Packers banking on a spry Peppers
PHOENIX – A little more than a year ago, Ted Thompson gambled on Julius Peppers being able to ward off Father Time for at least one more season.
The Green Bay Packers general manager, known for turning his back to external free agency, brought the veteran defensive lineman to Green Bay on a chilly Saturday morning last March and signed him to a three-year, $30 million deal before anyone realized Peppers even had visited.
Thompson's teams are perennially the youngest in the NFL, but he was taking a chance that the eight-time Pro Bowler could provide the consistent pass rush opposite Clay Matthews that the defense had been unable to find in recent drafts.
Dom Capers' zone-blitz defense maximized the 6-foot-7, 285-pound rusher's athleticism despite the fact Peppers never before had played in a 3-4 scheme. Peppers started all 18 games with 44 tackles, seven sacks, a career-high 11 deflections, four forced fumbles and two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Perhaps his most impressive feat was not missing a practice despite playing 901 snaps in 18 games, which equated to 73.9 percent of the total defensive reps.
Peppers, who turned 35 in January, carries a $12 million salary cap number this year with an $8.5 million base salary, money the Packers could've shed if the experiment didn't work. Instead, they're betting on him being able to do it again.
"He made a huge impact on our football team," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL annual meeting's NFC coaches breakfast Wednesday. "I look for Julius to really step up and play the way he has been. I have no reason not to believe he'll do the same thing he did this past year."
Peppers embodied the mantra of more personnel and less scheme that McCarthy preached last offseason, but it took some time to feel everything out. The rough draft was a 4-3 quad defense that crashed and burned upon deployment.
The scheme succeeded in showing the Packers they didn't have to tailor a package to appeal to elephant rushers like Peppers or Matthews. Instead, Capers modified his traditional 3-4 packages to allow Peppers to play in a more comfortable three-point stance at times.
The Packers asked Peppers to drop back into coverage on only a handful of occasions. According to Pro Football Focus, it was 39 snaps or roughly 5 percent of his total. Still, his 49- and 52-yard interception returns for touchdowns against Minnesota and Philadelphia were among the season's most memorable moments.
Although soft-spoken, Peppers' voice thundered in a young locker room. McCarthy called his pregame speech before the Packers' 55-14 win over Chicago in November the best of his tenure as head coach. A month later, Peppers' peers voted him one of the defense's two playoff captains.
"Julius Peppers is a very unique athlete, let alone a football player," McCarthy said. "Everybody's always been impressed with what he brings to the table physically, but to do it at his age, at his level, the things you see every day in practice. Exceptional.
"The man that he is and the impact that he made in our locker room has been incredible for being a kind of reserved personality and really extending himself as the season went on."
Upon Peppers' signing, the Packers said they planned to be conservative with his playing time. They had plenty of depth at the position with Mike Neal and Nick Perry seeing action in all but one game, but Peppers still played more than 800 snaps like he did a year earlier with Bears.
After his speech in Chicago, Peppers went through a five-week drought without a sack. The Packers scaled back his snaps against Tampa Bay in Week 16 (31 of 49 plays) and he responded with two sacks in a 20-3 win.
It's anyone's guess where the Packers plan to line up Matthews in 2015, but it's conceivable he'll continue to alternate between inside and outside linebacker if a ready-made option isn't found. A big reason Green Bay was able to shift Matthews inside was the presence of Peppers.
Regardless of Matthews' situation, the Packers have a lot of outside options if they want to keep a closer guard on Peppers' reps. They paid Neal a $1 million roster bonus this month, so he'll be back for a sixth season.
While it seems unlikely the organization will pick up the fifth-year option on Perry's rookie contract, the former first-round pick still has value as a rotational rusher and holder of the edge against the run. Former undrafted rookie Jayrone Elliott has a year of experience and Andy Mulumba is scheduled to return from reconstructive knee surgery.
"I think as you look at our defense and watch them play, I don't think you'll see a whole lot of things that will be (done) differently," McCarthy said. "I thought we did an excellent job of utilization of personnel, hitting the play-time reps, something that was A-No. 1 my focus for the defense going into last year. That's something we can definitely build off of."
McCarthy still plans to maximize the versatility of his defenders next season and Peppers will be a big part of that. He's also the only player signed to the offseason roster who has seen an in-game snap for another NFL team.
The Packers are banking on age just being a number. They've had success in the past with veteran pass-rushers. At 35, Pro Football Hall of Famer Reggie White had 11 sacks and another 16 the following season in his final year with the Packers.
Next month, McCarthy, Capers and the rest of the defensive coaching staff will begin developing a game plan for Peppers' workload. The offseason program starts April 20 and Peppers will earn a $500,000 workout bonus for his participation.
The wily veteran showed he still had something to offer at 34. The question Peppers must answer now is if he can do it again at 35.
"We pay close attention to how many plays our players are playing, especially the combination of defense and special teams," McCarthy said. "I think every team does that because that's where it can get heavy, your defensive players playing special teams snaps. I felt we definitely hit the target as far as number of snaps that Julius played this past year."
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Peppers 2014 Snap Counts
Week 1 (Seattle) – 59 of 70
Week 2 (New York Jets) – 47 of 71
Week 3 (Detroit) – 58 of 75
Week 4 (Chicago) – 52 of 78
Week 5 (Minnesota) – 49 of 79
Week 6 (Miami) – 42 of 58
Week 7 (Carolina) – 51 of 70
Week 8 (New Orleans) – 46 of 68
Week 10 (Chicago) – 50 of 70
Week 11 (Philadelphia) – 59 of 78
Week 12 (Minnesota) – 58 of 68
Week 13 (New England) – 53 of 56
Week 14 (Atlanta) – 58 of 67
Week 15 (Buffalo) – 63 of 68
Week 16 (Tampa Bay) – 31 of 49
Week 17 (Detroit) – 33 of 69
Division (Dallas) – 34 of 55
NFC title (Seattle) – 58 of 70
Total – 901 of 1,219 (73.9 percent)