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Bears Mon Jan 06 2014
Julius Peppers came to Chicago via a massive contract in 2010. His role was simple for someone with his athleticism and skill: wreak havoc on the opposing quarterback. It came easy to the (at the time) 30-year-old, who, despite being questioned early in his career as a guy who didn't play hard on every down, delivered with a season that garnered him a spot as a First-Team All-Pro.
He was exactly what that Bears team needed to make a run at the Super Bowl, and they were a half away from getting there. Lovie Smith's defenses were built around the front four getting to the quarterback without blitz help, and Peppers produced at the level he was paid.
Since then, the sack numbers have been there, but the consistency has tapered off. He recorded 11 and 11.5 QB takedowns in 2011 and 2012 respectively, but one stat doesn't tell the whole story. According to Pro Football Focus, after grading third in the NFL at 4-3 defensive end in 2010 (39.2), he dropped to 21.7 in 2011 and a meager 9.9 (18th ranked at 4-3 DE) in 2012 that required a massive run in the final four weeks to put him into the positives.
This past season ranked among his worst statistically with just 7.5 sacks, and he graded out at his lowest (-4.4) since PFF began rating players in 2008. The late season surge that popped up most seasons never happened, and despite four or five really good games, the All-Pro version of Peppers was dearly missed by an injury-riddled unit lacking talent around him.
With a cap number just north of $18 million in 2014, there's little chance he remains a Bear at that price because the downward trend in play doesn't mesh with the money. Age comes a-calling to every NFL player at one point or another, and it might have caught up to one of the best athletes of this generation. If the Bears do indeed decide to part ways, it'll save the team roughly $9.8 million in 2014, or about $14 million if they tally him as a June 1 cut.
Cutting Peppers to save the $9.8 million is definitely an option, but the June 1st designation isn't incredibly helpful to the Bears' current situation. The extra $4.8 million cap room they would receive wouldn't become available until that June 1 date (even if they cut him in March and give him the June 1 designation), and by that time, most impact free agents and draft picks have signed on the dotted line.
There is, however, a third option the Bears have outside of keeping him at $18 million, or cutting him to save more than half that. The team could ask Peppers to renegotiate his base salary in 2014 from an unsustainable $13.9 million down to $4 million (with extra bonus money tied to incremental sack numbers). The benefit to the Bears would be a figure that matches what he would cost against the cap if the team flat-out released him ($8,366,668). It's also one less spot the team has to worry about filling along a defensive line in desperate need of both high-end talent and depth.
For Peppers, it would mean he gets to stay in Chicago and make more money than any other veteran defensive end -- coming off season's like he just had -- who hit free agency in recent years. Names like Osi Umenyiora, Dwight Freeney, Shaun Phillips, and John Abraham all played for less guaranteed money in 2013 than Peppers would make in 2014 under this scenario.
It wouldn't be the first time the Bears have used this strategy either. J'Marcus Webb and Earl Bennett each had their base salaries reduced in 2013. Incentive-laden restructures allowed them opportunities to earn back the money they lost, (Webb was later cut, while Bennett fell eight caches short of earning the second half of the $1 million slice he agreed to), and both accepted the restructures because they would make more money staying with the team as opposed to becoming a free agent and likely signing for far less.
Peppers isn't the every-down impact player he once was, but he's still an NFL-caliber defensive end who can fit in the 4-3 and possibly in a 3-4 -- a change (or a hybrid) the team hasn't ruled out. With the Bears poised to make a ton of changes on the defense in response to their terrible play in 2013, it would be nice to keep a potentially dangerous player in a position group that could see five or more new faces. It can make sense financially too.