NSJ Comeback Player of the Year: In the twilight of his career, Peppers comes home to Carolina

On his second tour in the Queen City, N.C. native is still a game-changer

Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers sacks Green Bay quarterback — and former teammate — Aaron Rodgers on Dec. 16. Peppers, 37, has had a career rebirth since returning to Carolina this season. (Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports)

Julius Peppers sure knows how to screw up a storybook ending.

The 37-year-old future Hall of Famer signed with the Carolina Panthers, the team where he started his NFL career back in 2002 — when current starting quarterback Cam Newton was in eighth grade.

It seemed destined to be a one-season victory lap for Peppers, who left the Panthers as a free agent following the 2009 season.

Reunited with the team that drafted him, in his home state and a 2½-hour drive from his college alma mater, playing on what he called “the best defense I’ve ever been a part of” and getting one last shot at a championship ring — all of that would have been enough for Peppers to merit consideration for Comeback Player of the Year.

The defensive end is showing no signs of preparing to ride off into the sunset, however. Instead, he’s shown that he can still be one of the top players on the Panthers’ defense.

Through 15 games, Peppers has 11 sacks, a half sack ahead of Mario Addison for the team lead. Addison was a high school running back in his sophomore year, who was still two position switches — he would spend time at quarterback — away from playing defense when Peppers first joined the team.

“That is pretty cool. It really is,” coach Ron Rivera said of his defensive ends. “To see them play the way they have.”

Peppers’ ability to find the fountain of youth is more than just a luxury for the Panthers defense, with 10-year veteran Charles Johnson suspended for four games for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs.

“Them boys man,” said defensive tackle Kawann Short, who joined the league when Peppers was already 111.5 sacks into his career. “You’ve got a legend right there in Pep — and Mario is a young legend.”

Peppers and Addison became the fifth pair of Panthers teammates to have double-digit sacks in the same year. It is the second time Peppers has been part of a 10-sack tandem in Carolina. He teamed with Mike Rucker in 2002. Rucker, a preseason television analyst for Panthers games, has been retired from the league for a decade.

The strong season has brought Peppers’ career total to 154.5 sacks through 15 games, fourth-most since the NFL started recording sacks in 1982 and just 5.5 shy of former Panther Kevin Greene for third place. He passed Chris Doleman earlier this year, earning a game ball for the accomplishment. Peppers also won NFL Defensive Player of the Week in the win at New England, becoming the first Carolina defensive lineman to win the award since Star Lotulelei — a seventh-grader when the Panthers drafted Peppers — won it last season. 

To put Peppers’ longevity in perspective, he was four years and 45.5 sacks into his career before he recorded one against a quarterback who is still active in the NFL — Drew Brees. He also has five sacks against quarterbacks already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (three against Kurt Warner, two against Brett Favre).

“That’s one of our goals every week is to affect the quarterback,” said Peppers. “Get him running a little bit, take his eyes off the receivers, get him looking at the rush. You feel like that impacts the game.”

“Unfortunately, he’s only been around for this season,” coach Ron Rivera said, “but he’s the type of guy that makes an impact every time he’s on the field.”

While Peppers’ production on the field has been a pleasant surprise, he’s also given the team a veteran presence in the locker room. Rivera credited a win over Tampa in late October to a fiery locker room speech Peppers gave on the importance of practicing well.

“I think that’s huge when a guy like him steps up and says something about the guys,” Rivera said. “He’s a guy that I think a lot of guys look up to. When he’s out there, I think that’s something the guys really feel about him.”

In a season when many expected Julius Peppers to collect rocking chairs in one last swing around the league, the Panthers’ franchise player for a generation has showed that his comeback is far more than just a geographical one.

Others considered: NC State basketball’s Lennard Freeman, Carolina Panthers Greg Olson and Cam Newton