Packers Annual Checkup: Julius Peppers

Veteran Julius Peppers was a playmaker and then some for Green Bay in 2014, producing 9.5 sacks, two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and six forced fumbles. The Packers hope he can continue his lengthy string of consecutive starts in 2015, as well.

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Julius Peppers, outside linebacker

FOX Sports Wisconsin’s Paul Imig gives an in-depth statistical analysis and film study of every Packers player in his annual offseason checkup. You can find every report here.

Season stats (playoffs included): 18 games, 18 starts (920 snaps; 74.0 percent of total defensive snaps), 55 tackles, 11 missed tackles, 9.5 sacks, 33 quarterback hurries, two interceptions (both returned for touchdowns), six forced fumbles, 11 passes defensed, three penalties committed, 30 stops (tackles that resulted in offensive failure); dropped back in coverage 39 times, targeted four times, allowing two receptions for 12 yards and zero touchdowns

ProFootballFocus.com season rating: 20.2 (ranked No. 2 out of 24 Packers defensive players; ranked No. 5 out of 46 among NFL outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense)

Best game: Week 10 win over Chicago (played 53 of 74 snaps); four tackles, one sack, two quarterback hits, one interception (returned for touchdown), two passes defensed, one forced fumble, zero missed tackles; 7.6 PFF rating

Worst game: Week 15 loss at Buffalo (played 66 of 71 snaps); four tackles, one missed tackle, zero sacks, one QB hurry; minus-2.7 PFF rating

Expectations at the start of training camp: Medium

Expectations were … Exceeded

Looking live: The offseason signing of Julius Peppers was arguably the most unexpected moment in the tenure of Ted Thompson as Packers general manager. Peppers was 34 years old, had been in the NFL for 12 seasons and was certainly not an inexpensive addition with a $7.5 million signing bonus. The one part that made perfect Thompson sense, though, is how healthy Peppers had remained throughout his long career. While most players in their 30s have endured at least a couple injuries that have slowed them (or taken them out of the league entirely), Peppers had only missed two games in his career due to injury. The only remaining question surrounded whether the dip in performance during his final year in Chicago was a sign of things to come, and if age had finally caught up with one of the NFL’s premier athletes.

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Players and coaches were instantly impressed with Peppers when they first saw him in a Packers uniform for a late-May OTA practice. "He moves like a young man," Mike McCarthy said on May 30, 2014. "Julius is such an impressive person from all angles. Very professional in his approach, takes great care of himself."

Peppers was ranked No. 7 in FOXSportsWisconsin.com’s pre-training camp "Most Important Packers of 2014" series. I wrote at the time that "Peppers is No. 7 on this list because the news of him signing with Green Bay can’t be the biggest piece of news associated with his time with the Packers. He needs to actually have an impact on the field and justify Thompson’s decision to break from the norm by signing him." It was also important for Peppers to take some pressure off of Clay Matthews.

Green Bay’s idea with Peppers was to play him in a hybrid role and have him learn to become an outside linebacker in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defensive system. "I actually think it fits my skill set better than just being down every play," Peppers said on July 28. "It is a new challenge and I’m looking forward to not only proving to myself that I can do it but proving to the outsiders who don’t think I can do it."

Upon further review: It didn’t take Peppers long to show he still had plenty left in the tank. After appearing disinterested during the Packers’ first preseason game, he showed up to the second preseason game and took 2014 No. 2 overall pick offensive tackle Greg Robinson to task. Peppers beat Robinson for a quarterback hit on Sam Bradford and then stuffed running back Zac Stacy for a two-yard loss. It was just an exhibition game, but making seemingly easy work of Robinson (who’s 13 years younger) was the first sign of Peppers looking truly capable of becoming a defensive difference-maker in Green Bay.

Peppers’ reputation of taking plays off — or even full drives off — continued, as he disappeared for certain stretches during the regular season. But the number of big plays Peppers made in 2014 is what makes him a special player, one that Thompson was willing to forego his typical draft-and-develop strategy to go get.

It began with a strip-sack and fumble recovery Week 3 in Detroit, giving the Packers’ offense a chance to turn that game around and keep the Lions from adding to their lead. Two weeks later against Minnesota, Peppers intercepted a deflected Christian Ponder pass and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown. That play made Peppers the first player in NFL history with 100-plus sacks and 10 interceptions. The big plays continued for Peppers in the second half of the season, as well, creating a strip-sack and fumble recovery of Jay Cutler in Week 10 and then recording a 52-yard interception return for a touchdown in Week 11. Plays like those alone made Peppers worth the $7.5 million signing bonus he received.

Peppers had a chance to make his mark on offense, too, but that didn’t work out so well. McCarthy plugged him in for a goal-line play Week 8 in New Orleans and Aaron Rodgers fired the ball perfectly to Peppers on a slant, but it was dropped. It was the first and last time Peppers saw the field on offense.

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Peppers proved that leadership can happen in many forms. Very quiet when he first arrived to Green Bay, Peppers quickly earned the respect and trust of his new teammates. When it came time for players to name postseason captains, they voted for Peppers, not the more vocal Matthews. "I feel like I’ve been a leader since I stepped in this locker room," Peppers said on Dec. 17. "For the guys to recognize that with the vote, it’s special."

Overall 2014 grade: A-minus

Status for 2015: One-hundred percent chance of being on the active roster to begin next season. Based on the structure of Peppers’ contract, it was widely assumed that he would either play only one season with the Packers or he would have to restructure his deal going into Year 2. Peppers’ $12 million cap hit in 2015 is not something that Thompson is typically comfortable with, especially not when the player is now 35 years old. However, Green Bay is set to pay Peppers under the terms of the two sides’ original agreement. This was made very clear by Thompson and McCarthy during the Scouting Combine in February. As for how many more years Peppers has left in the NFL, he stated the following plan for himself in May 2014: "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."

Next: Outside linebacker Nick Perry

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