Michigan's Jabrill Peppers is a value pack of football talent. He can do more at more positions than any other prospect in the 2017 NFL draft class, and that's both a good and bad thing when it comes to his evaluation.
In 2016, having switched from safety to linebacker to help his defense at an undermanned position, Peppers had 46 solo tackles, including 13 for loss, and three sacks. He also logged his only collegiate interception. On offense, he rushed for 167 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries, and he added 570 total yards and another touchdown as a return man.
Still, when it comes to pegging his best NFL fit, coaches and executives seem perplexed—Peppers is the piano in the middle of the living room, and the league isn't quite sure where to put him.
"He's so versatile, you have to make your decisions," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said of Peppers at the scouting combine in February. "Some teams will look at him differently than others. He's just that gifted as an athlete. We are open for those kinds of thoughts. We don’t ever want to turn our back on an opportunity to see something unique and special in a player. But it does challenge you in that way."
The challenge is worth it because of how the professional ranks prize this kind of versatility these days.
Over the last few years, you've likely heard coaches say it more and more: The NFL is now less about positions and more about matchups. In the modern game, it's better to have a player who can move around the field, shapeshifting into different roles, than it is to have a guy who does one thing.
This is especially true on the defensive side of the ball, where the more traditional roles of defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback and safety have changed radically. Teams ask linemen to be multigap monsters. Linebackers, playing nickel and dime defenses as base concepts, must be able to run and chase to the sideline and up the seam. Cornerbacks are prized for their abilities to slip from outside to the slot and vice versa.
But no position has been affected more by the NFL's need for versatility than safety. Remember a decade ago, when Cover 2 was all the rage and the biggest delineation was between interchangeable safeties and true strong and free designations? That's an old-school concept now.
Big-nickel secondaries with three safeties are all the rage—the New England Patriots defined their defense with it last season. Hybrid safeties who can cover deep, patrol the curl-flat area, hit the seam to deal with tight ends and plow through to stop the run? That's the ideal these days.
Of course, such players are rare—Tyrann Mathieu is the obvious (and perhaps only) example of such true versatility, but the paradigm has been set.
That brings us to Peppers. He's been listed at safety, linebacker, running back and return man, and the tape shows him playing both slot and outside cornerback at times, as well as option quarterback.
He was the easy winner of the 2016 Paul Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile player. According to NFLDraftScout.com, he played a staggering 15 positions on offense, defense and special teams.
This led to some confusion at the scouting combine in Indianapolis—Peppers was required to do drills with the linebackers because that was his listed position in 2016. From there, he took charge of the situation.
"I asked if there was somehow, someway I could do the DB work because that's what I was doing all offseason and leading up to the combine," Peppers said in Indianapolis. "And I told my agents that, and they made it happen, and they said the only way I can do it is if I do both. I was like, that's easy. That's no problem at all."
Predictably, he performed well in all the drills, running a 4.46-second 40-yard dash and looking smooth and fluid in the coverage competitions. Peppers was asked at the combine which NFL players he patterns his game after—rather than the hybrid players he's compared to—and his answer surprised me: More than anyone, Peppers wants to be Earl Thomas, the Seahawks' center field safety whose ability to close over huge swaths of turf is quite rare.
When you watch the tape, it isn't so odd—he does have that kind of speed and range. Since the Wolverines moved Peppers from safety to hybrid linebacker in 2016, you might imagine it's an indictment of his coverage abilities. In truth, it was more about the depth Michigan had in the secondary and the need for speed and range at linebacker.
In 2015, when coverage was a primary responsibility, Peppers allowed 32 receptions on 57 targets for 298 yards and one touchdown and had an opponent passer rating of 76.5. In 2016, with the position switch requiring him to take on more short-coverage, high-percentage passes, he allowed 20 catches on 27 targets for 206 yards and no touchdowns, and he had one pick and an opponent passer rating of 80.2.
Peppers has some impressive tape at running back and returner, but I wanted to dive into the defensive snaps and try to deduce where his best fit is in the NFL.
To provide come clarity, let’s go to the tape. Peppers' most interesting game in deep coverage came against the Penn State Nittany Lions in 2015—he was tested three times on deep routes. Christian Hackenberg completed just 13 passes in 31 attempts for 137 yards and a touchdown against Michigan's excellent defense, but the quarterback had no qualms about going after Peppers on downfield routes in the 28-16 defeat.
