Does a first-ballot HOF election await Julius Peppers?

Julius Peppers (90) photo courtesy of USA Today

Only four pass rushers sacked more quarterbacks than Julius Peppers and only three went to more Pro Bowls.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame loves edge pass rushers.

So the Hall of Fame is going to love Julius Peppers when he becomes eligible for enshrinement in 2024.

In the 12 Hall-of-Fame classes since 2008, there have been 12 edge rushers elected. There has been at least one edge rusher elected in nine of those 12 classes. There hasn’t been an edge rusher enshrined in either of the last two classes simply because there hasn’t been one on the ballot.

The last edge rusher to appear as a finalist, Jason Taylor, became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the Class of 2017 despite the absence of a championship ring. But the voters loved his 139 ½ sacks, which places him 10th on the all-time list.

Peppers announced his retirement after his 17th NFL season in 2018. He leaves the game with a loftier standing than Taylor, fifth on the all-time sack list with 159 ½.

Only two edge rushers in the NFL’s 100-sack club played longer – Jim Marshall at 20 seasons and Bruce Smith at 19. Only two edge rushers played more games than the 266 of Peppers – again, Marshall at 282 and Smith at 279. Only three edge rushers went to more Pro Bowls than the nine of Peppers – Hall-of-Famers Reggie White with 13, Smith with 11 and Lawrence Taylor 10.

Only one edge rusher forced more fumbles than the 52 of Peppers – Robert Mathis with 54. The 11 interceptions by Peppers are tops among all edge rushers, and he’s the first defender in NFL history with 100-plus sacks and 10-plus interceptions. Like Taylor, Peppers was a second-team all-decade selection for the 2000s and a three-time first-team all-pro.

But what separates Peppers from so many of his pass-rushing peers are his versatility and sheer athleticism.

Let’s start with the athleticism. At 6-6, 283 pounds, Peppers brought a basketball-body to the football field. In fact, he played basketball for two years at one of the college sport’s blue bloods, North Carolina. He collected 21 points and 10 rebounds in an NCAA tournament game against Penn State.

So Peppers could jump and he could run. He flashed his jumping ability on NFL special teams with 13 career blocked kicks. He displayed his speed any time he got the football in his hands. In addition to his 11 career interceptions, Peppers recovered 21 fumbles. He returned six of his takeaways for touchdowns, gaining 424 yards along the way.

Peppers set an NFL record for defensive linemen with a 97-yard interception return against Denver in 2004. He also scored touchdowns on interception returns of 54 yards against Philadelphia, 49 yards against Minnesota, 46 yards against Tampa Bay and 13 yards against Arizona, He returned fumbles 60 yards for a TD against Atlanta and 42 yards for another score against Pittsburgh.

That athleticism allowed him to showcase his versatility. Peppers could play anywhere his defense wanted him or needed him. He collected 14 ½ sacks one season as a right defensive end and 13 in another as a left defensive end for Carolina. He collected 10 ½ sacks as a right outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme of the Green Bay Packers in 2015. He hit double-digits in sacks five times at left end, four times at right end and once at linebacker in his career. The last such season came in 2017 when he collected 11 sacks at 37 years of age.

“There are very few players that you come across that make you think of the word `special’ when you mention their name – but that’s Julius,” said Panthers general manager Marty Hurney upon Peppers’ retirement.

Peppers was special enough to become the second overall selection of the 2002 NFL draft. He was special enough to become the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year with 12 sacks in his injury-shortened 12-game rookie season.

Peppers went to a Super Bowl with the Panthers and helped all three of his teams (Carolina, Chicago and Green Bay) reach NFC title games. He went to five NFC championship games in all – not bad for a guy who never played with Tom Brady.

Don’t expect Peppers to have to wait long for his bust in Canton. The Hall of Fame loves pass rushers and will embrace Peppers when he’s eligible.

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