As a general rule, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson tries to dispose of aging veteran players one year early as opposed to one year late. With Julius Peppers, though, the matter might take further examination.
The Packers’ towering outside linebacker, having just finished his 14th NFL season, still has one year remaining on the three-year contract he signed with the Packers after being released by the Chicago Bears. While he sounded uncertain about his future shortly after the Packers’ loss in the divisional playoffs, several signs point toward him being plenty able.
“As I look at him, you don’t see signs at the end of the season that the arrow’s not pointing up,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers. “He’s played his best at the end of the season. I think part of that is that we’ve been able to control his reps and try to keep him fresh so he’d be at the best when we get to that point in the playoffs.”
Peppers played 66.5 percent of the defensive snaps in 2015, down from 73.9 percent the previous season. And late in the season, Peppers’ absence from a practice made headlines after coach Mike McCarthy chose to give him a day off for non-injury reasons. It was the first in-season practice he did not participate in since coming to the Packers.
Three days later in a Thursday night game at Detroit, Peppers tallied his first full sack in six games. It was a big one, too, forcing a Matthew Stafford fumble and recovery by Jake Ryan to help overcome a 20-7 deficit late in the third quarter. The Packers went on to win on a Hail Mary pass with no time remaining to start a string of three consecutive wins after losing four of five.
Two games after that, Peppers posted 2.5 sacks at Oakland, his career high in a game with the Packers. With 10.5 sacks in the regular season, he moved into a tie for ninth on the all-time with 136. He added another sack in the postseason at Washington.
The 2014 postseason was a strong one, as well, for Peppers. After producing nine turnover plays in the regular season, he led the NFL in two playoff games with 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, including a pivotal one against Dallas’ DeMarco Murray which got overshadowed by Dez Bryant’s replay review non-catch.
In many ways, Murray’s fumble was the game’s most important play, since it looked like the All-Pro running back could have run for a long touchdown. But the freakish athleticism that Peppers displayed, extending his long arm to poke the ball out, still wowed teammates in 2015. Peppers is in great condition to do the same next season.
While he may underwhelm on a play-to-play basis when compared to, say, teammate Mike Daniels, Peppers’ rare ability remains a valuable commodity that the Packers can use in variety of ways even in a part-time role. Late in the year, for example, he and Clay Matthews became a force setting up line stunts and twists that other teams had a difficult time picking up.
“I like the combination of Julius and Clay Matthews being able to match up inside because I think you’ve got two athletic guys that are going against lesser pass protectors inside and we’ve gotten some real good pressure out of those situations,” said Capers.
Peppers turned 36 on Monday and is the oldest on the Packers’ roster by nearly three years (John Kuhn). Plenty of the league’s all-time top sackers have excelled past 35 years old. Bruce Smith had two double-digit sack seasons and forced 13 fumbles playing until he was 40. Kevin Greene averaged 12.5 sacks per season from ages 35 through 37. Chris Doleman averaged about the same and added and incredible 23 combined turnover plays over four seasons after he turned 35. And then there was Reggie White, who, at 37 years old, recorded 16 sacks and four forced fumbles for the Packers on his way to a second Defensive Player of the Year award.
With six sacks in 2016, Peppers would move into the top five on the career sack list (his 136 are tied with Jared Allen for most among active players). Before coming to Green Bay, he averaged just less than 10 sacks per season, so at 35, he surpassed that mark with 11.5 sacks, including two postseason games.
Whereas much younger outside linebacker-mates Mike Neal and Nick Perry — both scheduled to become free agents — have struggled to stay on the field over their shorter careers, Peppers last missed a game because of injury in 2007, when he was with the Carolina Panthers. And in addition to playing defense, the 6-foot-7 Peppers also took snaps on special teams on the field-goal block unit.
“Julius brings so much to the team I think,” said Capers. “No. 1 as a coach, if you’ve got a lot of young guys, it’s far more effective to point to Julius Peppers and say, ‘There’s a reason why that guy’s played for 13 years — because he’s a true pro.’ I mean, you go into any meeting and he’s sitting up front taking notes. Never misses a practice. I think he’s really played his best the last two years at the end of the season. I thought last year in the playoffs he played outstanding. He ended up with 11.5 sacks. And I thought he rushed and played really well in the game Saturday night.”
In 2016, Peppers would be the third-highest paid linebacker in the league behind Justin Houston and DeMarcus Ware. He is scheduled to count $10.5 million against the salary cap, which is $1.5 less than this past season. That would put him fourth on the team behind Aaron Rodgers ($19.25 million), Matthews ($13.75 million) and Sam Shields ($12 million).
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com