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GREEN BAY – Veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers is moving on from the Green Bay Packers, heading home to end his Hall of Fame career.
Agent Carl Carey tweeted Friday morning that Peppers would sign with the Carolina Panthers. It enables Peppers to return to the franchise that drafted him No. 2 overall in 2002. Peppers is a Wilson, N.C., native who grew up three hours from Charlotte and played his college football at the University of North Carolina.
Earlier this week, Carey told PackersNews.com that Peppers would play a 16th season in the NFL. Peppers turned 37 on Jan. 18, four days before the Packers’ loss at the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game.
Peppers’ decision to finish his career where it started is reminiscent of former Packers cornerback Charles Woodson returning to the Oakland Raiders as a 37-year-old in 2013. There is one, big difference: The Packers released Woodson, while Peppers is a free agent.
The Packers had interest in him returning to Green Bay when the offsesaon began. It's unclear whether they were able to extend a contract offer, or if Peppers gave them a choice.
"I’d love to have him back," coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL scouting combine. "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."
Though he is no longer the 27-year-old Peppers who could dominate games as a pass rusher, age did not render him without value. Peppers had 7.5 sacks last season, a year after his 10.5 sacks earned him the ninth Pro Bowl selection of his career. He could have filled a 2017 role for the Packers, who continue to need pass-rush help despite re-signing Nick Perry on Thursday.
The Packers limited Peppers’ snaps last fall to keep him fresh, and the approach was beneficial late in the season. He had four sacks in the team’s final seven regular-season games, providing some pass rush as the Packers ran the table to earn an NFC North title. Though he’s now a situational rusher, Peppers has the versatility to rush as an interior lineman and outside linebacker.
Peppers signed a three-year, $26 million contract with the Packers following his release from the Chicago Bears before the 2014 season. In three seasons, Peppers never missed a practice because of injury, only being held out a handful of times for rest late in the season. He had 25 sacks in 48 games with the Packers, helping pad his Hall of Fame career number.
His 143.5 career sacks ranks fifth all time, behind only Hall of Famers Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Greene and Chris Doleman. Peppers passed Michael Strahan for fifth on the all-time sacks list against the Houston Texans last December.
Peppers has remained in contact with at least some of his former Packers teammates. After signing his five-year, $60 million contract Thursday, Perry said Peppers was among the people to congratulate him. When asked if he provided a recruiting pitch to keep his veteran teammate with the Packers, Perry smiled and said Peppers' future wasn't mentioned.
Now, that future is headed back to the past, where it all began for one of the best pass rushers in league history.
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