GREEN BAY, Wis. — Clay Matthews was shocked when he first heard the news in March that the Green Bay Packers signed Julius Peppers. It’s just not the way general manager Ted Thompson often chooses to build the team.
On the Packers’ practice field for the first time this week for offseason training activities, Peppers’ two months already spent in Green Bay had him feeling like he was at home. But the presence of the 6-foot-7 veteran was immediately noticeable. Peppers’ stature alone made him tough to miss, but not since signing Charles Woodson in 2006 have the Packers added an outside free agent with such an impressive resume.
Wearing shorts and helmets, Peppers obviously wasn’t making attempts at tackling Eddie Lacy or sacking Aaron Rodgers. However, even after 12 years in the NFL and at age 34, Peppers is still making a good first impression.
"He moves like a young man," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Julius is such an impressive person from all angles. Very professional in his approach, takes great care of himself; you can see that in Phase 1 and Phase 2 in the workouts. Then we hit the field (Thursday) for the first time, and just the way he moves."
Peppers’ advanced age (by NFL standards) would typically be a concern to teams, especially to a youth-first approach decision-maker like Thompson. There aren’t many players with the incredible durability history that Peppers has, though. He hasn’t missed a game in six seasons and has missed only two games due to injury in his entire career.
"We’ll see how long I have left and how long I feel like playing," Peppers said. "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."
Green Bay signed Peppers to a three-year contract for what could total to $26 million. The deal included a $7.5 million signing bonus, though the structure of it could result in the Packers only keeping Peppers around for one year if it doesn’t work out well.
A very important part of the process in determining how successful Peppers will be in Green Bay is how he adjusts to a hybrid role that includes him playing outside linebacker.
"He looks very natural at the outside linebacker position," McCarthy said.
Peppers attempted to downplay the change.
"It’s pretty similar to what I’ve been doing my whole career," Peppers said. "It’s nothing. They’re not asking me to do very much different except for drop back (in coverage) a little bit. Other than that it’s pretty much almost the same as playing defensive end."
Pretty much almost the same. Translation: Peppers has some adjusting to do to his new role.
Peppers will benefit greatly from being teamed up with Clay Matthews. Combined, the two of them recorded 14.5 sacks last season. But looking back just one season earlier, Matthews (13) and Peppers (11.5) combined for 24.5 sacks. If the Packers get that type of production out of those two, opposing quarterbacks would be in for a long game against Green Bay.
"I haven’t really played with a guy like Clay, really my whole career," Peppers said. "Early in my career I played with a guy, Mike Rucker, who was a threat on the other side. But like a really dominant player on the outside I really haven’t had that ever. I’m excited to get out there with him and see what he can do."
Defensive lineman B.J. Raji mentioned that he had conversations in past seasons before Packers-Bears games that were entirely about watching out for Peppers.
"(Peppers) was always a big concern of Aaron’s, being concerned with where he was lined up," Raji said. "So to get a guy with 110-plus sacks or whatever he has (actual number is 118.5 sacks), to add him to the players that we have, including Clay, I think it’s going to make it hard to block everybody."
It’s safe to assume NFC North quarterbacks like Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford have had similar discussions with teammates about facing Matthews. Teaming up the two pass rushers could be a dangerous force.
"He’s been a fixture around this league, a playmaker around this league for quite some time now," Matthews said of Peppers. "It will be good playing on the same side as him and having him garner some attention, as well as myself. It’s going to present some difficulties for the offense to not only block the two of us but other guys who have stepped up in recent history; Mike Daniels, Mike Neal coming on strong, the addition of so many rookies.
"Should be a formidable pass rush this year, so I’m looking forward to it."
Now, it’s up to defensive coordinator Dom Capers to try to make all of the elements work well together to correct a Green Bay defense that ranked 25th in the NFL last season.
"(Peppers) is one of those versatile guys," Capers said. "You’ve seen we used Clay in a lot of different ways. You’ve seen Mike Neal be a hybrid-type of guy. (Peppers) falls into that hybrid category where he can play a number of different spots."
For Peppers, he’s hoping that he made the right decision in free agency so he can add "Super Bowl champion" to a long list of career accomplishments that’s missing that one key component.
"That’s why I came here," Peppers said of winning a Super Bowl. "That’s the goal every year. We’re going to try and do everything in our power to reach that goal. Hopefully we can make it happen."