SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- After his worst season as a pro, Julius Peppers enters the final year of his contract with the Carolina Panthers feeling stronger, fitter and more comfortable after his move to right defensive end.
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|Panthers DE Julius Peppers is focused on rebounding after a disappointing 2007 season.|
But as negotiations continue on a new contract, Peppers is making no promises he'll be a Panther long-term.
Sporting a longer, thicker beard, Peppers spoke to reporters after practice Thursday in his first interview in more than seven months. After failing to make the Pro Bowl for the first time in four years following a miserable 2 1/2-sack season in 2007, Peppers said he spent the offseason reflecting and working.
"It's not a secret that it was disappointing, not only statswise, but even to my personal standards," Peppers said. "I did some evaluating and I think I made the necessary adjustments as far as conditioning and getting myself ready to come back this year and make improvements."
While Peppers said he's been "pleased" with contract negotiations between the team and his agent, Carl Carey, no agreement has been reached. Peppers will count more than $12 million against the salary cap this season, and the second overall pick in the 2002 draft refused to say if he wants to end his career with Carolina.
"What I learned over these last six years that I've been here is that, year to year, it's unpredictable what happens with players and contracts and those type of things," Peppers said. "I'm worried about playing football right now. I'm not even really looking forward to next season or what's going to happen after that. We've got to get focused on making it happen right now."
The Panthers hope Peppers will thrive thanks to the position change. Following the retirement of Mike Rucker, Peppers moved from left defensive end to the right side. The left-handed Peppers, a freakish athlete, believes that's his more natural position.
"I'm comfortable on the right side," Peppers said. "I played it in college. I played it in high school, the times I did play defense in high school. The left-handed stance is my natural stance. The left hand is my strong hand. There are a lot more moves and power available on that side."
Peppers has drawn raves for his play early in training camp. He's shown his trademark quickness, consistently beating offensive tackles in one-on-one drills. He batted down Jake Delhomme's screen pass at the line of scrimmage during Thursday's workout.
"He's better than I've ever seen him," tackle Jordan Gross said. "Barring anything unknown, there's no reason he won't go out and set records, I think."
Peppers set nothing but dubious marks last year.
After missing a part of training camp with an undisclosed illness, Peppers appeared sluggish most of last season. While he insisted he was fine physically, the 6-foot-7, 283-pound end no longer commanded double teams. He rarely got into the backfield, and went without a sack in 12 of 14 games before he sat out the last two weeks with a sore knee.
Peppers finished with the fewest sacks and quarterback hurries (19) of his career and second-fewest tackles (55).
"I was only sick for two weeks. I will say during that time I lost weight, a little bit of strength and probably some explosiveness and things like that," Peppers said. "But during the season I wasn't sick at all."
Peppers' poor 2007 fueled him during offseason workouts in Arizona.
"I feel a little stronger. I feel more powerful, faster, a little bigger," Peppers said. "I've got a little more weight. I'm pleased with what I did this offseason."
Peppers hopes that leads to a season like 2006, when he had a career-high 13 sacks, or 2004, when he had 85 tackles and 11 sacks.
What happens after 2008 is uncertain. Peppers declined to say if contract negotiations would continue into the regular season -- and where he thinks he'll be next year.
"Right now I'm focused on playing football this season," Peppers said. "I have a contract to play football right now. After this season, it's a different story."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press