The Patriots are once again rumored to be in the Peppers sweepstakes, and of course all their journalists are putting Company Man Gantt and the clown car of assholes at the Charlotte Observer to shame.
If you’re planning to spend $13 million a year on a player, chances are you’re going to want an idea what you’re getting.
And if you really want Julius Peppers - the belle of this winter’s sparse free agent ball - you’ll probably have a lot of trouble figuring that out.
On one side of the ledger is a person that people in his inner circle universally regard as a good guy, a teammate who works hard in the weight room and is always in shape, and a player with the kind of rare talent to redefine the prototype for a position.
On the other side is an athlete who often disappears not for snaps or series but for games, who has been said by some to bring nothing to the locker room, and who has frustrated many coaches and teammates with a lack of passion for football.
Who is the Real Julius Peppers? Very few people know, and that’s why red flags have been raised as he prepares to hit the open market March 5.
“I wouldn’t touch him, for that money and what he gives you,’’ said an ex-Panthers personnel man. “On the field, he’s a freak athletically, but it’s whether he shows up or not. He’ll go two and three games and do nothing but take up space. Then he’ll have two sacks, a forced fumble, a pick, and change the game. And that’s the danger. He can mesmerize you, but it’s not consistent.’’
“He could end up costing some personnel guy his job,’’ said an AFC scout with extensive experience evaluating Peppers. “I’m terrified of him. In my heart of hearts, I believe that if you pay this guy, I don’t think you’ll see a double-digit sack [season] again the rest of his career.’’
And that’s where his fit gets murky.
Can a club that has built its operation on players who are passionate about football change a guy who so often has demonstrated an apathy toward the game?
“Football’s come so easy to him,’’ said Brentson Buckner, the former Panthers defensive tackle who played next to Peppers for five years. “Does he love it the way Steve Smith or Bryant Young or Jerry Rice love it? I don’t think so. But he’s got so much God-given ability that, even without loving it, he’s a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro with 81 sacks in eight years.
“You do think, ‘Man, a guy with that much ability, imagine if he did love it.’ ’’
At the same time, Buckner calls Peppers “a prisoner of his own talent,’’ in the sense that no matter what he does, it never seems enough. And that, plus his private nature, makes him tough to read.
“One thing I know is he likes football,’’ said Mike Rucker, another ex-Panther defensive lineman. “If he didn’t like football, he’s the type of guy who would’ve hung up his cleats and walked away.
“If you break it down, if it’s about the money, then why wouldn’t he have taken the contract they offered a couple of years ago?’’
Buckner theorized that while Peppers might lack the burning desire to be the best, he has always valued the respect of his teammates and, as such, the right locker room might change things. In October, Carolina linebacker Jon Beason called out Peppers for a lack of passion. Peppers responded with six sacks over the next four games.
That is the carrot for teams when he hits the market. Ex-NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker, now a writer for SI.com, recalled playing opposite Peppers. Tucker tried to cut-block him, and Peppers stunned Tucker by leaping out of the way before burying the quarterback. Peppers said to Tucker, “Dude, you can’t do that to me.’’
Then, watching tape of a game against the Raiders, Tucker saw the coaches move Peppers all over the field, and he “literally beat [the offensive linemen] one by one.’’
But, Tucker said, “That’s what he gives you, those flashes of brilliance. The Vikings game [in December], they couldn’t block him. But that was in prime time, and his contract is up. I think he picks and chooses his spots.’’
“I don’t think he’s a great football player, but he’s a superhuman athlete,’’ Buckner said. “He hasn’t gotten to a point where, ‘I know the double-team is coming, here’s how I beat it.’ Defensive linemen are taught to maintain the double-team. That’s for guys like me.
“Guys like him should beat the double-team. That’s what Lawrence Taylor did, that’s what Reggie White and Bruce Smith did. That’s the kind of player he should be.
“The guy’s built like a power forward, runs like a DB with the flexibility of a gymnast and strength of a nose tackle. And he jumps like Jordan. He’s like a football science project.’’
He reacts differently to different situations, and that goes for the way he’s coached, as well. Peppers was said to have soured on ex-Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac and line coach Sal Sunseri, who were rattle-the-cage types. Then Ron Meeks arrived to run the Carolina defense in 2009, and things improved.
Buckner says Peppers needs coaches who will speak frankly and respectfully to him, and have the gumption to challenge him. Jack Del Rio, the Carolina defensive coordinator his rookie year, was that guy, telling Peppers, “I expect more of you.’’
The question is whether he expects enough of himself.
“You have to figure out what button to push,’’ said the ex-Carolina personnel man. “But I don’t know that there is one.’’
The AFC scout added, “He should never have less than 14 sacks. But you can’t make a guy passionate about something that he’s not.’’
Even lacking that, Peppers has proven he can be an All-Pro pass-rusher, commanding constant attention from the offense. Will he ever be more than that? That’s a question plenty of teams are looking to answer.