At 34 years old, Julius Peppers can still run like a tight end, explode off the line of scrimmage with an electric first step and showcase his freakish athletic ability to chase down the quarterback or make a play in the open field.
And in Green Bay, that’s an ideal fit for Dom Capers’ multiple defensive schemes.
“To be able to stand up, drop a little bit, sometimes put my hand down and rush in a four-man front…a little bit of everything,” Peppers said Thursday after practice. “It suits my skill set perfectly.”
Peppers, who signed a three-year deal with the Packers worth up to $26 million ($7.5 million guaranteed) after being released from the Bears in a salary-cap move this offseason, looked noticeably leaner on the field in a Green Bay uniform.
The 13-year veteran told me he started his offseason training earlier this year after making the switch from the 4-3 defensive end position in Chicago to outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 front.
“I wanted to tone up, get a little lighter so I could move better in open space,” Peppers said.
Under Lovie Smith and Mel Tucker in Chicago’s Tampa 2 scheme, Peppers played as a rush end with the ability to kick down inside in the nickel package (five defensive backs on the field) or drop into coverage as a “seam-flat” defender in the Bears’ zone-blitz schemes.
A productive player during his four seasons with the Bears, Peppers racked up 37.5 sacks and three interceptions.
But in Green Bay, Peppers will do much more from a scheme perspective as a rush 'backer in the 30 front or as a creative weapon in the Packers’ sub packages where he can attack the pocket with various stunts as an off-the-ball defender, match up in the passing game or put his hand in the ground to expose one-on-one situations.
Think of Peppers’ versatility as an athlete within a defense that allows Capers to be flexible and generate confusion up front versus protection schemes. That’s when you see the splash plays, the turnovers and the defensive “wins” on third downs.
“Peppers is the biggest freak I have ever been around. He can rush and drop,” an NFL scout told me on Thursday night. “He will also be motivated. If Clay Matthews is healthy, that will be a tough duo to handle.”
In Chicago, Peppers’ game-day reps were up as he played 81.6 percent of the snaps in 2013, 74.5 percent in 2012 and 82.1 percent in 2011.
However, if the Packers can reduce the numbers of total snaps Peppers plays this season (to around 65 percent), the veteran can make an even greater impact with fresh legs and that unique matchup ability he brings to the stadium in critical game situations.
Watching the Packers run through practice, their defensive front looked faster and more athletic (than I saw on tape in 2013) during one-on-one periods and competitive team drills with B.J. Raji, Datone Jones and Mike Daniels having impressive days versus the offense in full gear.
Adding Peppers to that mix—opposite Matthews—just adds more speed and talent for this Green Bay defense versus the run game or when getting up the field to disrupt the pocket.
“Oh my goodness. Like I said, you saw the man run, he’s 34 years old. It’s unfair,” Daniels said after practice. “I’m excited and I’m glad he’s on my side.”
Daniels also talked about the veteran leadership Peppers has brought to the Packers this year with his experience, maturity and practice habits.
“I’ve really learned on how to go about being a professional,” Daniels said. “You get a guy like that; it would be stupid not to watch how he operates.”
Before leaving town, I asked Peppers if he felt there was more to prove, or more questions to answer in terms of how the league views his overall ability at this stage of his career.
The veteran was quick to say his main focus is on proving his value to his teammates and coaches, but he did acknowledge the doubters.
“I hear whispers; I hear certain things about declines and losing a step,” Peppers said. “But I don’t focus on it.
“You can use those things for motivation sometimes, but that’s false motivation for lack of a better term, because at the end of the day your passion for the game and the reasons that you play are really going to get you through it.”
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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