Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers’ success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find the entire list here.
NOTE: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players, but rather it’s a list of which players mean the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
NO. 7 – JULIUS PEPPERS, OUTSIDE LINEBACKER / DEFENSIVE END
AGE / EXPERIENCE
34 / 13th NFL season
WHY HE’S NO. 7
Under the guidance of general manager Ted Thompson, the Green Bay Packers almost never spend money on big-name free agents from outside the organization. For years, that list included the name of Charles Woodson; end of list. That’s why there was such surprise this offseason when the Packers quickly and quietly signed Julius Peppers to a three-year contract with $7.5 million guaranteed.
Peppers has a resume that is the envy of just about every other player in the NFL. He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2002, is an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and a three-time first-team All-Pro. Just about the only thing missing is a Super Bowl ring, which is why it makes sense that Peppers would show interest in a Green Bay team that wasn’t many pieces away from winning another one.
When Peppers signed, the excitement level amongst Packers players on social media was very high. For many of them, such as Mike Daniels and Datone Jones, Peppers was tearing up the NFL before they were even teenagers. Daniels, Jones and many others have grown up watching and admiring Peppers, and that level of respect can go a long way. It also sends a message to players within Green Bay’s locker room (and across the NFL) that the Packers are going for it.
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.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2014
One of the biggest things separating Peppers from the thousands of players who weren’t able to play until they’re 34 years old is that he has been unbelievably healthy throughout his career. Missing just two games due to injury in 12 years doesn’t even sound real, but that’s exactly what Peppers has accomplished. That holds a ton of value. Just look at the Packers’ fondness over the years for A.J. Hawk, much of which has to do with the 30-year-old linebacker almost always being available. Though injuries can sometimes just be bad luck, Peppers is expected to stay healthy. If it’s at age 34 that he all of a sudden starts getting banged up and missing games, Green Bay might have miscalculated on this signing.
Assuming Peppers is healthy, he needs to take pressure off of Clay Matthews. The Packers have been searching for a few years to find a player who could do that (including 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry), but it didn’t work. All eyes were on Matthews, often prompting double- (and in some cases triple-) teams on him. The smart strategy from opposing teams was to shut down Matthews and force some other Green Bay defensive player to stop them. Peppers, at least until proven otherwise, will command respect and attention from opposing offenses. They know what Peppers has done throughout his career and won’t treat him lightly. But it’s up to Peppers to perform at a high level then, because that respect and attention could fade if he doesn’t deliver in the early part of the season.
Peppers had seven sacks last season, his lowest amount since 2007. However, he’s had double-digit sack totals in four of the past six seasons. As a comparison, the Packers didn’t have a single player with double-digit sacks last season and haven’t had a player with double-digit sacks other than Matthews since Aaron Kampman in 2007. It’s safe to conclude that Peppers will play a significant role in how Green Bay’s defense does this upcoming season.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM?
On the Packers’ official roster, Peppers is the only player listed as a linebacker / defensive end. Mike Neal is similar but with the positions reversed: defensive end / linebacker. It’s possible that when (or perhaps if) Nick Perry gets healthy, he too could be in a similar dual role, one that head coach Mike McCarthy terms "the elephant position." That means Peppers and Neal will be splitting time between having their hand in the dirt and standing up on the outside. It’s that distinction that demonstrates even further why Green Bay needs Peppers to be good this season, because the team is trying something new on defense and doesn’t have a lot of options behind him.
If Peppers suffers an injury or doesn’t play well, it would take two players to replace him: one outside linebacker for those situations and one defensive end for the other situations. Perry and Neal would be among those who get more opportunities at outside linebacker, while Josh Boyd, rookie Khyri Thornton and Jerel Worthy would be among those who’d see increased snaps without Peppers around.