CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Even stars can be awed by other stars.
Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and center Ryan Kalil certainly were when 37-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers rejoined the team that made him the second overall pick of the 2002 draft.
"When he walked in I was like, ‘Man! That’s Julius Peppers!'" Kuechly said after Thursday’s workout.
This is Kalil’s second go-around with Peppers, who left the Panthers after the 2009 season to play for the Bears.
"It’s a weird flashback for me, because I haven’t seen that visor in a while," Kalil said of the signature shaded visor Peppers wears on his helmet. “As old as he is, he still looks like the same guy, both in his personality and also not looking like he’s missed a beat athletically.
“It’s incredible how gifted that guy is physically and how he’s been able to maintain that all these years. He adds incredible value to our group."
Keep in mind that Kuechly is a four-time Pro Bowl selection and the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and Kalil is a five-time Pro Bowl selection since the Panthers made him a second-round pick in 2007. They’re not rookies seeing Peppers, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and fifth on the NFL’s all-time sack list with 143.5, for the first time.
But they talk about Peppers like a couple of kids wanting an autograph from the future Hall of Famer.
“When you bring a guy like that in it’s just cool for not only me but a lot of guys on the team," Kuechly said.
The 2016 team, a year removed from representing the NFC in Super Bowl 50, lacked that type of experience and leadership with key losses such as cornerback Josh Norman.
“Those guys are kind of plug (in)-and-play," Kuechly said. “They know what it takes. Pep's been to postseason a lot. He knows what that’s like.
“There’s something to be said for older guys that know what it takes to win and what it takes to study," he added.
The Panthers made a conscious effort to bring in older veterans, particularly on defense where a secondary with two rookie starters led to a 6-10 2016 record.
The inexperience became more noticeable on both sides of the ball with a rash of injuries, including to Kuechly and Kalil. Kuechly missed the final six games after suffering a concussion and Ryan Kalil was placed on injured reserve in November with a shoulder injury.
“I really like the depth," Kalil said of the current roster. “You really can judge a team by the bottom half of the roster. The year we went to the Super Bowl I felt our depth was incredible. I didn’t think our depth was as good last season, and unfortunately injuries happen."
Kuechly also likes Carolina’s depth and talent. “I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good this year." he said.
Peppers is a big reason.
“It’s not just the sentimental thing of the Peppers name," Kalil said. “He’s still playing at a pretty good level."