First, an immediate and important disclaimer: Jabrill Peppers has not publicly said he is going to the NFL after this season. There have been some rumors to that effect, but at this point they are nothing more than that.
Still, Jabrill has to leave the loving confines of Ann Arbor sooner or later, and it’s more common than not that a player of his skill goes straight into the league. So, I sat down with some exceptional writers and analysts covering the NFL: Dan Kadar, NFL Draft editor for SB Nation, Rich Hill, managing editor for SB Nation’s Pats Pulpit, a New England Patriots blog, and Ben Natan, associate editor for Bleeding Green Nation, to give us their assessments of Jabrill’s talent, and fit, at the next level.
For whenever Jabrill decides to enter the league.
Nick: So, first off - what is Jabrill at the next level? Is he a cornerback, safety, nickelback, punt returner, linebacker, running back, wide receiver, Wildcat quarterback, special teams player, H-Back, head coach …
Dan: That’s the question every NFL scout and front office executive is asking themselves. For NFL teams, it’s an issue of not only where his skill set fits best, but how well he can play the position straight away as a pro. For Michigan -- and college football fans -- it’s great seeing Jabrill Peppers doing everything, and doing it well. For NFL teams whose No. 1 priority is getting production in the NFL, there might be a concern that he can do all these things but is a master of none.
As a pro, I see him being a safety. That suits his skill set, athleticism and body type the best. That also allows him to be as versatile as possible where he can move around and play the run or blitz or drop in coverage.
Rich: I agree, I see him as a new-age safety in the NFL, not that it’s a bad thing. He plays deep safety, box safety, cover two safety, nickel corner, weakside linebacker, middle linebacker, and strongside linebacker. Peppers is the ideal player in today’s versatile NFL since his presence allows defenses to ignore match-ups and remain with the same personnel on the field.
We’ve seen players like Deone Bucannon move up to linebacker for the Cardinals, or Patrick Chung split his time equally among strong safety, linebacker, and slot corner for the Patriots. Peppers is entering the NFL right at the time where his versatility maximizes his value.
Ben: Yeah, I think Peppers will be an interesting study in the direction of the league. He's a smaller defender as a LB but similar size to Deone Bucannon, who was a first round pick and immediately used in that LB/hybrid role. Peppers is a rare athlete who has incredible range at 205 pounds. But on top of being athletic, he's very physical and intelligent for his size. In the NFL, you're looking at him as a SS or a WILL where he can diagnose and chase but primarily used in coverage. Don't want him working in traffic on a consistent basis.
Nick: So, exactly how many roles could he play in the NFL, given how complex the preparation is at that level?
Dan: That depends on who drafts him, and how creative they’re willing to be. Going forward, I see a team using him primarily on defense, using him on special teams if needed and using him on gadget plays if they’re a creative staff.
Rich: He’s definitely going to be a defender in the NFL, although whatever team that drafts him will likely be picking at the top of the draft and will be without other talent. He could see snaps on offense like how the Cardinals used CB Patrick Peterson early in his career.
Hopefully Peppers lands with a team that will construct a role for him in the defense, instead of pigeon-holing him as a pure safety or a pure linebacker, but strong safeties are expected to know a variety of roles so he won’t be breaking ground.
Ben: His athletic ability makes him versatile in various formations. He can cover the slot as a linebacker, which will give NFL teams flexibility at the next level to stay in base defenses. His initial burst and anticipation is so great, he can also be a plus blitzer from all over the field.
He has made massive plays on special teams which speaks to his rare movement skills. Though due to the vulnerability of a player on special teams, I think it would be massively risky to use him there in the NFL.
Nick: Okay. One possible critique about Jabrill is his technique and coverage ability as a corner. What do you see, and are there examples of someone who was a little raw coming out of college who did well?
Dan: I think those criticisms are legitimate, and rooted mostly in not spending a full amount of time at the position. That’s why technique is an issue for him. But his athleticism is at such a high level that it doesn’t matter in college. For instance, Peppers can get beat on a bubble route because he takes a misstep. But his athleticism and burst allows him to make up for it and limit positive yards by the offense.
This can be a pretty regular issue for a defensive back, where it’s a sink or swim situation. When Carolina drafted Josh Norman, for instance. Everyone knew the talent was there, but it took him a year or so before he honed his technique and become the coverage player we know now.
Rich: I don’t think any cornerback comes out of college with perfect technique, especially not at safety. It probably isn’t a stretch to say that college teams will put their best coverage players at cornerback (Jourdan Lewis is a stud), while a player that might not be as good in coverage, but is a great athlete, is asked to play safety.
