A Heisman candidate and freak athlete, Jabrill Peppers is the ultimate Swiss Army knife in the 2017 NFL Draft. How will he fit in the NFL?
Over the course of the weeks leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. We look now into the defensive back position. Today we look at Jabrill Peppers from the University of Michigan.
Though he had the ability to start for Michigan as a freshman, injury forced the Wolverines to redshirt Peppers for most of the 2014 season. Jabrill was quick to explode onto the scene in 2015. Adding value to the team on offense, defense, and special teams, Peppers was a true Swiss Army knife for Michigan. That season, he recorded 45 tackles, 5.5 for a loss, and 10 passes defensed through 12 games. He also was featured in both the passing and running game, scoring two touchdowns on the offensive end. Further, he returned 17 punts and eight kicks for his team throughout the season. His season ended with places on the Big-Ten defensive first team (mostly as a safety) and special teams second team.
In 2016, Peppers showed off even more versatility by playing a much larger share of linebacker snaps and pass-rushing roles. The season ended after Peppers had 66 tackles, 13 for loss, three sacks, and an interception to boot.
A fantastic season culminated in the athlete winning three awards: Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year, Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year, and Rodgers-White Return Specialist of the Year. He was also named an unanimous All-American and finished fifth in Heisman voting. All of this recognition initially gave Peppers the hype of a top-10 draft pick for the draft. The question is, does he deserve it?
Athleticism is the first and biggest thing that you notice when you watch Jabrill Peppers. The former Wolverine seemingly flies across or down the field when looking to make a play on the ball. A 4.46 40-yard dash was no surprise after observing how quickly Peppers covers the field. Watch from 4:25 in this game against Hawaii:
Peppers was playing a deep zone and comes down the field to make the tackle on the receiver. The speed you see from him nullifies any chance for the receiver to make a run up the field after the catch. You can see this type of speed time and time again with Peppers and is why many like him as a safety: his range is insane.
Jabrill also shows good field vision and agility with the ball in his hands. Watch this punt return against Colorado at 7:55.
Certainly Peppers’ speed gives him a boost in scoring on this return, but his vision and agility is really what allows him to get six points on this play. A fantastic returner throughout college, Peppers can bring immediate value to any NFL team. This combination of speed, vision, and agility is truly unique.
Off his elite athleticism, Peppers showed great versatility throughout his college career. As mentioned above, Jabrill played in every unit, able to produce in a multitude of different ways. However, the thing to notice with this is not only his natural physical attributes that allow this to happen, but also his willingness to put everything out there for his team. His will also shows in his tape, constantly pushing himself and often times literally throwing himself at the other team to make a play.
He’s really done it all through college: rushing, receiving, returning both punts and kicks, playing zone coverage, man coverage, deep coverage, shallow coverage, jamming receivers off the line, pass rushing, spying the quarterback, and the list goes on and on and on. This is Peppers’ most intriguing trait.
Tackling is an issue for Peppers. Though his angles are usually acceptable and closing speed is nearly unmatched, the Michigan player is too often simply throwing his body at the other player to make a tackle. Watch 3:00 in the Hawaii tape. Here, you can see Peppers just launch head first into another player to make a tackle. Too often he is trying to land a big thump on a player instead of wrapping up with his arms. Come to the NFL with bigger and stronger players, Peppers will need to learn to habitually wrap up.
Peppers is also too small and not strong enough to rush properly. Take a look at 0:20 and 5:05 in the Iowa tape.
In the former play, Peppers is absolutely made useless by a big tight end. In the latter, he shows the inability to get past offensive linemen head on. If he’s unable to shoot a gap or simply run by tackle, Peppers, in his current state, brings no pass-rush value to an NFL team. This also adds concern to his ability to cover NFL-caliber tight ends. Without the strength or size to keep up with bigger TE’s, Peppers could be easily overrun by the better tight ends in the league.
He also lacks top-tier coverage skills. Though his raw speed was enough to keep his coverage respectable in college, there were plenty of flaws to this aspect of his game. The 1:00 mark of his game against Ohio State is a good example.
Though the play ends before the receiver can completely break away, you can see how slow Peppers is to turn, giving the receiver an immediate one and a half steps on him. If this play had progressed further, Jabrill would have lost his assignment.
In the Colorado tape, you can see Jabrill slow to read the play and bring help starting at the 0:35 mark. On this play, Peppers is covering the deep middle of the field, and it’s his responsibility to help his corners on any routes that go into that zone. Unfortunately, he takes too long to recognize the play. Though he has the speed to make a difference, he simply ends up having no impact.
If you go back to the Hawaii film, the play at 4:23 is interesting. Peppers is playing the deep safety, and he makes the tackle with blazing closing speed. However, you can also imagine that a player with his speed and better play recognition/instincts may have been able to act on the ball quicker and not allowed a reception at all. This points to a lack of natural coverage instinct in Peppers, which can be seen quantitatively through his one lone interception throughout college. Players like Ed Reed or Charles Woodson created dozens of turnovers thanks to both their atheltic ability and their instincts.
Peppers is an elite athlete who can be used in a myriad of different ways. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be elite at any one position, especially on an NFL level. Though his physical prowess allowed Peppers to dominate in the college scene, the NFL is bigger, faster, and stronger everywhere. I would struggle picking Jabrill up in the first round.
His positional ambiguity and lack of a polished skill set at any one position (barring returner perhaps) will give many teams questions on how to use him. However, with such a high upside and value as a special teams player right away, a team could be comfortable drafting a high potential project player.
One last consideration in the verdict section is a complete position change — to running back. Given his lack of coverage instinct and slow, stiff hips, defensive back may not be the position at which Peppers will excel the most in the NFL. Without the size or pass-rushing ability to be a linebacker, Jabrill is left with being a returner and, as I propose, a running back.
Possessing good vision down the field, natural body movement, great agility, and strong burst, Peppers seems to fit the bill for an excellent running back. Finding a 215-lbs. back who runs 4.46 is not easy. Further, Peppers has shown to have good hands, the ability to run Wildcat formations, and natural running ability. If someone can teach him how to block in the backfield, Jabrill could become a solid three-down back in the NFL.
The New England Patriots are the first to come to mind in terms of best fit for Jabrill Peppers. Bill Belichick loves versatility in his players, and he is able to best take advantage of a unique player’s, well, uniqueness. Further, without an immediate need for a safety or running back, Peppers could spend some time getting the coaching he needs to really excel at one position in the Patriots’ scheme. Also, New England had some of the worst kick and punt return averages in the league last season. Peppers would be an immediate boost in that area.
Another potential fit for Peppers could be with the Carolina Panthers. Not only does the team need depth/talent in the secondary and backfield, but it also was one of the worst kick returners in the NFL last year. I can just imagine a Cam Newton and Jabrill Peppers backfield: the opposing defense would have no idea who to cover or what to do. The Panthers also already have experience with grooming a player similar to Peppers in Shaq Thompson, who turned out pretty well. Given this experience, Carolina could also be a nice place for Peppers to end up in.
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