GREEN BAY – Ted Thompson is happy to have Julius Peppers in the fold, and the Green Bay Packers general manager is pleased that the team’s pursuit of a big-name free agent ended with him getting his man – because it hasn’t always worked out that way.
But just because the Packers landed Peppers, the 2002 No. 2 overall draft pick and eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end who was released by the rival Chicago Bears earlier this spring, it won’t have an effect on what he does with his nine selections in the May 8-10 NFL Draft, Thompson insisted Thursday.
In his first public comments since Peppers’ surprising signing on March 15, Thompson said he believes the 34-year-old Peppers has plenty left in the tank and that he expects him to have an impact on the Packers’ up-and-down defense. The Packers signed Peppers to a three-year deal that is worth up to $26 million and will pay him $8.5 million in 2014 – a $7.5 million guaranteed signing bonus and $1 million base salary.
“Well, 34 is not so old. Not for some of us,” the 61-year-old Thompson said during his annual pre-draft news conference at Lambeau Field. “There’s no evidence of any decline in his play, in our opinion. He still has the same athletic traits that he had coming out (of college). He’s had a remarkable history in the NFL in terms of durability.
“We’re looking forward to it. I think he is, too.”
The 6-foot-7, 287-pound Peppers certainly has been durable, playing in 186 of a possible 192 games. He’s also been productive, registering the second-most sacks (118.5) in the NFL and forcing the fifth-most fumbles (39) since he entered the league. He leads all NFL defensive linemen with nine interceptions over that span.
But playing 855 snaps for the Bears last season, Peppers managed only 7.5 sacks, the third-lowest total of his 12-year NFL career. The Packers envision him as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker in their 3-4 defense, and their hope is that by playing him fewer snaps, they will not only increase his production but give opposing offenses another pass-rushing threat to worry about opposite four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews. Matthews, who missed six games last season with a twice-broken thumb, is expected to be fully healthy for training camp.
“When I view him as a football player, he's an individual you'd like to create targeting problems,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Peppers at the annual NFL Meetings in March. “He has the ability to play from the two point stance, has the ability to play on the move.
“I know in our time competing against each other he's played both sides at the end position. He's played inside. We'd just like to take that a step further and make him a multi dimension player, position player.”
In 10 career games against the Packers with Carolina and Chicago, Peppers has recorded 9.5 sacks, his fourth-highest total against a specific opponent. The Packers finished tied for eighth in the 32-team NFL last season in sacks with 44 despite Matthews’ absence, but their hope is that Peppers, who reported for the first day of the offseason program last week, will have an impact on more than just that one category.
Last season, the Packers finished tied for 24th in scoring defense (26.8 points per game), 25th in yards allowed (372.3), 25th in rushing yards allowed (125.0), 24th in passing yards allowed (247.3) and tied for 20th in takeaways (22).
“It's fun to see Julius. He's a specimen. He looks great,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said at last week’s Wisconsin Sports Awards. “It'll be fun to get him really into the fold and get him feeling like he's part of the team, encouraging him to be a leader for us. I think he brings a lot to the table -- on the field and in the locker room.
“I'm just excited about not having to run away from him anymore."
As hopeful as the Packers are of Peppers’ contributions, Thompson insisted that he won’t approach the No. 21 overall pick – or any of his other picks – differently with Peppers on board.
“We talked about this before. I might sound like a broken record, but we feel that the draft is a long term investment,” said Thompson, whose team’s most immediate needs appear to be at safety, linebacker, tight end, offensive line and cornerback. “We don’t get too carried away with what our perceived needs are at the moment. We think that’s good business. If you can marry those things up that’s fine but if you stretch to try to fill quote unquote need somewhere then you end up messing up a couple of spots, so we try to stick to the best player available. That helps for me because it keeps it simple.”
Thompson said it was rewarding to get the Peppers deal done so quickly and without the news leaking beforehand. The news broke when Peppers’ agent posted photos on Twitter of Peppers signing his contract and standing on the Lambeau Field turf early on a Saturday morning.
Peppers’ signing was viewed as out of character for the draft-and-develop Packers, who hadn’t signed a big-name outside player since adding cornerback Charles Woodson in free agency in 2006. And technically, Peppers was not an unrestricted free agent, as he had been released by his previous team and not reached the end of his contract.
Nevertheless, Thompson said his team is inaccurately portrayed as ignoring free agency, and that his staff does its due diligence even when no signings happen. During his tenure, Thompson has signed a total of 12 true unrestricted free agents, three of whom didn’t make the roster coming out of training camp those years. He signed only one player each in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and in three of previous four offseasons, he didn’t sign a single unrestricted free agent. The Packers’ other offseason signing, ex-Minnesota defensive tackle Letroy Guion, was cut by the Vikings.
“People who say we don’t use free agency are wrong. We’ve always dabbled in free agency,” Thompson said. “Sometimes you can spend a lot of time and effort recruiting a guy, which we’ve done in the past, and nothing comes of it, and nothing comes out publicly and people assume we didn’t try to do something.
“We almost always, almost every offseason, try to do something in free agency, certainly with our own guys but also with guys around the league. This happened fast. It happened very quietly. It was one of those rare things where the thing was put to bed and everybody was back home before anybody knew about it.
“Quite frankly, it was kind of refreshing to do it that way.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.