Ninth in a series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ unrestricted, restricted and exclusive-rights free agents in advance of the start of the 2017 league year and NFL free agency March 9.
GREEN BAY - He once thought Super Bowl trips would be routine in his career, and it was hard to blame him. In his first NFL season, Julius Peppers reached those hallowed 60 minutes.
If not for New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri’s field goal inside the final 10 seconds that beat the Carolina Panthers 32-29 in Super Bowl XXVIII, Peppers might’ve walked away with a ring.
One season, one Super Bowl trip. Looking back, Peppers knows, he took the experience for granted. His Panthers were on the verge, he thought.
“I thought we were going back the next year,” Peppers said.
It has been 15 years since that first Super Bowl trip. Peppers ended last season searching for his second. He never has been closer to a return. His Green Bay Packers are on the verge, advancing to a pair of NFC championship games in the past three seasons.
Just can’t clear that final hurdle.
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So it’ll be an interesting spring for Peppers. He becomes a free agent next week after his three-year, $26 million contracted signed before the 2014 season expires. Coach Mike McCarthy said he expects Peppers to “step away” and weigh his future. Ultimately, McCarthy said, he expects Peppers to play again.
“He’s real content on where he’s at with his life and his career,” McCarthy said Wednesday morning in Indianapolis, where he’s staying this week for the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “There’s definitely a chance he’d want to play again. I think that’s something that will probably happen down the road.”
Later, inside Lucas Oil Stadium, McCarthy added more insight in a side hallway session with reporters after a 10-minute stint at the podium: “I know he would continue to like to play, just as far as the conversations that we had.”
At age 37, Peppers’ skills clearly are declining. He no longer takes over games, no longer dominates all four quarters, relegated instead to a part-time role in the Packers’ defense. Yet Peppers makes enough splash plays over the course of a season to retain some value.
“I’d love to have him back,” McCarthy said. “What he brings to your football team is so unique: leadership. Talk about a guy making a play every game. I don’t know if there’s a game you go through that Pep doesn’t jump up and make a big play. I think he’s still a valuable asset.”
There is little doubt Peppers would have retired had the Packers run the table to a Super Bowl title last season.
An elusive ring is the lone thing missing from an otherwise Hall-of-Fame career. With 143½ career sacks (fifth all-time), Peppers is headed to Canton after his career ends with or without the ring.
He’d still like the ring anyway.
It isn’t surprising the Packers are interested in him returning — especially at the right price, likely a low-level deal. They value the veteran experience — Peppers is a mentor in the locker room — he brings off the field and his late-season production. In seven playoff games with the Packers, Peppers has 4½ sacks. He has 8½ sacks in 14 regular-season games played in December or January.
Which means Peppers faces a tough decision this spring: continue to play at a level far removed from his prime in pursuit of a ring, or retire before his skills completely erode.
Peppers was careful to leave his options open. Fifteen seasons in the NFL were enough to turn Peppers into a decent poker player. He swatted aside multiple questions about his future as the 2016 season faded, never tipping his hand.
Does he want to play in 2017? Does he plan on retiring? As for free agency, it’s anyone’s guess.
“I’m not saying that I don’t want to play next year,” Peppers said in early December. “I’m not saying that I do. I’m just saying that right now, I don’t know. And I’ll figure it out at some point.
“There’s a lot of things that can happen between now and February.”
It’s March now, February has come and gone, and Peppers’ future remains unclear. Multiple calls to Peppers’ agent, Carl Carey, were unreturned.
General manager Ted Thompson sounded unsure about Peppers’ plans when asked Wednesday at the combine.
“I’ll have to take the fifth,” Thompson said. “I don’t know.”
Retirement can be appealing. Peppers keeps his home in Miami. Ending his NFL career would provide more time to spend with his two young children.
But he’s made it this far. When Peppers signed his three-year deal, some thought he’d never see Year 2. His $1 million base salary in 2014 jumped to $8.5 million in 2015. The contract was structured to make Peppers easy to release.
Instead, Thompson chose to keep him in his locker room and on the field. Peppers played every game with the Packers over the past three seasons. He’s only missed two games because of injury in his career.
In December, Peppers said his body can handle another NFL season. He doesn’t have to worry about a prior injury affecting him late in his career. Peppers had 7½ sacks last fall, identical to his first season with the Packers and second-most on the team behind only Nick Perry.
Peppers believes he can still play at a respectable level. He isn’t the only one.
“He can play until he’s 60 years old,” teammate and fellow free-agent edge rusher Datone Jones said a day after the Packers’ loss in the NFC championship game at Atlanta. “A lot of people don’t know that. Julius can play until he’s 60.”
Maybe not that far, but Peppers playing another season at 37 years old remains a possibility.
Julius Peppers, 16th-year outside linebacker
The skinny: Unrestricted free agent.
The snaps: Played 16 games, 11 starts in 2016; 234 games, 227 starts in career.
The stats: 7.5 sacks, 15 tackles, 3 batted passes in 2016; 143.5 sacks, 522 tackles, 78 batted passes in career.
2016 salary: $7 million.