Carolina Panthers

After Jenkins' trade, Panthers' need for Peppers grows

Peppers slumped to his worst season -- including college and probably high school -- registering 2.5 sacks and barely a blip on the radar screen.

While he adamantly denied there was a mystery illness at the root of his poor play, he clearly wasn't the same player physically he had been in the past. He's never taken part in the team's offseason conditioning program, but his agent said last week that conditioning won't be a problem this year.

"Julius critiques himself more than anyone else ever could," agent Carl Carey said last week. "He's comfortable in what he's come up with and what areas he needs to improve. He's already addressing this fairly aggressively this offseason."

When asked if that meant he'd be in Charlotte in mid-March when the team's conditioning program begins, Carey replied: "In addition to anything he's doing with the team, he's committed to be in top form. He's very committed to working, even when he doesn't have to."

Whether he's in Charlotte or not, his teammates expect to see the Peppers of old next year, not the one who was barely a factor in any games outside Arizona.

"We know he's going to be on fire when he comes back," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said of Peppers. "We know that the way last year went down really (ticked) him off. He's still a great player, it's just that last year didn't work out. All the great ones go through it sometimes.

"I just have a feeling that when he gets back out there, he's going to blow up."

Doing so would be helpful, since he's entering the final year of his rookie contract.

Speaking of which, Carey said he didn't want to discuss whether they were working on an extension that would save the Panthers salary cap room they need -- while making him perhaps the richest defensive player in league history. Panthers general manager Marty Hurney doesn't comment on such talks, but it's clear that both sides know roughly what it's going to take.

"Marty and I have pretty much had a steady conversation, and we know where we stand," Carey said. "And we also agree that this is best handled without doing it through the media. We've had an excellent working relationship and we'll continue to."

When asked if the salary cap pressures might force a deal sooner (Peppers counts $15.6 million this year and they could chop that number in half or more with a new deal), Carey hedged. "Marty would be in a better position to talk about his urgency."

• FINALLY GOT THEIR MAN: The Panthers signed Sumter-native Ricardo Colclough on Saturday, after a frustrating attempt to get him last year.

Colclough, a 2004 second-round pick from Tusculum, was a bit of a disappointment in Pittsburgh, spent most of 2006 on injured reserve with a neck problem and the Steelers waived him midway through last season.

The Panthers and Cleveland each put in waiver claims for him, a tie the league breaks by looking at records first, then strength of schedule. Both teams happened to be 4-3 at that moment, and both teams had opponent records of 21-31.

That left the league to resort to a coin flip, and the Panthers didn't even get a chance to call heads or tails, as the determination was made by the league office.

This time, they secured him with a two-year, $4 million contract.

He's in Charlotte mostly as a kick returner (they think he's got potential beyond his career 21.7-yard average), though he's played some acceptable cornerback in the past.

• MENTORING PROGRAM: As productive as he was when he was in Charlotte last, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad sounded last week like a guy who knew his job was to be an insurance policy and a teacher.

"My job as a player is to come in here and make them guys reach their full potential and play as good as they can play," Muhammad said when asked about his expected role with Dwayne Jarrett, last year's second-round pick.

The Panthers want and truly believe the still-21 Jarrett's going to be an impact player for them. If he's not, Muhammad will likely step in as a starter, but given the 14-year gap in age, it's apparent the Panthers would prefer Jarrett to own the role.

Jarrett's already back in Charlotte working out in advance of the conditioning program, and his agent said last week he looked forward to meeting Muhammad.

"Dwayne knows that nothing's promised, and that's why he's there now working out," agent Darin Morgan said. "Obviously, Dwayne's happy to be mentored by a guy like Muhsin, he can learn a lot from having somebody like that next to him."

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