GREEN BAY, Wis. — Twelve years in the NFL hasn’t slowed Julius Peppers one bit. Well, that’s the belief of Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, who made a rare venture into free agency this offseason by signing the 34-year-old defensive star.
Thompson wasn’t concerned about Peppers’ age. He wasn’t worried about the mileage that 184 career starts has had on Peppers. What Thompson saw was an experienced player who’s still every bit the difference-maker from when Peppers was an All-Pro six times (most recently as a second-team selection in 2012) and made eight Pro Bowl appearances (also most recently in 2012).
"Well, 34 is not so old," Thompson said Thursday. "Not for some of us. There’s no evidence of any decline in his play, in our opinion. He still has the same athletic traits that he had coming out. He’s had a remarkable history in the NFL in terms of durability. We’re looking forward to it. I think he is, too."
On the Packers’ roster, 34 is old. Peppers is the oldest player on the team, and it’s not even close. John Kuhn and Tramon Williams are next in line behind Peppers, and they are both only 31. Add in the two 30 year olds, Aaron Rodgers and A.J. Hawk, and that’s the entire list of Green Bay players not in their twenties.
But what often scares Thompson away from players is injury history more than age. Thompson didn’t release Desmond Bishop last offseason because the inside linebacker was 28. It happened because Bishop was attempting to recover from a torn hamstring, and the Packers figured that his best days were behind him.
With Peppers, he’s played every single game for the past six years. In fact, of Peppers’ 12 NFL seasons, 10 of them have come and gone with him playing in every single game. The most games Peppers ever missed in a single season was four, and that came as a rookie in 2001 as a result of a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy when he took a banned dietary supplement.
For comparison purposes, Mike Neal missed as many games in the first half of his rookie season than Peppers has in 12 years. Nick Perry has missed more than twice as many games in two seasons as Peppers has in more than a decade of professional football. The guy is just durable, making age much less of a factor.
In an NFL offseason filled with some major free-agent acquisitions, the Packers’ signing of Peppers ranks near the top in terms of projected impact. But not since 2006, when Green Bay signed Charles Woodson, has Thompson made a splash this big. Just don’t tell him that the Packers haven’t been involved in free agency.
"People who say we don’t use free agency are wrong," Thompson said. "We’ve always dabbled in free agency. Sometimes you can spend a lot of time and effort recruiting a guy, which we’ve done in the past, and nothing comes of it, and nothing comes out publicly and people assume we didn’t try to do something.
"We almost always, almost every offseason, try to do something in free agency, certainly with our own guys, but also with guys around the league.
"This (signing Peppers) happened fast. It happened very quietly. It was one of those rare things where the thing was put to bed and everybody was back home before anybody knew about it. Quite frankly, it was kind of refreshing to do it that way. We obviously followed him throughout his career, and we look forward to seeing him in a Packers uniform."
Where Thompson usually makes the most noise is in the draft. The Packers aren’t NFC Champions three years running because of free agency, that’s for sure.
But in typical Thompson fashion, he is keeping all of his draft thoughts in-house. And, in certain situations, keeping his draft thoughts all to himself.
"I know for a fact that (media outlets with mock drafts) don’t have any inside information because for the most part, sometimes I’m the only inside information," Thompson said. "And I’m not telling anybody."
Whoever Green Bay chooses with the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft, Thompson will say it was simply the best player available. Truthfully, the Packers’ first-round pick will likely belong to one of the following positions: safety, inside linebacker, tight end or wide receiver, with the first two being the most pressing needs.
"Even in the draft, during the draft itself, sometimes if we need to pat ourselves on the back, we’ll repeat it: ‘Let’s just take the best player. Let’s just take the best player,’" Thompson said. "I have people remind me and whisper in my ear."
There are some smart football minds who believe that certain positions (such as safety) are simply not worth a first-round pick. Thompson is not one of them.
"I don’t subscribe to that theory," he said.
If Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Louisville’s Calvin Pryor are still on the board when it’s Green Bay’s turn to pick, Thompson’s word will be put to the test. Unless, of course, an inside linebacker such as Alabama’s C.J. Mosley or Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier are also available.
Oh, the joy of running an NFL franchise.
"The actual draft itself is a fun thing," Thompson said. "It drives you nuts because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but the whole to and fro and ‘are you going to trade?’ and ‘is this going to happen?’ And all along making sure that whatever you do, you’re making the team better. It’s just a fun thing."