Carolina Panthers edge rusher Julius Peppers seemed to defy the aging process in 2017 when he collected 11 sacks at 37 years old.
With Peppers back for a 17th NFL season after signing a one-year deal Wednesday, it seems like a good time to consider what can reasonably be expected of Peppers at 38.
It’s a tricky exercise because, as Tom Brady has famously demonstrated, there are some players whose fitness regimens and gene pools allow them to continue playing at a high level into their late-30s or even their 40s.
Other players – such as Charles Johnson, for example – see their production fall off dramatically in their 30s amid debilitating injuries.
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Peppers certainly seems to be among the former group.
Peppers again will play predominantly in passing situations as Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Eric Washington look to maximize Peppers’ effectiveness.
Peppers started a career-low five games in 2017 and was on the field for 50.1 percent of the defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Reference. That represented his lowest play-time percentage in the six years that PFR has tracked the data (and given that Peppers had never started fewer than 11 games before last season, it’s safe to assume it’s a career low).
With Peppers coming off February shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, the Panthers naturally will be careful not to put too much on Peppers’ plate – in practice or games.
With all that said, the Observer takes a conservative stab at what Peppers’ stat line might look like in 2018:
▪ Games played: 16
Peppers hasn’t missed a game in 10 seasons and has been sidelined by injury just twice in his career. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt here.
▪ Sacks: 8
Peppers is one of only four players in NFL history with 10 seasons of double-digit sacks. Even if Peppers falls just short of that mark, he will have had a strong season. He also will have passed former Panthers great Kevin Greene for third place on the NFL’s all-time sacks list.
Among the three players ahead of Peppers on the sacks chart, Greene was done playing at 38, Reggie White had 5.5 sacks with Carolina when he was 39 (after a one-year “retirement”) and Bruce Smith had five sacks his age-38 season.
▪ Forced fumbles: 2
Peppers has a knack not just getting to the quarterback, but also knocking the ball loose. He has forced at least two fumbles in 15 of his 16 seasons. His 49 forced fumbles since entering the league in 2002 rank second in the league over that span.
▪ Fumble recoveries: 1
The former North Carolina two-sport star fell on two fumbles last season. He’ll get another recovery in 2018.
▪ Interceptions: 1
Peppers hasn’t had a pick since 2014, when he grabbed two interceptions for the Packers, returning them both for touchdowns. Remember when Peppers batted a Jimmy Clausen pass into the air and intercepted in his first game vs. his old Panthers teams in 2010? He’ll have another play like that.