Mike Vandermause column: Peppers, Packers a good match

May 24, 2014
NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
Defensive end Julius Peppers spent eight NFL seasons with the Carolina Panthers and four more with the Chicago Bears before signing with the Packers this offseason. / Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Carl Carey has known Julius Peppers since his college days at North Carolina and has become accustomed to the decorated pass rusher’s low-key manner.

But Carey noticed something different about Peppers in March.

“Probably the most excited that I’ve seen him was actually during the week that he signed with the Packers because in a span of just a few days, he became a Packer and a first-time father,” said Carey, who has served as Peppers’ academic adviser at North Carolina and his NFL agent. “That’s when I’ve seen the most outward expressions of excitement and joy, so, yeah, he had those two great events happen within days of each other.”

The Green Bay Packers surprised the football world by signing the 34-year-old Peppers to a free-agent contract March 15. Three days later, Peppers’ son, Elijah, was born.

Peppers spent eight NFL seasons with the Carolina Panthers and four more with the Chicago Bears. He earned eight Pro Bowl berths and produced eight double-digit sack seasons, but many believe he is past his prime.

So it was surprising when Packers general manager Ted Thompson, who rarely signs veteran free agents, swooped in just four days after the Bears cut Peppers for salary cap reasons and signed him to a three-year, $26 million contract that includes a $7.5 million signing bonus.

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Based on early returns, it appears to be a perfect match.

“When he walked into the building and had a chance to meet the core of the front office and coach (Mike) McCarthy as well, he just felt right,” Carey said. “I mean, you could see it. It just felt right. Now that he’s had the opportunity to spend some time around there with teammates and other staff, he just feels great about this move and about this chapter of his career.”

Peppers has been participating in the Packers’ offseason workout program since April 22 and according to Carey is “very happy” in his new surroundings.

Carey has been one of Peppers’ most-trusted confidants over the years and has talked to him regularly since his arrival in Green Bay.

“He’s beyond excited,” Carey said of Peppers, who is expected to play a hybrid elephant position in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme, with stints as an outside linebacker, end and tackle.

Some observers say Peppers looks like he’s in the best shape of his illustrious career.

“He’s been working incredibly hard during this offseason to be at his very best when the new season begins,” Carey said. “And I’ve watched him over the years and I’m very confident that he’s going to do very, very well there.”

Thompson, for one, seems convinced Peppers has plenty more to give despite his age.

“Thirty-four is not so old, not for some of us,” Thompson said. “There’s no evidence of any decline in his play, in our opinion. He still has the same athletic traits that he had coming out. He’s had a remarkable history in the NFL in terms of durability. We’re looking forward to it. I think he is, too.”

Peppers reached the Super Bowl with Carolina during his second NFL season but still is searching for an elusive championship. He believes he could finally reach that goal with the Packers and, according to Carey, was impressed by his new team from the start of the negotiation process.

“It was his No. 1 choice, hands down, and he’s pleased with the choice that he made,” Carey said.

“The Packers organization did a great job on playing the lead in making sure that things were handled in a quiet, professional way. It feels to me like that’s kind of the Packer way and Julius actually really appreciated that because that’s how he is as well.”

Thompson and Peppers appear cut from the same cloth because neither likes to draw attention to themselves or say more in public than necessary. Thompson was pleased that the Peppers signing was essentially done under the cover of darkness with no media leaks.

“It was one of those rare things where the thing was put to bed and everybody was back home before anybody knew about it,” Thompson said. “Quite frankly, it was kind of refreshing to do it that way.”

Despite multiple requests for comment, Thompson waited nearly seven weeks after the Peppers signing before speaking publicly about it. Peppers has yet to talk to members of the local media, a full 2˝ months after his signing.

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There are no indications Peppers is standoffish or has an ax to grind with the media. He simply values his privacy and has rarely granted one-on-one interviews.

“I’ve heard him say in the past that rather than the word ‘shy’ being used (to describe him) that he prefers ‘reserved,’ ” Carey said. “He does sit back and observes things and so he’s very in tune to what’s going on around him. Rather than saying a lot about it, he absorbs it.

“For someone who has achieved so much success, he is truly one of the most humble people that you could ever meet.”

Which is to say Peppers likely will feel at home in Green Bay, where showboating and brash talk are rare.

“I just feel he is an excellent fit for our program, our organization,” McCarthy said soon after the signing. “We are very comfortable with everything as far as his evaluation.”

Peppers recorded only 7˝ sacks last season, an indication he might be slipping, but the Bears used him on 82 percent of their defensive snaps. McCarthy said the Packers plan to use Peppers less often in the hopes it will increase his effectiveness.

Former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, who signed Peppers as an unrestricted free agent in 2010, said he thinks Peppers still has a lot to offer the Packers.

“I think it was a very good signing by Green Bay,” Angelo told the Chicago Tribune. “They’ve never really had a secondary rusher to go along with Clay Matthews. Peppers will give them that now. He can still play. We know that, even though his production tailed off last year. He’s still a good football player.

“When you team him up now with a Clay Matthews, you’re probably going to see the best of what Peppers is because teams won’t just be focusing on him and they’ve got to deal with Matthews first.”

Peppers has been a solid NFL citizen. The only stain on his record was a four-game suspension during his rookie season for alleged steroid use. But Peppers insisted the positive test was the result of taking a diet supplement given to him by a friend, and his clean record since appears to support that claim.

Peppers grew up in the small town of Bailey, N.C., the youngest of three children. When Peppers was 8, his father left the family. According to USA TODAY, Peppers was named after basketball star Julius Erving, and his middle name, Frazier, honors former New York Knicks star Walt Frazier.

Peppers recorded 30˝ sacks in 33 starts at North Carolina, one shy of the school record held by Lawrence Taylor. Since entering the NFL, his 119 career sacks are second only to Jared Allen’s 128˝.

Peppers has been accused of taking plays off during his career, but not everyone believes that criticism is valid. Quarterback Jake Delhomme was a teammate of Peppers for seven seasons in Carolina and staunchly defends his work ethic and attitude.

“I never saw (Peppers) take a practice off,” Delhomme said in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “I never saw him miss a practice in training camp. I never saw him miss practice during the season. I never saw him gloat. He came to play, he came to work. Julius is a quiet guy, and people might misunderstand him because he keeps to himself.”

Peppers garnered the same kind of support from teammates in Chicago.

“This dude busts his (expletive) every day,” former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher told SI. “I don’t understand (the criticism). The expectations for him are so high, people wanting him to get a sack every single play — you can’t do it.”

The lofty expectations won’t go away in Green Bay. But Peppers is driven by more than individual achievements.

“I haven’t won a championship,” he said on the Packers’ website the day his signing was announced. “That’s where my focus is. I feel like the team is set up to make a run and I feel I can help get it there.”

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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