Former Chicago Bears GM Jerry Angelo made a splash on the first day of free agency in 2010, signing three highly touted free agents, one of whom was Julius Peppers, arguably the best 4-3 defensive end in the NFL.
In his three years in Chicago, Peppers has not disappointed, leading the team in sacks each season. Yet his age, coupled with an escalating salary, has put the organization in a tough position.
Bear Report Radio co-hosts Jeremy Stoltz and Brett Solesky debate whether or not Peppers is still worth the hefty sum he's due over the next three seasons.
Brett Solesky: Julius Peppers' contract represents a microcosm of the Bears' salary cap and roster situation. Do you blow it up and start over with a massive overhaul of the roster or try to keep things together while extending the contracts of some of the younger players on the team?
Peppers' cap hit is only going to increase with each subsequent season he remains on the team, meaning more money the longer he's on the roster. However if the Bears were to cut him or trade him, they would save around $8.1 million, which would give the Bears around $22.6 million in cap space in 2013, up from $14.5 million.
For this reason, the Bears may be forced to trade or release Julius Peppers and possibly look to draft another defensive end in the first round of the NFL draft.
DE Julius Peppers
Jeremy Stoltz: Indeed, Peppers is owed a lot of money over the next three seasons. According to Spotrac.com, his cap hit is $16.4 million in 2013, $17.4 million in 2014 and $18.6 million in 2015. That's roughly 15-20 percent of the cap each season. Yet if the Bears cut him, the team is still on the line for more than $9 million.
Cap space is the reason you almost never see these huge, back-loaded contracts play out. Most teams can't afford to spend 15-20 percent of the cap on just one player. That holds true for the Bears, who have a number of needs to address this offseason.
Still, Peppers is the best defensive end on the team, even at 33 years old. He has led Chicago in sacks for three straight seasons. The attention he commands from opposing offenses opens up rush lanes for guys like Henry Melton, Isreal Idonije and Corey Wootton. Without Peppers, the drop off in production along the defensive line could be considerable. In a Mel Tucker defense, where blitzing comes as often as Haley's Comet, cutting the best pure pass rusher up front could create some serious problems.
BS: Given the weapons on the roster I think the Bears could re-sign Israel Idonije for a cost effective price, start Corey Wootton in Julius Peppers' spot, and re-sign Henry Melton to a long term contract extension. Wootton, and Melton are two players who can effectively generate pass rush on their own with or without Peppers next to them. I think their ability and production, has demonstrated as much.
I also think given Shea McClellin's roving blitzing ability that Mel Tucker will be more willing to blitz him to help the overall pass rush. McClellin's skill set in a nickel linebacker role that can rush or play coverage is better than anything currently on the Bears or Jaguars roster.
Also, according to ProFootballFocus metrics Peppers statistics dropped off considerably from the 2011 to 2013 season. Their stats give Peppers credit for 13 sacks in 2012 and 12 in 2011, but his QB hurries fell from 53 in 2011 to 37 in 2012. Peppers' overall pass rush productivity fell from 10.3-percent in 2011 to 9.4-percent in 2011, nearly a full percentage point decrease, which is significant by PFF standards.
Combine the drop in production, with the increase in salary and the ability to invest $8.1-million on the offensive side of the ball on either the offensive line or receivers and you can shift overall team production where it belongs, on offense.
JS: A wise man once said on his Twitter account: "Coaches never change their systems, they don't evolve, they are creatures of habit, always have been, always will be."
As such, I can't just assume Tucker will alter his defense. I can only go by what he's done in the past. Wootton and Melton would probably be fine without Peppers. Yet since neither has ever played without Peppers, I can't say for sure they'll each continue to produce without playing next to a teammate who commands at least a chip on every play.
Peppers' value goes beyond just his ability to pressure the passer. He is solid against the run, chases down running backs to the sidelines, blocks kicks, forces fumbles in the secondary (hello Megatron!) and even intercepted two passes last year.
Is he overpaid? For sure. Can the Bears weather his contract for one more season? I believe they can and should.
All that said, if Phil Emery can find a trading partner, he should pull the trigger. Then again, is there really a market for a 33-year-old pass rusher due more than $52 million over the next three years.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.
Brett Solesky has worked in TV, newspapers and, for the last seven years, in radio. He also co-hosts the best Chicago Bears podcast on the Web, Bear Report Radio, which appears on BearReport.com and his blog MidwayIllustrated.com.