The Green Bay Packers in 2014 got exactly the player they thought they were getting when they signed Julius Peppers as a free agent.
He was a difference maker, maybe the second-best player on their defense, behind Clay Matthews. Peppers' sacks total (seven) doesn't necessarily reflect that, but according to Pro Football Focus, his 50 combined sacks, hits and hurries did. That's the same number Matthews' put up as a pass rusher.
General manager Ted Thompson saw enough to bring back the 35-year-old Peppers this season for the second year of his three-year contract, and at $9.5 million, which is $1 million more than the Packers paid him last year. Now it's Peppers' charge to defy the NFL's actuarial tables for another year and play at a similar level as in '14.
You can't know for sure what's going on in a person's head, but the Packers have to take it as a good sign that Peppers has no plans to quit football after this season. That suggests he feels good physically and mentally even after 13 NFL seasons.
"Body still feels great," Peppers said after the Packers' organized-team activities practice Tuesday. "I feel like if I wanted to play — I'm saying this now, in June — that I may be able to play a couple years after this season."
Thompson was willing to count on Peppers for another season because the outside linebacker is among the most gifted athletes the franchise has seen in recent years. His impressive frame is only part of the story — at 6-feet-7 and 287 pounds, he's huge for a position where 6-4 and 255 pounds is prototypical size. What stands out almost as much, though, is Peppers' injury history, in that there isn't much.
He's never had a major injury in his life and has missed only two NFL games because of injury in his 13-year career. That was because of a sprained MCL in 2007. The only other games he missed were the final four of his rookie season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. That means he's played in 202 of a possible 208 games.
He played through a broken hand with the Carolina Panthers in 2009 and another sprained MCL with the Chicago Bears in 2011. All things considered, that's remarkably injury-free for such a long career and means his body has weathered professional football far better than an overwhelming majority of players.
"A little luck in there," Peppers said. "Being blessed physically, having some great genes. Working hard. It's a combination of all those things."
In recent years, Peppers has changed the way he trains in the offseason to accommodate his age. He has cut back significantly on the volume of his workouts, though you wouldn't know it by looking at him. He looks like the same player who joined the Chicago Bears as a 30-year old in 2010, and his listed weight of 287 pounds is only four pounds more than the 283 he weighed at the NFL scouting combine in 2002.
Incredibly, he takes a full month off from training after the season, and then later in the offseason commonly takes a week off here and there, based on how he feels. Earlier in his career, he wouldn't have considered taking off that much time from working out.
"That's what works for me," he said.
Defensive lineman B.J. Raji said that the qualities that stand out after observing Peppers for a little more than a year are his flexibility and diet. He's never seen Peppers engage in or talk about extra stretching, but when watching Peppers play he sees a naturally limber athlete. Raji also never has talked to Peppers about diet but has noticed that Peppers' two or three meals each day at the team's facility are always healthy.
"I think his flexibility allows him to stay injury free," Raji said. "He has obviously God-given explosion and strength. And nutrition. He's been here for almost two years now, and he's very conscious of what goes into his body."
One reason for the Packers to think Peppers can have the kind of impact he had last season is that while it's unusual for a 35-year-old to still be a good pass rusher, it's far from unprecedented.
Using Peppers' seven sacks last season as the benchmark, since the NFL started tracking sacks in the 1982 season, a player 35 or older has had at least that many 33 times.
The most was Trace Armstrong's 161/2 in 2000, when he was 35, followed by Reggie White's 16 with the Packers in 1998, when he was 37. Players 35 or older broke double digits in sacks 15 times, including three in multiple seasons: Chris Doleman and Kevin Greene did it three times each, and Bruce Smith twice.
Peppers doesn't need a double-digit sack season to be worth the $9.5 million. But he needs to play like last season, when he made enough plays and put on enough pressure to be considered a disruptive player.
The Packers also probably need to cut back a little on his playing time — his 73.9 percent of defensive snaps in 2014 probably needs to drop into the 60s this season to improve the odds he'll be healthy and sharp in January.
The bet here is, the Packers will get their money's worth.
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