GREEN BAY—Julius Peppers is out to win a ring. He made that clear on Monday.
Of all the things that attracted Peppers to Green Bay in free agency – the challenge of playing outside linebacker as opposed to defensive end, the chance to refute the naysayers who believe at 34 years old he can't make an impact anymore, the opportunity to be paired with a pass-rush partner as talented as Clay Matthews – it's the pursuit of a title that trumps them all.
"It's not about really proving anybody wrong. It's about accomplishing some personal goals, one of which being winning a world championship," Peppers said after the first full-pads practice of training camp. "That's the main motivation. All that other stuff, it's there, but it's not as big as coming in here and helping this team hoist that trophy at the end of the season."
Peppers reached the Super Bowl in his second year with Carolina back in 2003, but the Panthers lost to the Patriots on a late field goal, and he hasn't returned to the big game since. Carolina reached the NFC title game again in 2005 but lost to Seattle. Then while with Chicago, Peppers got another crack at an NFC championship in 2010, losing to the Packers.
"That's what everybody tells you – once you get there, you have to win it, because you never know when you're going to get back," he said. "Hopefully, this is the season and, hopefully, we can get it done."
If Green Bay can, Peppers almost certainly will play a key role. The Packers have been searching indefinitely for a proven pass-rush complement to Matthews and decided to make their biggest free-agent splash in eight years to find one. Peppers, with 118½ career sacks, is Green Bay's most significant offseason acquisition since Charles Woodson in 2006, and he has immediately commanded a similar level of respect on and off the field.
Quiet by nature, Peppers exhibits leadership by being a true pro. During practice, he can be seen occasionally talking to younger teammates, even offensive players, to offer advice without making a big show of it.
"It's great to have that veteran presence to share that experience," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said.
"At the end of the day, in an NFL locker room, what you do on the field is what really speaks volumes, and that's what everybody wants. It's great to have the vocal leader and so forth, but the performance is the key. When you have someone that performs like Charles Woodson performs, that carries immediate respect and credibility, and that's the same with Julius."
On the field, Peppers is learning something that's a bit new, dropping off the line and into coverage on some snaps. McCarthy noted how that can be an effective change of pace – "He's here to go towards the quarterback, we all understand that," McCarthy said – because it makes a quick slant or hook route to his side a "different throw" for the quarterback.
While Peppers relishes the challenge of mastering additional duties, he sees it working to his advantage, too. Offenses won't always know when he's rushing the quarterback and when he's not.
"I think the scheme is set up to create some confusion and get the perfect mismatches on the edge," Peppers said. "So to be able to stand up and bluff and disguise a little bit is going to help the defense."
The defense had its moments the first day in pads, particularly in the blitz drill. Safety Sean Richardson notched the first interception in camp when he broke on Jordy Nelson's crossing route and Aaron Rodgers' pass met both players over the middle. Richardson quickly snagged the deflection. A few snaps later, cornerback Davon House stripped quarterback Matt Flynn of the ball when he came free on the rush.
Monday also featured the first one-on-one pass-rush/pass-protection reps, with notable matchups such as Bryan Bulaga against Peppers and new center JC Tretter against B.J. Raji. The half-line run drill also returned, with rookie outside linebacker Carl Bradford showing some power by effectively setting the edge a couple of times.
On the perimeter, rookie receiver Davante Adams made a couple of nice grabs once again – one a toe-tap move along the sideline on a Flynn throw – but as soon as it appears he's mounting a charge at Jarrett Boykin for the No. 3 receiver spot, Boykin responds. With Rodgers running the no-huddle drill late in practice, Boykin caught a bullet on a crossing pattern and then hauled in a go route down the sideline, evidence that duo's chemistry continues to grow.
"I would think it's there," McCarthy said. "Boykin had a tremendous year last year for what he was asked to do, the opportunities he was given and how he performed. I know Aaron feels very good about him."