Anxious all week, Julius Peppers was finally getting some sleep at home in Charlotte when he found out just how serious the Chicago Bears were about acquiring him. The free agent signing period had just begun and his agent called to tell him coach Lovie Smith was in town. Soon, Peppers was meeting him at an executive airport.
Now, he’s being fitted for a Bears uniform.
Peppers joined Chicago in the biggest move by a team that showed it’s fixated on contending again after missing the playoffs the past three seasons.
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The five-time Pro Bowl defensive end and top free agent prize agreed Friday to a six-year deal worth potentially $91.5 million.
Agent Carl Carey said a record $42 million is guaranteed, with Peppers earning $20 million in the first year and $40.5 million over the first three. The deal includes incentives for sacks, making the Pro Bowl and winning Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s one thing to play football in this league and make a living, but it’s a totally different thing to come to a place with a rich tradition like the Bears,” Peppers said.
Besides Peppers, the Bears lured running back Chester Taylor from NFC North champion Minnesota with a four-year contract and blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna from San Diego with a five-year deal. Taylor’s contract is worth $12.5 million with $7 million guaranteed, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiation. The person spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because the deal had not been announced.
By landing one of the league’s top pass rushers and a running back who could challenge incumbent Matt Forte, Chicago showed just how serious it is about contending in the NFC after missing the playoffs the past three years.
“You always shoot for the stars, and hopefully if you don’t get there you’re going to wind up high anyhow,” general manager Jerry Angelo said. Angelo and coach Lovie Smith are operating on a win-or-else mandate from above after a 7-9 season that left many in Chicago calling for sweeping changes.
A coaching staff shake-up that left the Bears with new offensive and defensive coordinators in Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli was just a start.
“I think you have to have days like this where you improve the ballclub,” Smith said. “I think everyone would say that the players we added will help us have better days ahead.”
The signings on Friday do not guarantee a turnaround, as Bears fans learned last season after the trade with Denver for quarterback Jay Cutler. Even so, the team did address some big needs, particularly on the defensive line.
The 6-foot-7 Peppers brings uncanny athletic ability but questionable consistency, along with the 81 sacks he collected in eight seasons with Carolina – 10 1/2 last year. In Chicago, he’ll get to play alongside Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and Tommie Harris and give a much-needed boost to a defense that ranked 17th overall and tied for 13th in sacks with 35. And maybe, he’ll shoot down a reputation for taking plays off, one that he feels is unwarranted.
“Sometimes, you’re on the field, you get tired,” he said. “If I’m not playing as hard on play 66 as I was on play number 1, then … come on.”
Peppers had been looking to get out of Carolina the past few years, and he basically got his wish when the Panthers decided not to place the restrictive franchise tag on their career sacks leader for a second consecutive year at a cost of at least $20.1 million.
That decision ended two rocky years of negotiations between the Panthers and Peppers, who played at North Carolina and was drafted second overall by Carolina in 2002.
Peppers acknowledged in a radio interview last month that he turned down a contract offer after the 2007 season that would have made him the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player. A year later, the Panthers ignored his public pleas to be allowed to leave in free agency and slapped him with the franchise tag and a one-year, $16.7 million tender. Peppers eventually softened his stance and began negotiating on a long-term contract. They couldn’t agree, and he wound up earning $18.2 million in 2009, including a $1.5 million bonus for making the Pro Bowl.
“I was fine coming back again,” said Peppers, who grew up in North Carolina. “At that point, I saw myself being there. I saw myself signing a long-term deal with them. After the season was over, I was still thinking I was going to be there, but at that point, we didn’t hear anything from them.”
The Bears wasted little time making their move when the signing period began at midnight Friday, and the meeting with Smith in the wee hours apparently went a long way toward luring Peppers. It also helped that Panthers teammates Muhsin Muhummad, Dante Wesley and Chris Harris had good things to say about him.
“It felt right,” he said. “It felt good, so that’s when I made the decision to come.”
He’s not coming alone.
Taylor, who backed up All-Pro Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, will challenge for time in Chicago’s backfield after Forte went from rushing for 929 yards after finishing with 1,238 as a rookie in 2008.
Taylor had 42 catches for 389 yards and 94 carries for 338 yards as a valuable third-down player for the Vikings. He rushed for 1,214 yards in 14 games in 2006 before Peterson arrived and reduced his role, something that “bothered me in the back of my mind.”