After Near Reunion, Panthers Face Former Friend Julius Peppers
The Panthers considered signing Julius Peppers this offseason. Now they again have to play the best defensive player they've ever had.
Julius Peppers has lost a step since the Panthers took the North Carolina native with the second overall pick of the 2002 draft. He looks older, because, well, he is. And even though the 34-year-old isn't putting up Pro Bowl stats like he did as a defensive end in Charlotte, the 6-7, 287-pound Peppers remains a physical specimen.
“For the most part, he's Pep," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said Wednesday. "If you were creating a guy from scratch, he's pretty much what you're looking for."
Peppers, now a linebacker with the Packers, has a chance to improve to 4-0 against the team he spent his first eight seasons with Sunday in Green Bay. Peppers helped the Bears beat the Panthers three times from 2010-13.
Even though the divorce between Peppers and his original team was awkward, time apparently mended fences. After the Bears had released him in a cost-cutting move this offseason, he considered signing as a free agent with the Panthers.
"It was a thought," Peppers admitted on a conference call with Carolina media. "I just know there was some contact made. I’m not sure what was said or how far it got."
The possible reunion made sense on a lot of levels. Peppers still has a home in Mooresville, plus he's close with Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson and defensive line coach Eric Washington. And even though Carolina committed more than 20 percent of its salary cap toward Johnson and fellow end Greg Hardy, one of the front office's core philosophies is you can never have too many pass rushers.
“You’d always love to have a quality player like that on your roster," head coach Ron Rivera said about Peppers, who is the Panthers' all-time leader in sacks with 81.
"You have to understand what Green Bay did, coming with as much as they did. That makes sense. If somebody’s going to offer that kind of money, you’ve got to take it. So we never really had the opportunity once all those numbers started getting thrown around, I’d assume.”
The Packers gave Peppers a three-year contract worth $26 million. For a guy heading into his 13th season, it was truly an offer he couldn't refuse.
Green Bay also gave him a chance to play outside linebacker, a position he always wanted to try, even when he was with the Panthers.
"I mentioned it while I was there. I mentioned that it was one of my desires," Peppers said. "I didn’t get the chance to fulfill that dream I guess. I didn’t want to look back at the end of my career and say, ‘I wish I could have tried this or I wish I could have done that.’ This was a great opportunity for me, so I jumped at it."
Through six games this season, Peppers hasn't put up eye-popping numbers. He has just 19 tackles and one and a half sacks. But his interception return for a touchdown against the Vikings in Week 5 proved he can still make highlight-quality plays.
“He’s a lot leaner. He’s lost weight on purpose," Rivera said, even though Peppers is currently listed at a weight four pounds heavier than his final season in Carolina. "He’s moving very well. I saw the interception against Minnesota and for a second I was trying to figure out who the linebacker was. And I had the realization that was him.”
Sunday's game is the second time in four weeks the Panthers will face one of their former greats. But this matchup is sure to be less tense than the 'Blood and Guts Bowl' against Ravens receiver Steve Smith in Baltimore three weeks ago.
Not only has Peppers gone through this three times already, but the years have eroded any hard feelings there may have been.
"After the first game that I came back and played against the Panthers, I was over it then. I’ve grown a lot since I left Charlotte. I let bygones be bygones, and I’m moving forward just as they are," Peppers said.
"Obviously I still have a lot of friends on that team that I played with, former teammates. So it’s going to be exciting to see those guys more than anything. Just to see them and give them a hug."