The Green Bay Packers took a calculated risk when they agreed to a three-year, $26 million deal with 34-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers.
Determined to get more disruptive and versatile in the front seven, the Packers went the unconventional route and signed a big name during the first week of free agency. When motivated and healthy, Peppers can still be one of the game's most difficult defenders to contain.
Yet Peppers is also entering his 13th NFL season, and he's coming off one of the least productive years in his decorated career.
The Chicago Bears deemed him expendable, mostly because of his restrictive cap charge scheduled for 2014 (over $18 million) but also because he didn't give top effort for a defense that finished among the league's worst in several categories last season. An attempt to trade Peppers was unsuccessful before the Bears flat out released him on the first day of free agency.
Recent history suggests the Packers won't get a huge statistical payout from an elder Peppers.
Only four times since 2002 has a player aged 34 or older registered 10 or more sacks in a season: Michael Strahan in 2005 (11.5 sacks, age 34), Warren Sapp in 2006 (10.0, 34) and John Abraham in 2012 (10.0, 34) and 2013 (11.5, 35).
Strahan's last 10-sack season was in 2005 and Sapp had just two sacks in 2007 at age 35, his last NFL season.
Even more modest sack goals have been hard to attain for aging pass-rushers.
|Six or More Sacks in One Season, Age 34 or Older, 2010-2013|
Over the last four years, only eight players 34 or older have produced six or more sacks in a season. For context, consider 61 players had six or more in 2013 alone, and only two—Abraham and Justin Smith (6.5)—were 34 or older.
Peppers was one of the 61 players with six or more. But his 7.0 sacks were also his lowest since 2007—when he had just 2.5 over 14 games with the Carolina Panthers—and the second lowest of his 13-year career.
Sack totals weren't the only statistical measure that saw a drop off.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Peppers registered just six quarterback hits (his second fewest since 2008) and 27 hurries (fewest) in 2013. At the height of his powers in 2010 and 2011, Peppers combined to tally 19 sacks, 18 quarterback hits and 99 hurries.
The Bears as a whole struggled to get to the quarterback last season, with only 31 total sacks and just 21 from the defensive line. Peppers led Chicago, but he was shutout in 11 of 16 games and five of his seven sacks came against the NFC North.
Opinions vary on why Peppers' production tailed off but motivation seems to be the central reason.
A few scouts gave Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel scathing reviews of Peppers in 2013.
"Just kind of on-again, off-again. Not motivated," one scout told McGinn. "This is what he looked like his last year in Carolina. Right now he's lost a step because he's not motivated. Peppers is pretty much done."
"He didn't do much," another scout said. "He's a little off and on with his effort, as he's always been. I think it was a little worse this year. It wasn't the same guy coming off the edge. He still got some rushes and got close. He's been a terror in the past. I did not see that this year."
The Packers are banking on a change of scenery and a variety of roles in the 3-4 defense to help re-energize Peppers' batteries.
Head coach Mike McCarthy plans on using Peppers in Green Bay's new "elephant" position, which is designed to move a player around the defense and maximize uncertainty against offenses. He'll be asked to play end and outside linebacker in the base 3-4 front and as an interior rusher when the Packers go to sub-packages.
Even at age 34, Peppers moves well enough to attack or drop from a two-point stance, and his long, strong frame still fits as a 3-4 end. His most disruptive role could be in the nickel and dime, when the Packers can slide him inside and let him loose against slower, less athletic guards and centers.
Adding Peppers was part of diversifying the options but reducing clutter for the Packers defense.
"Defensively, we want to do more things with different personnel groups," McCarthy said at the NFL owners meetings, via Tom Silverstein of the Journal Sentinel. "We want to be more personnel groups, less volume schematically."
Primarily a 4-3 defensive end in Carolina and Chicago, Peppers appears to crave the versatility offered by Dom Capers' multi-front defense.
“(Capers) likes to be versatile and do different things," Peppers told Vic Ketchman of the Packers' official site. "That’s something I’ve wanted to do my whole career."
The Bears at times moved him around from side to side, but he rarely played anything other than defensive end. A new and more creative defense could help coax another year of top-level production from Peppers.
Keeping him on a more refined snap count might also jump start his productivity.
The Bears played Peppers on over 850 snaps last season, roughly 82 percent of Chicago's defensive snaps and 13th most among 4-3 defensive ends. Of the 12 ahead of him, only Jared Allen was 31 or older. It seems doubtful the Packers would play Peppers that many snaps in 2014.
Green Bay now has depth at outside linebacker and along the defensive line, and both Nick Perry and Mike Neal are being groomed to play some of the "elephant" position. Capers might find that using Peppers on a more selective basis will keep him fresh and motivated.
And the Packers know plenty well how destructive Peppers can be when his motor is running hot.
Over two games against Green Bay last season, Peppers tallied two of his seven sacks, one of his two forced fumbles, two of his three passes defensed and his only interception. He nearly ended the Packers' season when he came free at Aaron Rodgers before Randall Cobb's final touchdown. It took a well-timed block from John Kuhn and the elusiveness of Rodgers to avoid a playoff-clinching sack.
Overall, his total grade at PFF was plus-3.9 against the Packers, but minus-8.3 during his other 14 games.
David Bakhtiari, Green Bay's rookie left tackle last season, believes Peppers still has plenty left.
"He's a guy that comes around once every decade," Bakhtiari said, via Ty Dunne of the Journal Sentinel. "He's a freak. Yeah, he's older but he's still a hell of a player. He still can run people down from behind. He gets after the quarterback. He has long limbs. And he's so thick, so strong."
If his unique physical talent remains, Peppers just needs to find the right mix of motivation and opportunity to show what he can still offer.
The Packers gave him just $7.5 million guaranteed, making the chance to find out what he really has left a worthwhile gamble.
“I have a lot left in the tank," Peppers said, via the team's official site. "I have a lot left to give, a lot left to offer. I want to show people I can still play the game at a high level."
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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