Julius Peppers: How the Chicago Bears Misused Their Star and What His Future Holds

By now, most NFL fans have heard how historically bad the Chicago Bears’ defense was in 2013. They were terrible against the run and could not pressure the quarterback, ranking worst in the league both sacks and rushing yards allowed. For both of those issues, it starts up front, with the defensive line. Injuries were a huge culprit, especially at the defensive tackle position, where four different players missed three or more games with injuries, two of which ended up on Injured Reserve.

But what many people overlooked is the performance by a player who started every single game this season, Julius Peppers. Prior to 2013, he had gone to five straight Pro Bowls, averaging 11 sacks per season over that time. His consistent production earned him his contract which held a $14.4 million cap it in 2013, the ninth highest of any player in the NFL, according to Spotrac.com. So, it was quite the surprise for Bears’ fans when he finished with only 7.5 sacks, tied for 40th in the league, and 31 tackles, both the lowest he has had in a season since 2007.

Beyond just the statistics however, is just how generally inconsistent he was. No player dominates every single game of the season, but Peppers’ production came spread out between highly productive individual games, and strings of games with little to no output. Sometimes, production is not represented on the stat sheet, but for Peppers, the tape showed the same inconsistency.

 

The Season

He had only two tackles and no sacks through the first three games of the season, although he did have a fumble return for a touchdown. Then he had a sack and six tackles in the Bears’ next game against the Detroit Lions. The next two games he had nothing, followed by a seven-tackle performance against the Washington Redskins. Following the Bears’ bye-week, he had a sack, two tackles and an interception against the Green Bay Packers, before another one-tackle performance the following week. Then he had two sacks and 11 total tackles against the Baltimore Ravens week 11, before another one-tackle game the next week.

Continuing the alternation, he had an eight-tackle, 2.5-sack game against the Minnesota Vikings, before another stretch of poor play, registering four tackles over the next three games. This lead up to the Bears’ final game against the Green Bay Packers, where he had one sack and four tackles. Clearly, his production was sporadic and unpredictable, two characteristics uncommon for the former Pro Bowler.

 

What Happened?

Fans and experts alike are quick to say “Peppers is just getting old and washed up.” And they have a point. He turned 34 in January, and it is rare for pass-rushers to continue their dominance into their mid 30s. 7.5 sacks is still a decent season, perhaps just not for someone who is being paid as much money as Peppers. However, it does not explain some of the inconsistencies in his play.

If he truly were “washed-up”, then it seems unlikely that he would still be able to put together dominant games and stretches, however rare they were. In addition, he looked as strong as ever in 2012, so it would be strange if such extreme deterioration occurred in only one year. That is not to say that age did not play a role in his decline.

Others have speculated that he may have battled nagging injuries all season, those that don’t necessarily show up on the injury report. While we may never know for sure whether or not he did in fact battle injuries, it seems like a pretty unlikely culprit for a few reasons. First of all, the injuries that were reported only had him listed as probable, and they were an illness, reportedly the flu, and a chest injury. While the flu may have impacted his play for a few games, it is certainly not something that would affect him for an entire season. It could help explain his early season struggles, though. The chest injury is one that could have potential to linger, but the week he was listed on the injury report for it, he played the most defensive snaps he had all season up to that point. Had the chest injury been significant, he almost certainly would have seen fewer snaps.

Additionally, Peppers has battled nagging injuries in the past that have been publicized, and it has not affected his production much at all. In 2012, for example, he battled Plantar Fasciitis for most of the season. For those not familiar with the injury, it is one that is healed by staying off of that part of the foot while the tendon heals and it can often be re-aggravated easily. As a defensive end, Peppers had to use that area of the foot at all times on the field, and it most likely stayed with him for most of, if not all of, the season. Yet, he still finished with 11.5 sacks and looked strong.

Injuries and age certainly did not help, but they do not appear to be the major reasons for his decline. So, what caused such a sharp decline in Julius Peppers’ 2013 play? It is impossible to ever know the exact cause, as it is likely a combination of these and other factors, but there are a few things that have been overlooked that seem to have had a larger impact than originally thought.

 

Overworked and Worn-Out

Julius Peppers was overused in 2013. Some of it does indeed come back to the age factor, but compared to 2012, he saw a significant bump in snaps. For a player who is “past his prime”, his snaps should be decreasing, not increasing. Especially through the middle of the season, Peppers saw a bump in snaps that can really wear him down.

