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.

| 3 years ago
2014 FA - Peppers - Halting the Slide

Julius Peppers: Halting the Slide


2014 FA - Peppers - Halting the SlideFour 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.

 

2014-03-19_11-46-43

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. 

 

| 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.

  • Jason Williams

    His issues with planar fasicatis have taken the speed out of his game which for Peppers has been really tough.

  • IlluminatiCheese

    Datone and Peppers on one side hitting a stunt, Raji and Boyd clogging up blocks in the middle – Perry contain/rush on the other side – Clay at Middle Linebacker, roaming around, looking like he’s gonna blitz. Sounds cool, idk.

    • Kevin

      Daniels has to be in that paragraph somewhere. GB’s best interior rusher. Yes please.

  • gpldan

    A 6-7 295lb outside linebacker in a 3-4?

    • Aldo Gandia

      This smells like a desperation signing. Peppers is a 4-3 pass rusher with declining skills. Capers will find that out during the OTAs

    • Kevin

      It has already been stated he will be playing the Elephant/Leo role similar to what the Seahawks have in Seattle.

      He will be a hybrid player that won’t be asked to contain the edge, drop into coverage or play from a two point stance as a true 3-4 OLB.

      No1 knows exactly what we will see from the Packers and Peppers, I don’t believe they even know but we do know GB’s OLB’s don’t drop into coverage a lot anyway and Peppers will be asked far less than them.

      To Aldo – I don’t see it as a desperation signing. They were already planning to make changes to the defense and one change was having Neal and Perry play this hybrid style position. When peppers was released they saw a great opportunity to have a veteran come in- who has said multiple times he wants to play in a 3-4 defense- who could produce right away while also giving some veteran leadership to this young defense. It is a low risk high reward signing by the Packers partially due to their great cap situation. If it doesn’t work out minimal harm was caused but if it does work out they will see a greatly improved defense and have a much better shot at a superbowl. Sounds like a win win to me and anything but desperation.

  • Every Chicago Bear Fan

    Going to the Packers was a dis to every Bears fan who ever cheered for you Peppers. Enjoy the 53.5 million you made in 4 years (not including the endorsements you made from the 2nd highest market in the NFL)… I hope Kyle Long drops you in 2014 like John Kuhn did on that season ending TD pass.

    • RHO1953

      How bad will it be for you if he humiliates Long and the Bears?

    • Ryan

      Kyle Long got abused by elite players all year last year.

      • Jon Russell

        For sure, all the way to the Pro Bowl

        • Ryan

          Only because his last name was Long.

          Long wasn’t even the best rookie G last year.

          • Jon Russell

            He will be this year I can guarantee you that, he graded out as the most athletic OL drafted in the past decade on performance based testing, this was his first full year starting football. He will be a beast this year.

          • Ryan

            That athleticism didn’t help him in pass protection, he got over-matched quickly by top tier DT. Long didn’t even grade out by PFF in the plus column. Emery reached for Long drafting him in the first, he could have gotten a far better guard in Warford in the 3rd.

  • chris

    Another *great* move by Ted Thompson. His genius left when Schneider took the Seahawks job. Look at the draft results since Schneider left.

  • Thomas James

    Keep pounding Pep! :)

  • corners

    Sure, but did you watch his football IQ in the nfl championship game with 5 min left?

    He forced burnett down, when he probably had a pick 6 if at the minamum fg range.

    Its as if Peppers and Burnetter thought there were just 30 seconds left instead of 5+ minutes and 6 timeouts on the field.