GREEN BAY, Wis. – Seeing Julius Peppers sporting a green-and-gold uniform, numbered 56 for linebacker, rushing from a two-point stance opposite Clay Matthews was an unfamiliar sight for this Chicago Football writer Tuesday observing his first Packers practice of 2014.
The grace and fluidity with which the 6-foot-7 inches, 287-pounder flew around the practice field – however impossible it still seems – was as familiar as ever.
Even at age 34, Peppers, who joined the Packers on a three-year deal with $7.5 million guaranteed shortly after being released by the Bears in March, remains one of the game’s elite athletes and most formidable physical specimens. The Bears simply couldn’t justify keeping a player with an $18 million cap hit whose productivity and motor waned sharply last season.
That didn’t stop one team source in April from predicting a change of scenery would lead to a big rebound from Peppers, who certainly looked the part of a player enjoying a fresh start during and after practice Tuesday.
“We’ll see about that,” Peppers said when asked if he’s too old to make an impact. “I’m not going to really get into much of discussing what I can and can’t do – we’re going to let the film speak.”
Last season’s film spoke volumes. It showed a player still capable of taking over games, as he did in monster performances at Minnesota and Detroit. But in roughly 12 other starts, Peppers was close to invisible, a tough task for a man of his incredible stature.
Tuesday’s practice – albeit one, non-padded session – revealed a player seemingly with plenty left to give. From talking shop on the sideline with fellow outside linebackers Matthews and Mike Neal, to blowing by hapless offensive linemen in one-on-one pass rush drills, Peppers was fully engaged and looking at home in a Green Bay defense priding itself on increased versatility.
Coach Mike McCarthy seemed pleased not only with his more flexible defense but the progress of its biggest addition.
“I think Julius is doing good,” McCarthy said. “We’ve asked a lot of him – we haven’t just lined him up in one spot. He’s getting more and more comfortable. I think Julius is having a good camp.”
Peppers called his transition to outside linebacker “smooth,” saying he made some adjustments, but the position isn’t all that much unlike end, a role he likely will continue to fill on occasion.
Indeed, the “elephant” role Dom Capers envisions for Peppers will include him spending time at outside linebacker and end but also three-technique and, on occasion, maybe even next to Matthews. The goal is to create pre-snap confusion, and the belief is that Peppers’ size and athleticism can create conflict for opposing blockers. The Packers think using Peppers less than the Bears did, closer to 50 percent of snaps than the 80-plus percent he was deployed last season, also will help maximize his productivity.
He might be rejuvenated, but Peppers remains the same quiet, subdued personality he was during four years with the Bears.
Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari, who as a rookie had the task of blocking Peppers, admitted as much when asked if he’s had the chance to ask his foe-turned-teammate for any pointers.
“He’s a very quiet guy,” Bakhtiari said, “and the last thing I want to do is interrupt a quiet man in his own thoughts. If he ever came up to me, of course I would love it.”
The Packers didn’t sign Peppers to give advice to Bakhtiari, or to have him suddenly transform into a dependable locker room sound bite. They acquired him to take heat off Matthews – a job Green Bay has struggled to fill – and fortify a Capers defense that failed to pull its weight last season, when the offense was weighted down by injuries.
“It’s about maximizing my abilities to try and fit into this defense and help this defense be more productive,” Peppers said. “I’m coming here to try and help this defense, help this team.”