a letdown. At one point last week, he was blocked by 5-foot-7 Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew and there are still 76 players in the league with more sacks this season.
Still, he insists it's a short-term blip.
"It's frustrating. It's disappointing," Peppers said. " But there's nothing I can do about it. It's there. It's down. It's in the books. So I'm not going to sit around and dwell on it. All I know is to come back and keep working.
"I know I can do it. It's been done six years in a row, five years in a row. Even before that at Carolina, it's been done. I know I can do it. I'm just not doing it right now."
His struggles come into contrast this week, since the Panthers are playing against the league's sack leader -- Seattle's Patrick Kerney, who has 13.5.
Peppers said since the Seahawks have been playing ahead most of the year (they have outscored opponents by nearly a touchdown per game, while the Panthers have been outscored by a similar margin), it creates a more conducive atmosphere for getting pressure.
"Patrick is on a good team," Peppers said. "And when you're playing on a good team, most of the time you find yourself leading those games. Teams have to catch up, so teams are passing on you. You have more opportunities to rush the quarterback. When you're playing from behind, you're going to get run on all day. When teams are running on you, you don't get a chance to get sacks.
"I've had opportunities. I just haven't capitalized on some of them that I did have."
Peppers didn't feel like talking about any potential changes he'd make in the offseason, saying he was focusing on the present. He did say he'd take his annual postseason solo trip to reflect, but didn't offer any specifics of things he'd change.
He said he hadn't thought about whether he'd participate in the team's offseason conditioning program, since he's generally worked out on his own. He also rejected the notion he might have done more or done anything differently to avoid the embarrassing year he's had.
"I did what I did and it's got me where I'm at," Peppers said. "I don't have any regrets for anything. All I can do is work harder. I don't really know how to blame somebody else or blame this, that, the coaches, the plays, all that. All I know how to do is work harder."