Carolina Panthers

Return of iconic player, exit of stubborn one signal new motto for Panthers GM Dave Gettleman

NFL star Julius Peppers' road back home

After seven years away from the Carolina Panthers, Peppers is returning home.
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After seven years away from the Carolina Panthers, Peppers is returning home.

Out with the new, in with the old.

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman turned convention on its head Friday with a couple of rim-rattling transactions during the second day of free agency.

Gettleman brought back one of the franchise’s most iconic players in defensive end Julius Peppers, a pass-rushing demon whose final stop before Canton will be in the city where his Hall of Fame career started.

Fans were still processing the return of Peppers when news broke that the Panthers were trading defensive end Kony Ealy and a third-round draft pick to New England for the Patriots’ second-round selection.

Gettleman wasn’t done.

By day’s end, Gettleman had signed a safety (Mike Adams), a special teams/receiver (Russell Shepard), a second Charles Johnson (former Vikings wideout) and agreed to terms on a four-year contract with former Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who will fill the void at nickel.

The band was getting back together -- and Ealy was getting a fresh start.

Gettleman often says his time with the Giants taught him that you can’t have enough pass-rushers. It helps when those pass-rushers are consistent getting to the passer and take coaching well.

The Panthers dealt Kony Ealy to New England for a swap of picks that allowed Carolina to move up eight spots in next month’s draft.

Not long after Ealy’s virtuoso performance in Super Bowl 50, Panthers coach Ron Rivera revealed that Gettleman thought Ealy had a little bit of Josh Norman in him, which is to say – a stubborn streak.

It was not intended as a compliment.

And just as Norman was shown the door last spring with little in return (save for a third-round compensatory pick), the Panthers dealt Ealy to New England for a swap of picks that allowed Carolina to move up eight spots in next month’s draft.

At least Gettleman got something in exchange for Ealy, the second-round pick from Missouri in 2014. The Panthers would have had nothing to show for Ealy had they cut him in August, which was a real possibility given the addition of Peppers and the re-signings of Charles Johnson, Wes Horton and Mario Addison.

The pending Peppers’ reunion set social media abuzz Friday. Fans talked about dusting off their No. 90 jerseys, which Panthers equipment manager Jackie Miles has available, by the way.

People look up to Peppers because he kind of has that cool factor.

Former Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross

The Peppers’ one-year deal – following the five-year, $55.5 million contract bestowed on former Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil – are the kind of bold free-agent moves Gettleman didn’t make during his first four years in Charlotte.

It helped that Gettleman had $26 million in cap space to work with. But there’s a sense the Panthers had to make a splash after their fall to earth in 2016 following the franchise’s second Super Bowl berth the year before.

Peppers – like quarterback Cam Newton – is one of those rare athletes whose size and immense skill set make the rest of the league take notice.

“He’s like one of those cool players, like Cam is,” former Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. “People look up to Peppers because he kind of has that cool factor. Even if he plays 12 snaps and has four tackles this season, he’s going to elevate the defense just because he’s on their team.”

Dave Gettleman’s miss on Kony Ealy was overshadowed Friday by his get on Julius Peppers, whose return to his home state for his final chapter is – as Jordan Gross said – a feel-good story on the heels of 6-10.

Gross joined the Panthers in 2003, a year after Peppers arrived as the No. 2 pick. Gross retired after the 2013 season; Peppers is still going.

“I just can’t freakin’ believe he’s still playing. You can quote me on that,” Gross said. “It’s unbelievable. He’ll be 38 (next January). And to still be productive. I just think it’s so awesome for him and the guys in the locker room and for the fans. It’s such a cool story.”

Gross said Peppers will raise the play of those around him because of how he practices and plays. Peppers might have helped jump-start the stalled development of Ealy, whose flashes of stardom were sandwiched between long stretches of lackluster play.

But Ealy will always have Santa Clara.

Ealy did what no player has ever done in a Super Bowl, collecting three sacks and an interception in the same game. In threatening to ruin Peyton Manning’s swan song, Ealy made it seem like the light had come on for him.

And then it didn’t.

Ealy leaves with 14 sacks in three seasons, and probably will become Bill Belichick’s next reclamation project to flourish and win a Super Bowl ring.

But Gettleman’s miss on Ealy was overshadowed Friday by his get on Peppers, whose return to his home state for his final chapter is – as Gross said – a feel-good story on the heels of 6-10.

“He’s such an incredible part of this franchise’s history,” Gross said. “I’m happy that he’s going to come back and be cheered by our fans.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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