Among the players who will probably be selected among the first 32 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on April 27, there might not be a more interesting case than Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. The 5-foot-11, 213-pounder was the 2016 Big Ten Linebacker of the Year. Most NFL scouts, however, view him as a safety at the professional level. Some have gone so far as to suggest Peppers’ best fit might even be on offense.
There’s at least agreement that Peppers probably won’t have to wait long to hear his name called in Philadelphia. Rob Rang of CBS Sports thinks it will be the host Philadelphia Eagles who pull the trigger on Peppers at No. 14.
“Given the dynamic pass-catchers the Eagles face annually in the NFC East,” Rang said, “addressing a leaky secondary should be among Philadelphia’s top priorities. Peppers is a polarizing prospect in the scouting community based in large part because he recorded just one interception over his career at Michigan. However, he is an instinctive, versatile player with the open-field tackling skills and competitive nature to quickly become a fan favorite.”
Colleague Will Brinson has Peppers falling a bit farther – to the Detroit Lions at No. 20. “Getting a local guy would go over really well,” he wrote, “and this is probably lower than most people expect to see Peppers go. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin can work some magic with the versatile player.”
Peppers was listed as a linebacker at Michigan, where he tallied 71 tackles in 2016. And he worked with the linebackers at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, posting a position-leading 4.46-second 40-yard dash. But as J.J. Conrad of NJ.com reported, it’s the back end where Peppers believes he’ll make a name in the NFL.
“What do I look like?” Peppers said. “I’m a safety. I’m a safety. Yes, I’m a safety. I’m pretty much effective wherever I’m going to be put. I don’t have a lot of tape at safety, but I’m a pretty damn good safety. I think a lot of teams notice that. They have the tape. They asked me for tapes of me playing corner, me playing some safety, but ultimately I hope a lot of questions are answered after this weekend.”
In an effort to answer some of those questions, Peppers also took part in position drills with the defensive backs in Indianapolis.
“I asked if there was somehow, someway I could do the defensive back work because that’s what I was doing all offseason and leading up to the combine,” Peppers said at the combine via Bleacher Report’s Doug Farrar. “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.”
Rang wrote that much like Troy Polamalu did in Pittsburgh, Peppers has the potential to become a roaming difference maker in the NFL.
“Few players can match Polamalu’s instincts, improvisation and flair for the dramatic but Peppers is close,” he said. “He will occasionally frustrate with his over-aggressive style of play but like Polamalu, Peppers will make more big plays than he will ever surrender.”
Lance Zierlein of NFL.com also made the comparison to Polamalu, but in reverse (sort of). In fact, Zierlein thinks that much will depend on Peppers landing on a team that can properly take advantage of his unique skill set.
“I think there will be some NFL teams, their job is to be sure about it, and they need to have a plan for Jabrill Peppers,” Zierlein said. “Really, he’s not going to be a linebacker, he’s going to be a nickel linebacker inside, he’s going to slot sometimes, he may play some two-high. I just want to see him fine-tuned into a role. [Michigan] asked him to do so much, there were times where he was just moving around at the snap where he wasn’t even – he was almost too much Polamalu. I think he’s got to be in a more fine-tuned role. And I think if you want to put him in a role, I think figuring out what he does for your defense is going to be very important.”
There’s also the matter of big plays – or the lack of them in the secondary. Peppers did plenty of damage in the return game at Michigan. He even got some work at tailback. But while his athleticism isn’t in question that athleticism translated to just a single interception, although Peppers did add 3½ sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
And that’s the conundrum with Peppers. The $64 question, both from an NFL and Individual Defensive Player (IDP) perspective. “Hybrid” defenders are all the rage in today’s NFL. Any number of teams are probably drooling over the versatility that Peppers (in theory) brings to the table.
In the right home, if Peppers acclimates quickly, earns early playing time and spends lots of time near the line of scrimmage, he could be a fantasy owner’s dream come true – a quasi-linebacker with defensive back eligibility. In a scenario such as that it isn’t hard at all to imagine Peppers emerging as a weekly IDP starter quickly – perhaps even a high-end weekly starter.
The problem is that it also isn’t that hard to imagine Peppers taking a while to learn the vagaries of a new position at the game’s highest level. Or his landing in a place where rather than taking advantage of his gifts a coaching staff stubbornly pounds a square peg into a round hole. In those less-than-appealing potential scenarios, it may be a while before Peppers is seasoning many starting IDP lineups.
Sorry, that was uncalled for. Some might even say it was salty.
OK, now I’m really done.
In other words, much like with Peppers’ future in the NFL, while his talent is certain, his future is not.