Julius Peppers: Halting the Slide
Ben Stockwell looks at whether the Packers biggest foray into free agency in recent memory can deliver as the money would suggest they hope.
Julius Peppers: Halting the Slide
Four years ago Julius Peppers was the rarest of the rare in the NFL; a bona fide elite player hitting the open market. Untagged and untied, he had his choice of 32 teams with an enormous contract at his beck and call. Four years down the line, and after giving good value in the early years of his mega-deal, the Chicago Bears decided that Peppers’ decline in production and performance was no longer worth the escalating cap hit and decided to cut him loose two years ahead of the contract’s conclusion.
Snapped up in a matter of days by division rival Green Bay, Peppers’ second foray into the open market was a little different. Now aged 34 and entering his 13th season in the league the Packers aren’t buying for the long term and are in need of instant impact from their veteran signing. They do this in the knowledge that though the terms of the deal say three years and $30 million they are highly unlikely to see through the duration or the full financial commitment.
So at this stage the question becomes what sort of player, right now, is Julius Peppers? Where has he fallen from since he signed his deal with the Bears in 2010? And how will he fit in to a Green Bay defense that at a brief glance doesn’t appear to be a good fit?
Back at the beginning of Peppers’ career with the Bears we find a player who certainly held up his end of the bargain as an elite player. In the first year of his deal he was our #3 graded 4-3 defensive end (+33.9 overall grade) and put in two stellar playoff showings as the Bears came up a game short of a trip to the Super Bowl. In spite of netting only single figures sacks (something that in some eyes would mark out a subpar season) Peppers provided persistent pressure as a pass rusher and only graded negatively in that regard 3 times in his 18 game season, matching that with only three negative run defense grades all season. In a world where cap hits run up as the contract progresses Peppers laid down an early marker with a performance value far above his cap hit.
Over the duration of Peppers’ stay in Chicago his performance level gradually fell away from that initial +39.2 overall mark (including the playoffs) to a -4.4 overall mark in his fourth and final season with the team. First to drop was his run defense that went from a +18.3 grade in 2010 to a +3.0 mark in 2011 while his pass rushing peaks became more sporadic than consistent over his four season stay. After a supremely consistent start to his career with the Bears that week-to-week reliability ebbed away in the next three seasons. In 2010 his worst four games netted a -1.1 overall grade (only bettered by Charles Johnson) and his Middle-8 a +17.3 grade (only bettered by Johnson and Trent Cole). A year later his Middle-8 had taken a significant drop to +6.9 and fell further in 2012 (+3.1). The decline was complete in 2013 when he failed to shine in a Chicago defense that individually and collectively fell off a performance cliff in the first year without Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli at the helm.
In light of this decline what do the Packers think they are getting and how do they arrest this decline to get the immediate impact commensurate with the $8.5 million he will receive in year one? Well here is where the conundrum of Peppers’ fit with the Packers’ defense and what he has left enters the equation. On the surface Peppers is strictly a 4-3 defensive right end headed for a team playing a 3-4. A team has edge rushers that even stand up even in their sub-packages. And a team that already has a top drawer edge rusher on the right side in the shape of Clay Matthews. Bad fit, right? Well perhaps not.
In a piece on the Packers’ website accompanying Peppers’ arrival in Green Bay the former Bear spoke of doing “something different” in the Packers’ defense with no clarification of what that “something different” might be. Understandably that has set keyboards in Wisconsin alight with speculation of what that “something different” might be. Beyond being shoe-horned into a new spot (for him) in the Green Bay defense that “something different” could be a change in the Packers’ defensive philosophy to fit Peppers in. The modern NFL way on defense is to be multiple and have the ability to play a number of fronts. The acquisition of Peppers, a big 4-3 defensive end with an all-round game, provides the Packers with a point of difference in their front seven. A full blown switch to a 4-3 might not be on the cards but this would afford them the ability to play some shifted fronts and play around with Matthews in the formation rather than lining him up in the same spot every play. Think for instance how the Buffalo Bills have made use of a similar athlete like Mario Williams, lining him up on both sides of the formation with his hand on and off the ground to shift between multiple fronts.
If the idea is for Peppers himself to be versatile then that is an added risk the Packers are taking on before you even consider his steady decline with the Bears from his peak in 2010. Over the course of his career in Chicago, Peppers’ versatility diminished (at least in his deployment) with the lowest percentage of his snaps coming on the defense’s right edge in his first season (2010, 65.7%) rising to its peak at 85.4% this past season. The Packers have shown willingness to move players to maximize their talents (epitomized by Mike Neal’s shift to outside linebacker this year) but that takes time and at 34, even if he was focused on rushing the passer, time is not something the Packers have in abundance where Peppers is concerned. How he will fit in I am not sure but I don’t doubt that a defensive mind of the caliber and experience of Dom Capers will carve a niche for Peppers to fill in his defense.
The question then becomes a matter of performance, production and turning the clock back two or three years to get an instant impact.
Peppers is still a balanced pass rusher, with the ability to beat tackles inside and out, but he has seen a steady decline in overall production. He did a solid job this season of supplementing his production with “free pressure”. Four of his six sacks from the DRE spot (his 7th came from DRT) were either unblocked, in clean up or pursuing to the quarterback outside the pocket. This helped to hide an unproductive area of his game which was beating blockers to the outside off the edge. Here he yielded only eight total pressures (2 Sk, 0 Ht, 6 Hu) a year after netting 19 (6 Sk, 1 Ht, 12 Hu) and 22 (3 Sk, 1 Ht, 18 Hu) in 2011. The threat to the outside is what edge rushers need and what the vast majority use to set up the rest of their pass rushing repertoire. No matter the defensive end it will be extremely rare that you are just going to bull rush an NFL caliber tackle back or beat them inside if they are not concerned about you beating them to the outside. There needs to be some threat that keeps them off balance to open up the shorter routes to the quarterback. This is probably the biggest potential impediment to Peppers being a threat on the edge for the Packers in 2014 and the biggest clue to how Dom Capers may choose to deploy him.
Over the course of his career Peppers has shown himself to be an edge defender with tremendous depth and breadth of talent. However his decline in production and performance with the Bears highlights a player who has reached the end of his time purely as an edge defender. Though he has been deployed in an ever less versatile role with the Bears in the last four seasons I would suggest that the time is now for that trend to be reversed if the Packers are to get the instant impact they need from Peppers if this signing isn’t to prove to be a veteran folly.
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.