Peppers looks to keep playing
GREEN BAY — “We’ll see, we’ll see how long I have left and how long I feel like playing. Right now, I feel like playing as long as I can. As long as my body will allow me to play, I’m going to continue to play.” ~ Julius Peppers, May 29, 2014.
As it turned out, Julius Peppers still had plenty of football left in him. And he feels like he still has more left for next year – and beyond.
The Green Bay Packers veteran outside linebacker enters the playoffs pleased with how his first year with his new team went, intent on playing a 14th NFL season in 2015 and hopeful that it’ll be in Green Bay.
“That’s the plan. I hope so,” Peppers said late last week, during the Packers’ playoff bye week. “So far, so good. I feel like the team as a whole has played well, obviously we wanted to make the playoffs and win the division and all those things, and we’re on track to do everything we set out to do.”
After eight seasons with the Carolina Panthers and four with the Chicago Bears, Peppers signed a three-year, $26 million deal in March – the kind of free-agent signing the Packers rarely make – that paid him a guaranteed $7.5 million signing bonus and $1 million base salary this season
That made his 2014 salary-cap number only $3.5 million, but his cap number jumps to $12 million in 2015 and $10.5 million in 2016. His 2015 base salary is scheduled to be $8.5 million, and his 2016 base salary is $7 million.
Peppers said he will play in 2015. Asked if he thinks he’ll be back in Green Bay, he replied, “As far as I know, it’s going to be here. But I don’t know anything different.” Asked if he expects the Packers to ask him to restructure his deal, Peppers’ answer was, “Maybe. That hasn’t even been on my radar, to be honest with you. It’s not really important right now, so I haven’t really thought about it.”
If the Packers were to release Peppers before next season, they’d absorb $5 million into their cap for the acceleration of the unamortized portion of his signing bonus but his $8.5 million base salary would be wiped off their books.
But based on how he played this season, it would stand to reason that the Packers would want him back.
Peppers, who turns 35 on Jan. 18 – the day of the NFC Championship Game – and played in all 16 regular-season games, has played 825 snaps this season, registering 45 tackles, seven sacks, 11 pass breakups. He also had two interceptions – both of which he returned for touchdowns, against Minnesota and Philadelphia – and forced a team-best four fumbles. He recovered three fumbles, also most on the team.
While the Packers’ official team stats had Peppers for 17 quarterback hits, the advanced statistics site Pro Football Focus credited him with 11 quarterback hits and 31 quarterback hurries – most on the team – and he and Clay Matthews tied for the team lead in combined sacks-hits-hurries.
In 865 snaps last year in his final season in Chicago, Peppers finished with seven sacks, six QB hits and 27 QB hurries. PFF had him with a minus-7.6 overall grade; this year with the Packers, his PFF overall grade was plus-16.9.
“Truthfully, when we first signed him, I truly didn’t believe it. Because I know around here, we’re not used to signing guys of that nature,” said veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, who’d publicly pleaded after last season for general manager Ted Thompson to add more veterans during the offseason. “I saw it on Twitter and I was like, ‘Nah, that’s not true.’ Then, later on throughout the day, I figured out it was true and I was like, ‘Man, OK then, we got another piece to the puzzle!’ I was excited about that.”
And Peppers has not disappointed.
“I thought that he would have a lot left in the tank,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said late in the week. “But he’s exceeded my expectations in the leadership category. He’s been a great leader for us and he’s a guy who really is respected in this locker room. His voice carries a lot of weight. I think the production has been great, as well. He’s doing a great job making big plays for us with forced fumbles and interceptions and returned a couple for touchdowns. He’s a presence out there.
“And, I think he’s really pushed those other guys, like Clay and Nick Perry and Mike Neal, to get more out of them. And you’ve seen the production that they’ve had.”
Neal, who was 15 years old when Peppers was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, said Rodgers is exactly right about Peppers’ influence on his younger teammates.
“When you have a guy of Julius’ stature, you want to prove yourself to him,” Neal said. “Not only that, with him doing what he’s doing, you don’t want to be the guy who’s slacking off. Pep is what he is: He’s a leader, he’s a great football player. I think he’s definitely elevated everybody’s game. He’s 34 years old, and he still works like he’s 25. It’s absolutely amazing to see him go about his business. He’s still got a lot more in the tank.”
Peppers thinks so, too, although he said he’s not thinking long term. Having never won an NFL title – the Panthers reached the Super Bowl after the 2003 season, his second year in the league – during his career, he’s more intent on winning next Sunday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game against Dallas and keeping his 13th season going.
“I don’t know how much football I have left. In reality, none of us know,” Peppers said, looking around the Packers locker room. “Everybody in here could be one snap away from not playing again. So all of us, you never know when your last play is going to be.
“If I can play until I’m 40, then I’ll play until I’m 40. Who knows? But whatever happens, I hope it’s here.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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