Julius Peppers should be 'no-brainer' as first-ballot Hall of Famer

Bruschi: Peppers has first ballot HOF 'written all over him' (1:03)

Darren Woodson and Tedy Bruschi break down Julius Peppers' athleticism and the impact he had on the NFL. (1:03)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Next stop for Julius Peppers, the Pro Football of Fame. First ballot. Unanimous.

It will be an injustice if the Carolina Panthers defensive end, who announced on Friday his retirement after 17 NFL seasons, doesn't get into the football shrine in Canton, Ohio, on the first vote when he becomes eligible in five years.

The 39-year-old described as a "freak of nature" from the day he entered the NFL as the No. 2 overall pick in 2002 until his final snap on Dec. 30 deserves it as much as anyone who has played the game for what he did on and off the field.

The player, who has exuded class throughout his 17-year career, finished fourth on the NFL's all-time sack list with 159.5 and deserves top HOF consideration.

"If he's not a first-ballot Hall of Famer it's because he was never out in the media and never made himself a media-savvy person," said former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, who went to Super Bowl XXXVIII after the 2003 season with Peppers.

"[Tackle] Willie Roaf was the best football player I ever played with. The next two were Steve Smith and Julius Peppers. Steve Smith and Julius are without question first ballot. Willie Roaf was second, and you know why? Because he was quiet. He was an introvert. And he played on two small-market teams, the Saints and the Chiefs."

Peppers was the biggest thing to hit the small market of Charlotte until quarterback Cam Newton became the top pick of the 2011 draft.

And not just because Peppers was freakish in size at 6-foot-7 and 290 pounds.

He was big because he grew up a multi-sport star in Bailey, North Carolina, where he played running back and defensive line in football and power forward in basketball.

He was big because he went to the University of North Carolina, where he not only starred in football but helped the Tar Heels reach the Final Four in basketball. He still is the only person to play in both a Final Four and Super Bowl.

Peppers was big because his football career continued in his home state with the Panthers, who were criticized by some for drafting him over a quarterback.

He didn't play a down for a team outside his home state until 2010, when he went to the Chicago Bears when a new deal couldn't be reached with the Panthers.

"What was on his shoulders when he came to Carolina, what he did during his rookie year to set the tone for the rest of his career, is tremendous," former Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker said.

Peppers had 12 sacks as a rookie. Only twice during his career, 2007 (2.5) and this past season (5), did he fail to get at least seven sacks in a season.

He was beyond consistent.

His 159.5 sacks trail only Bruce Smith (200), Reggie White (198) and Kevin Greene (160). He sacked 77 different quarterbacks, tied with Hall of Famer White for the most since sacks became official in 1982.

But Peppers was more than just a sack specialist. He had 81 pass deflections and 11 interceptions, making him the only player in NFL history to have at least 150 sacks and 10 picks.

Peppers also blocked a combined 13 field goals/PATs, the second most since the statistic began being tracked in 2000.

His impact began in his first game when he deflected a pass against the Ravens that was picked off by linebacker Dan Morgan. In his second game, Peppers had three sacks and forced a fumble.

"I vividly remember in 2002, I'm a rookie with the Saints, and a majority of what we talked about was game-planning for Julius Peppers," Delhomme said. "You had to know where he was at all times. He was a freak of nature. And getting to Carolina and seeing him in person ... just going against him in practice, trying to throw a screen pass over him. He could stop, reach up with his left hand and get a hand on the ball. Just the freaky plays he made, he made it look natural."

Peppers wasn't a rah-rah type player who made a sideshow of celebrating big plays. He talked with a soft voice and did his best to avoid interviews simply because he preferred letting his play speak for itself.

Only in his return to Carolina in 2017 did he somewhat break out of his shell, becoming more outspoken as a locker room leader and becoming more visible in the community. His work this past season to help those impacted by Hurricane Florence in North and South Carolina earned him a nomination for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award that will be presented on Saturday in Atlanta.

But when it was time to say goodbye to football, Peppers, in typical fashion, did it in a video with no plan to make a formal statement or hold a news conference.

"I wouldn't change a thing about this journey," Peppers said in his video. "It was the best teacher I've ever had and was everything I could've hoped for. The tough times never lasted and the tough people inspired me to be better and give more. I hope I did the same."

Peppers told ESPN.com in November that he hopes to be remembered more for what he did off the field than on it.

"You ask somebody right now who are the top two or three sack persons and they couldn't tell you," he said with his infectious smile. "You're a professional and you want to perform and you want to achieve those goals. But being out with the people and giving back to the community, it's going to be more impactful and long lasting."

Panthers team owner David Tepper recently said he wanted to expand Carolina's Hall of Honor, which has only one player -- linebacker Sam Mills. Peppers would make for a solid No. 2 there, because he without a doubt will become the first player who was drafted by Carolina to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"He's one of the best to ever wear a Carolina uniform," Tepper said. "He carries himself with dignity, integrity and class, and will always be a Panther."

John Fox, Carolina's head coach when Peppers was drafted, laughs at the criticism he and general manager Marty Hurney took for selecting Peppers over a quarterback.

"There were some that said we didn't get the best D-lineman on their team," said Fox, referring to North Carolina defensive tackle Ryan Sims, who went No. 6 to Kansas City. "Some people said [Julius'] motor didn't run all the time. What I saw was a guy that finished one sack behind the school sack record that happened to be held by Lawrence Taylor.

"He was a big reason I got to be a head coach as long as I got to. Decisions like that keep you around. There's no doubt in my mind he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer."

Former Carolina offensive lineman Kevin Donnalley agreed, saying a first-ballot nod should be a "no-brainer."

"He made it look so easy at times, the way he glided across the field," he said. "That Ray Lewis mentality was there on the defensive side. He just didn't have to showboat it and bring a lot of attention to himself."

That held true to the very end.

"Only time can reveal what's next, but my time here is up," Peppers said in his goodbye video. "No regrets, no looking back and nothing left to give. It's not goodbye, it's kinda like, 'I'll see you later' But until then I'm grateful, I'm satisfied and at peace with all that comes next."

And what comes next should be a bust in Canton.