With Julius Peppers gone, Panthers have big questions on revamped defensive line

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When the remaining individual game tickets for the Carolina Panthers went on sale Saturday, the return of Julius Peppers with the Chicago Bears was the only one to immediately sell out.

Finding a replacement for Peppers and retooling the defensive line are going to take much longer.

Not only did the five-time Pro Bowl pick and franchise sacks leader walk away in free agency in the offseason, the Panthers released three defensive tackles who have started over the past two seasons.

Tyler Brayton is the only starter back, and at age 30, he's the oldest defensive lineman on the roster by four years.

"It's like been overnight. I've gone from being normal-aged to now I'm the old vet," Brayton said Sunday. "Coaches are looking to me for a little more leadership out there, being the oldest guy. I'm looking to embrace that role. I haven't figured out quite how I'm going to do it yet."

Defensive line coach Brian Baker is experimenting with numerous combinations without the freakishly athletic Peppers to demand double teams and line up in different spots on the line.

The messy way Peppers left town after being forced to stick around in 2009 because of the franchise tag remains a touchy subject.

"I'm going to cut your question off. No reaction," Baker said when asked how players have responded to being without Peppers. "The guys that knew Pep, including me, miss him as a man because he was kind of, believe it or not, fun to be around and you enjoyed his presence."

Despite dogged criticism that he took plays off, Peppers had 10½ sacks last season and 81 in his eight years in Carolina.

"It's just going to mean each one of the four of us is going to have to step it up a little bit more," Brayton said. "When you don't have that one so-called superstar out there, it just takes more of a group effort. I loved playing with Pep. He was a hardworking, down-to-earth guy and he just loved to get after it, so he's going to be missed. But at the same time we've got to move on."

While Brayton appears secure at left defensive end, Charles Johnson and Everette Brown are competing for Peppers' old spot along with surprising rookie Greg Hardy and Hilee Taylor.

After Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu were released and Hollis Thomas wasn't re-signed, there's a logjam of defensive tackles jockeying for jobs led by Tank Tyler, Ed Johnson, Louis Leonard, Nick Hayden and Corvey Irvin.

"If you wanted to make me name who the starting tackles are going to be, I truly couldn't do it right now," Baker said. "I don't know who's going to be on the 53 (regular-season roster) at this point.

"That's good and bad. You like to know how your guys are going to be, but the good thing is there are a lot of guys who are good enough to start."

Injuries have further complicated things. Johnson started training camp with the first team at end, strained his hamstring in the first practice and was sidelined until returning Sunday. Brown, who figures to be used on passing downs, had taken over there.

"I was really excited about Charles Johnson coming into training camp because of what he showed in minicamp and OTAs and the way he's worked all summer," Baker said. "Just his mentality, rather than slumping back in the meeting, he's on the edge of his seat now, ready to answer questions. He's a different guy. Then, hamstring tweak."

Hardy, the Mississippi product once considered a first-round talent who fell to the sixth round, has been the most explosive in practice. He physically resembles Peppers the most of anybody on the roster.

"I could have been paid a whole lot more but, hey, I'm in a great position right now," Hardy said of his decision to stay in school for his senior year. "I'm almost happy that I'm here now and thankful that Julius Peppers is gone. I'm in the spotlight to produce or not produce."

The remaining 13 defensive linemen on the roster have a combined 36½ career sacks, not even half of Peppers' production. So the Panthers can only guarantee having a capacity crowd when Peppers returns to Carolina on Oct. 10, not a competent line.

"I think we're going to surprise some people," Brayton insisted. "I think we're a very talented bunch. Maybe not a lot of people have heard of all of us, but I think if we can play well as a group together, I feel like the sky is the limit."