He played 865 defensive snaps this season and 797 in 2012. That comes out to 82-percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps in 2013 and 75-percent in 2012. While 68 snaps and seven percent do not seem like much, it is more than an extra game’s worth of snaps over the same amount of time. That can really take a toll on a 12-year veteran’s body.

Many of the extra snaps came during the meat of the season, the time during which veterans begin to wear down a little. Between weeks five and 13 of 2013, Peppers played 465 snaps. With a bye week in the middle, that is an average of 58 snaps per game. In 2012, over that same span, he played 385 snaps, or 48 per game. That 10 snap per game difference his huge when the grind of the season starts to wear down on players.

Not only would the increased snaps presumably tire Peppers over the course of the season, but in individual games too, the additional snaps would make him tired, hindering his stamina and overall ability on a drive-to-drive basis. That, combined with his increasing age, was a recipe for disaster.

So, why did the Bears use him so much? The increase in playing time can be attributed to a few things, including injuries, the retirement of Sedrick Ellis, the departure of Israel Idonije and the defense’s inability to get off the field.

 

Injuries

Defensive tackle Henry Melton, who played 616 (67-percent) of the Bears’ defensive snaps in 2012, was lost for the season with a knee injury in the team’s third game. The player who took his place, Nate Collins, was injured the very next game and he too would be placed on injured reserve. To make matters worse, the team’s nose tackle, Stephen Paea, suffered a turf toe injury around the same time that kept him out of three games and limited him in many others. With their top three DTs on the mend, the Bears were forced to move defensive end Corey Wootton to the inside for the remainder of the season, which meant they needed Peppers in the game more often to help fill the void, as the team lacked quality depth at both positions.

With Melton and Collins out for the season and Paea banged up, the Bears relied on Wootton and a rotation of journeymen and undrafted free agents to man the defensive tackle spots. That left Peppers and the disappointing Shea McClellin as the starting defensive ends, with their only backups being three former sixth and seventh round picks in David Bass, Cornelius Washington, and Cheta Ozougwu, none of who were ready for significant snaps. With limited talent behind the starters, Peppers had to stay on the field more than the team likely wanted.

 

Missed Opportunities

Recognizing a lack of depth on the defensive line, general manager Phil Emery signed veteran defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis in June. Only 27 at the time, Ellis was a top-10 pick in the NFL draft and good but not great starter for the New Orleans Saints all five years of his career. However, as the Bears opened training camp a month and a half later, Ellis announced his retirement out of nowhere. Had he remained with the team, he would have been a borderline starter and key rotational piece. Because he waited so long, there were few quality defensive tackles left on the market, and Emery had to take his chances with the players he had on the roster. It was a mistake that he owned up to at a press conference earlier this offseason.

Prior to signing Ellis, Emery had another opportunity to bring in familiar defensive line depth. Their own free agent, Israel Idonije, was on the market until late June, and he has the ability to play both DE and DT. He played a huge role along the line for the Bears in years past, and the team really missed it this season. In 2012, Idonije played 855 total snaps, leaving 68-percent of the defensive snaps and 28-percent of the special teams snaps along the defensive line unclaimed with his departure.

Ellis would have been able to take a chunk of that, but Emery made no other significant attempt to bring in anyone to fill the void, until the injuries began racking up. It wasn’t until the Dallas Cowboys released Jeremiah Ratliff that the Bears were able to get some significant help. The special teams snaps should not be overlooked either. Idonije accounted for 129 of them in 2012, and the more Peppers had to see the field there, the less time he had to rest between drives.

The combination of injuries and departed players only inflated problems, as the Bears’ defense was often unable to get off of the field on drives. Their aforementioned lack of pass rush and inability to stop the run allowed opposing offenses to string together long, devastating stretches. The drives would tire the whole defense out, worsening their play as the games went on. This created more snaps for the defense that had to be played by a group of players that shrunk as the season wore on.

It was a situation that went from bad to worse for the Bears and Julius Peppers. By losing Sedrick Ellis and opting not to re-sign Idonije, Emery knew he was taking some risks. The one thing he could not afford to have happen was a rash of injuries along the line, and that was exactly what he got. They were left with undrafted free agent defensive tackles and developmental defensive ends that could not be relied on, forcing Mel Tucker to use Peppers, Wootton, and McClellin so frequently. It was a big reason many of them had down years, statistically. Defensive lines are designed to feature frequent substitutions, and the Bears were not able to do so as much as they wanted in 2013.