Early in the second quarter, Peppers was lined up on the numbers to the left side against receiver DaeSean Hamilton, and this was a straight-up one-on-one assignment with no safety help. Peppers had to get inside position on Hamilton and mirror him downfield, keeping his balance through the hand-fighting.
You can see Peppers take a brief stutter step in coverage, but he establishes position and makes the window tight for Hackenberg, who can't make the throw to Hamilton with the correct timing.
Nearer to halftime, there was this play, with a less optimal result for Peppers. Here, he's following receiver Saeed Blacknall—again, as an outside cornerback in a one-on-one situation. He gets inside position on the boundary route. But he overstrides into the end zone, and Blacknall has an easy touchdown catch.
It's the only touchdown Peppers gave up in coverage in his collegiate career, but if a team is looking at him as a deep-cover guy, it merits some concern. Deep safeties and outside cornerbacks have to trail receivers with precise understandings of their landmarks and where their assignments are moving.
With 5:29 left in the third quarter, the referees busted Peppers for pass interference on this deep pass from Hackenberg to Hamilton. When you look at the replay, it appears that Peppers was half a stride behind Hamilton, which wouldn’t give him the optimal angle for coverage.
Does that mean he was acting when he appeared to lose his footing and was trying to disrupt the catch? That's hard to say, but Hamilton probably had the room to break inside for the catch if he wanted it.
One good thing about Peppers' switch to linebacker in 2016 was you got to see him aggressively break on and defend shorter passes. Having the ability to do so is a big deal in today's possession-based passing offenses. In addition, he was able to drop into coverage in a Tampa 2 paradigm. Short coverage doesn't seem to be a problem for him.
Even if he's off the ball, as he was in this play against Ohio State last season, he has the closing speed to limit the damage. He's a versatile pass defender with a ton of potential.
So, with all that said, where is Peppers' best fit in the NFL?
As a deep defender, Peppers is intriguing. Over time, his team could train him to be an elite free safety. It's important to remember that 2015 was his first collegiate season as a full-time starter, so there are going to be a few growing pains.
But he has all the physical attributes, and the fact he was competitive as cornerback depth against some really good receivers is an extra feather in his cap. One can only wonder how he'd look now with another season of work as a true deep-pass defender.
As an intermediate pass defender, Peppers could start right away in nickel and dime packages. He's aggressive to a fault at times. But he has a nice sense of anticipation on breaking routes, and he's aggressive to the ball. Put him in the slot, work with him on defending two-way goes and option routes, and he'll turn into a special player.
As a run-stopper, Peppers has some work cut out for him. When I talked to then-USC and now Washington Redskins linebacker/safety Su'a Cravens last year about run-stopping as a 226-pound player (At 5'11", Peppers weighed 213 at the combine), he mentioned that at that weight, it's less about power and more about reading your keys and making sure you're in the right gap.
Of course, that's true for any second-level defender, but a player has no power to give against linemen who outweigh him by 100 pounds, assignment-correctness is paramount. And Peppers could use some work in that department. There are times when he's just flying around too much, he gets out of position, and he negates himself before the down is over.
The last play of Michigan's thrilling double-overtime game against Ohio State last season is a prime example. Here, he's moving across the field to match coverage, and he gets blasted out of the way as Curtis Samuel traipses into the end zone to seal the victory for the Buckeyes.
To me, the best comparison for Peppers is Johnathan Cyprien, a former Florida International standout selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2013 draft at the top of the second round (No. 33 overall).
Cyprien impressed me with his full-field speed, and in my scouting report on him, I mentioned similar concerns about his need to clean up certain aspects of his game to optimize his talents. Over time, Cyprien became more of a front-half safety with some nebulous linebacker responsibilities and plus attributes in short and intermediate coverage.
Peppers has more deep-field ability, and someone harnesses it and develops it over time, he could become that rare and highly prized NFL asset—the true deep-coverage safety who locks up the post and go routes and allows his cornerbacks to be more aggressive because they have faith in his ability to provide help over the top. Even if he's off the ball, as he was in this play against Ohio State last season, he has the closing speed to limit the damage.
Peppers' optimal NFL future is as a slot defender and strong safety in the short term with a more expansive coverage role over time. A team can peg him as a hybrid linebacker if it wants based on his 2016 tape, but it'd be selling him short. He's less a thumper and more a Honey Badger.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.