GREEN BAY – Everything about Julius Peppers is big.
His hands are big. His head is big. His smile is big. At 6-foot-7 and 287 pounds, he ... is ... BIG.
And yet, as he spoke at his locker Monday afternoon – something that it was obvious he did out of a sense of obligation, not for adulation – it was one small word he kept coming back to. Three little letters that, for him, summed up everything he is feeling, everything that’s different, everything that has him looking and acting rejuvenated.
That’s what he said. And said. And said. Fun. He said it, by unofficial count, nine times in the span of only a few minutes, smiling the entire time. Whether he was talking about his new team (the Green Bay Packers) or his new scheme (a 3-4 defense), his new position (outside linebacker) or his new running mate (Clay Matthews), through question after question after question, the smile never left his face, and the word was on the tip of his tongue.
To understand why this matters, you have to understand this about Peppers: He doesn’t bask in the glow of the media spotlight like so many of his contemporaries do. He isn’t worried about building his brand or setting himself up for some sort of broadcasting gig when his playing days are over. So it certainly wasn’t the desire for attention from a throng of complete strangers that was causing the grin.
No, talk to those who covered him with the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears, and the sentiment is the same. Nice fellow. Polite. Intelligent. Not combative. Just doesn’t need it. That’s why he didn’t hold any sort of press conference after signing his three-year, $27 million deal with the Packers on March 15 – he didn’t speak to reporters until OTA practices kicked off 2 1/2 months later – and why on Monday, public-relations director Jason Wahlers was escorting him to his locker, where a breathless crowd of media was so anxious to talk to him that it took several moments for some of them to clear a path for him.
And then he stood there, literally head and shoulders above the crowd – even the two television reporters who were standing inside of the neighboring lockers, mics extended – and just kept talking about how much fun he’s having.
Perhaps it’s defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, a system Peppers has longed to play in, dating back to his time with the Panthers and his free agency that landed him in Chicago. Maybe it’s the new winning environment, where he looks around and still sees plenty of guys who own Super Bowl rings after beating his Bears in the 2010 NFC Championship Game. Or maybe it’s the idea that, for the first time after 12 NFL seasons, he won’t be expected to carry a defense all by himself – even though he disputed that notion Monday.
“It’s never really been that. Some people have made it out to be that way at different times, but it’s 11 guys on the field, so everybody has to do their part,” said Peppers, who signed a cap-friendly deal that will pay him $8.5 million this year but will only count $3.5 million against the salary cap. “What I will say is that we have a very talented group of guys on the field here, a lot of depth on the second and third teams. So it’s nice to look around and see that much talent.
“It was a different situation [in Chicago]. I don’t want to get into comparisons about here versus there. It’s a totally new situation and environment. I’m happy to be here and I’m excited to do what they want me to do here. It’s not about what I’ve done in the past, it’s about what they want me to do this year.”
And what the Packers want him to do this year is get after the quarterback, occasionally drop into coverage, give Matthews someone else that opposing offenses have to worry about – and do all that while playing fewer snaps than the 855 he spent on the field for the Bears last season, when he finished with 7.5 sacks, was considered a disappointment and was released in a cost-cutting move in the spring.
“You look at my last year. Was it one of my better years? Probably not, you know, statistically,” Peppers said. “But if you compare it to a lot of the guys who played last year, it was better than a lot of guys. So, I don’t really think I need to revitalize anything.
“I’m actually having a lot of fun. I’m enjoying it. It’s a little different than what I’ve been used to in the past. I actually think it fits my skill set better than just being down every play. I’m having fun doing it. I’m just enjoying it.”
He also appears to be pretty good at it. Even at age 34, his athleticism was on display during Monday’s practice, as he dropped in coverage several times and stayed with a tight end or receiver as if he’d done it his whole career. In truth, he rarely dropped into coverage in Chicago, save for the occasional zone blitz.
“I'm not surprised, but the way he's played in space has been impressive,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “For any quarterback that has the out-breaking throw, when a man of his range [is defending], that's a different throw.
“He's here to go towards the quarterback – we all understand that – but when he does drop, he has great ability and range. And you look at his ball skills, he handles the football like an offensive player.”
Added Matthews: “As a defense that's in need of another playmaker, I think he offers that and he'll bring that and he's going to help this team this year."
His mere presence, however, should make a difference in the Packers defense. Having him in the mix allows Capers to move Matthews all over the field, which Matthews has done through the first three days of training camp. And, even entering his 13th NFL season, he should still command respect from opposing offensive coordinators.
For his part, Peppers admitted that he doesn’t have the Packers’ defense completely down yet, but he understands that he’s vital to keeping offenses guessing, which is what makes playing outside linebacker such a tantalizing twist – for both Peppers and the defense as a whole.
“That was one of the things that attracted me to coming, along with all of the other things they having going for themselves – a chance to stand up, move around, drop, rush, play in different positions,” Peppers said. “I think the scheme is set up to create some confusion and get the perfect mismatches on the edge, so be able to stand up and bluff a little bit is going to help the defense.
“It is a new challenge and I’m looking forward to not only proving to myself that I can do it but proving to the outsiders who don’t think I can do it.”
And having some fun in the process.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.