GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) – There he was, Julius Peppers – the Green Bay Packers’ prized offseason acquisition – taking runs at the quarterback and dropping back in coverage in a No. 56 jersey that looked a bit snug.
It was just an offseason workout in late May, but boy did the addition of the 6-foot-7 Peppers look good to coach Mike McCarthy.
“Just the way he moves – he looks awesome in 56,” McCarthy said. “We’re a little worried about finding a shirt to fit him.”
Should be able to sew something together by September. It’s not often that a team gets to add a 287-pound pass rusher whose 118 ½ sacks rank him second in the NFL since entering the league in 2002.
Making Peppers move from the NFC North rival Bears even more noteworthy is that he signed with a team that typically doesn’t make splash in free agency.
“I was a little shocked,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “But obviously … I’m happy to have him on this side of the ball.”
Green Bay won a third straight NFC North title last season despite a slew of injuries. The defense missed Matthews the most after the linebacker was sidelined much of the year with a broken right thumb. The Packers defense sagged in the second half, about the same time that quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down with a collarbone injury.
So part of coach McCarthy’s plan for the offseason was to look for more impact players on defense, whether through moving pieces around and developing players or adding fresh bodies from free agency and the draft.
Enter Peppers, a salary cap hit by Chicago in the offseason. The eight-time Pro Bowler, 34, signed a three-year deal with Green Bay after finishing with just seven sacks in 2013, his lowest total in four seasons with Chicago and the fewest for him since he had a career-low 2 1/2 with Carolina in 2007.
Linebacker A.J. Hawk didn’t think Peppers lost a step after watching him fly around on a warm spring day in Green Bay.
“He runs like he’s 18. If there’s ever a genetic freak that was put on the planet, it’s Julius. He’s just a specimen,” Hawk said.
So what was it about the subpar 2013 season then?
“I felt fine last year,” Peppers said. “Circumstances around me and the team, you know, led to certain things. But as far as me and how my body feels, I feel great.”
Getting a chance to play with Matthews, who is one of the league’s most dangerous pass rushers when healthy, was part of the appeal for Peppers in picking the Packers. Matthews – who was flexing his right hand with a black armband during practice – said his recovery is coming along fine, and that for now he “didn’t see there being any hindrance toward beginning the season, toward camp.”
The ideal scenario for the Packers might be Matthews and Peppers bookending the line as pass rushers, with Peppers making what he indicated would be a smooth transition to more of an outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 set.
“They’re not asking me to do very much different except for drop back a little bit,” Peppers said. “Other than that, it’s pretty much almost the same as playing defensive end.”
As a newcomer, he might benefit from McCarthy’s emphasis this offseason to seemingly simplifying the defense a little. The mantra seems to be “more personnel, less scheme” to make more people available and add flexibility, following the injury-riddle 2013 season.
The addition of Peppers, in effect, could fit well into that philosophy given his history as a hybrid defensive end-linebacker. The Packers also transitioned Mike Neal into a similar role last season with some success.
“We’ve learned some hard lessons here of late, the last couple years of maybe playing some players that probably weren’t quite ready because of the scheme of we’re playing of utilizing your best players, and that’s a trap you just don’t want to fall into as a coach,” McCarthy said. “Everybody prepares this way. We’re just tilting a little more that way than we have in the past.”