Michigan DC Don Brown used Justin Simmons in a similar fashion at Boston College; Simmons was an adequate cornerback, but he was such a special athlete that Brown needed to get him on the field and Simmons turned into a 3rd round pick.
But asking a player to move to safety isn’t a bad thing. The rise in tight ends in the NFL- and this upcoming class is stacked- means defenders that can coverage tight ends one-on-one are at a premium. Peppers fits that perfectly and he’ll continue to improve in coverage.
Nick: Which head coach would be the best, most creative role model for Peppers?
Dan: Obviously the first one that comes to mind is Bill Belichick, but I don’t think the Patriots will ever be in a position to take Peppers. The same can be said about Mike Zimmer and the Vikings. I know the Cardinals would know how to use him, but they have high-level players like Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon who can do what Peppers will probably do in the NFL (and really Peppers’ best NFL comparison is probably a mix between Mathieu and Bucannon). Todd Bowles with the Jets might be able to creatively use Peppers.
Rich: I think the best defensive coordinators to take Peppers would be those from Dick LeBeau’s coaching tree, or those that use safeties as the centerpiece of the defense. LeBeau’s zone blitz defense asks a lot of the strong safety position, but it puts a player like Troy Polamalu on center stage.
Peppers could be that player for Browns DC Ray Horton, who both player for and coached under LeBeau, and Cleveland will have a pick at the top of the draft. LeBeau’s Titans are a fit, too. LeBeau’s branches extend to the Steelers, Bengals, Packers- and he influenced Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians and Jets head coach Todd Bowles.
Peppers could also work with the Rex Ryan coaching tree because they love to disguise pressure with their defensive backs. The Bills, Chiefs, and 49ers could be fits, too.
Nick: If Jabrill does decide to stay in college for another year, he’ll only get better and better from a technique perspective. But if he entered this year, is Peppers still a slam-dunk top-ten kind of talent?
Dan: He is as long as we continue to assume he stays healthy, progresses like he has and times like we expect, yes I think he’s a slam-dunk top-10 pick. After Myles Garrett of Texas A&M, I view Peppers as the second best draft-eligible player in the nation.
Rich: I want to say yes, but keep in mind that no defensive back has been selected in the top 4 since Michigan’s own Charles Woodson went 4th overall in 1998. While Peppers might be one of the top talents in the draft, it’s very possible he slides to the end of the top 10 since safety is viewed as more of a luxury position.
Ben: A good NFL comparison would probably be former second round pick Myles Jack. Peppers is more productive, but they are similar athletes who can play all over a defense. If he's healthy, Peppers should be a top 20 NFL pick.
Nick: Let me follow up on that with a slightly reaching look ahead. Which of the teams that seem likely to wind up in the top ten of the draft would be particularly interested in using a pick on someone like Jabrill? The teams that are vying right now for the worst records in the league - and consequently a top pick - seem to be the Jets, Dolphins, Browns, Jaguars and Chargers in the AFC and the Bears, 49ers, Saints, Bucs and Panthers in the NFC.
Dan: He would fit with what Miami needs, but I’m not confident they’d know how to use him correctly. The Browns need him because the defense is so thin on talent, but they need a quarterback desperately. Chicago has put a lot of resources in the defensive backfield, but he could fit there. Carolina is a good idea. Their general manager likes to swing for the fences on talent.
Rich: The problem for Peppers is that the teams at the bottom of the league either need a quarterback (Browns, 49ers), are considering moving on from their quarterback or have other needs (Jets, Bears), or have already invested a lot at the safety position (Jaguars, Saints, Dolphins). That leaves the Panthers as the only other 1-win-or-fewer team that could afford to splurge on a safety.
The Browns and 49ers are likely to snag DeShone Kizer and Deshaun Watson at the top, while the Jets and Bears need to decide if Ryan Fitzpatrick, Christian Hackernberg, Jay Cutler, and/or Brian Hoyer is a quarterback of the future. The Jaguars just paid S Deshaun Gipson a lot of cash this offseason, while the Saints and Dolphins already have elite strong safeties in Kenny Vaccaro and Rashad Jones, respectively.
There’s always a chance a team will trade up, but I think the Jets, Bears, and Panthers could be landing spots, although I think the Panthers prefer to invest in their defensive front seven and not their defensive backs.
The Jets could be the best fit for Peppers, especially with All Pro TE Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots a key match-up twice a year, although Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio served the same role under Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh while both were with the 49ers. That is definitely a connection to monitor as the Bears try to rebuild their once-legendary defense.
And if not either of these teams, look to the Bengals or Titans as places of interest.
Thanks so much to Dan Kadar, Rich Hill, and Ben Natan for sharing their time. Make sure to give them a follow on Twitter for more great NFL analysis.