 

2014 and Beyond

So what does this mean for Julius Peppers’ future? Most people do not believe he “earned” his $14.4 million in 2013, so they find it difficult to justify paying him the $18.2 million he is due in 2014 and $20.7 million in 2015. At the same time, the Bears may not be able to afford to lose the production and usual consistency he has brought since signing with the team in 2010.

Beyond just whether or not he will be “earning” the money that is due to him is its effect on the team’s cap space. Even if he returns to double-digit sack numbers, the team needs to decide whether it is worth investing 14-percent of their cap space into one, 34-year old player.

The way his contract is set up makes the situation all the more complicated. The Bears have restructured his contract twice, converting base salary to a guaranteed prorated bonus in 2011 and 2013. It gave the team some immediate cap relief at the time, but now is when it is coming back to bite them.

According to Spotrac.com, Peppers’ $18.2 million 2014 cap hit consists of a base salary of a $13.9 million with a $4.183 guaranteed bonus stemming from the contract’s original signing bonus plus the converted salary from the contract restructurings. 2014 also has a $100,000 workout bonus. His $20.7 million 2015 cap hit comes from a base salary of $16.5 million with the same $4.183 million guaranteed bonus.

The thing about the guaranteed bonuses is that they have already been paid to Peppers. It came in one lump sum as a signing bonus when he originally signed his contract, and again when the contract was restructured. But because they are prorated, the cap hit for those guaranteed bonuses have been spread evenly throughout the contract.

When Julius Peppers signed his contract, many people saw this day coming (Photo by Jim Prisching, AP)

When Julius Peppers signed his contract, many people saw this day coming
(Photo by Jim Prisching, AP)

That is why, if the team were to cut him, they would have $8.36 million in dead money, because the cap hit that was spread out over 2014 and 2015 would be combined and taken into effect immediately, because the money has already been given to Peppers, but it has not all had to count against the cap yet. However, cutting him means the team does not have to pay him the $14 and $16.5 million in base salary in the next too seasons. It would be a net gain in cap space of $9.8 million.

At a press conference at the NFL scouting combine, Emery restated that Peppers is still under contract and is still a part of the team, although overall he was very noncommittal about his future. The team has a tough decision to make. Is it worth taking an $8.36 cap hit for a player that is being cut, versus keeping him and paying him $18 million?

Another option is one that may be best for both sides. The Bears could approach Peppers with a direct pay cut. Emery and cap guru Cliff Stein can come to his agent and tell him that Peppers can either take a $5-7 million pay cut to his base salary to remain with the tea, or be cut. Peppers and his agent know there is no way he will garner anything close to the $18 million he is due with the Bears if he hit the open market, so taking a pay cut would keep him with a large salary, while creating cap space for the Bears and keeping a productive pass rusher on the team.

What it comes down to is how much the team values Peppers and how much he values himself. If Emery and Trestman decide that he is easily replaceable, then we should hear of his release in the next few weeks. If they want to keep him around, then they almost certainly will still approach him with some sort of pay cut because at this point it seems very unlikely that Peppers earns $18 million in 2014. How much of that $18 million he earns is yet to be decided.

It begs the same question for 2015. If $18 million is too much for the 34-year old Peppers, there is no way the 35-year old Peppers will get his $21 million next year. If the team cuts him this offseason, then that is the end of that, but if the two sides agree on a pay cut for this season, the same issue will arise 12 months later.

The Bears have a difficult decision to make regarding the future of one of their best players. What makes it tougher is the poor year Peppers had in 2013, which was somewhat of a self-inflicted wound by the Bears. Had he put up another 10-plus-sack season, it would not have been a tough choice to find a way to keep their dominant pass rusher. But because of his age and his relatively poor season, there is at least a decent chance that Peppers wears a different jersey in 2014.

It is a decision that will have a profound effect on how the Bears’ offseason goes. With Wootton and Melton no longer under contract, the team would have only one of their defensive line starters from 2013 left on the team if they released Peppers. However, the nearly 10 extra million dollars in cap space would do wonders for bolstering the team in other areas.

With the new league year starting on March 11th, we should find out soon what the Bears’ plans are for Julius Peppers. From there, the offseason plan will really begin to unfold. We will see what they plan to do with what remains from their historically bad defense. If it is anything like last offseason, we should see a complete turnaround, and combined with their offense, it could be scary. The Bears are one good offseason away from being legitimate contenders, and this could be the one.