Editor's note: NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein will "dare to compare" prospects to NFL players throughout the college football season. This week, he provides a scouting report and comp for Michigan LB/DB Jabrill Peppers, who one coach believes is the best player in college football.
Today's NFL is all about matchups. To play matchup-oriented football, teams must find players who are diverse enough in their skill sets to excel in a variety of ways.
Michigan linebacker/safety/kick returner Jabrill Peppers is at the top of the food chain in college football when it comes to affecting the game in a variety of ways. While the redshirt sophomore began his career as a safety, Michigan understood that he would make even more of an impact in a "monster 'backer" role and he transitioned to linebacker before this season.
The first strength that jumps out to me when studying Peppers is his versatility. While some players are asked to play multiple positions, Peppers is able to excel in that capacity. It's becoming more obvious in college football that offenses are either going to be spread-based or pro style. Peppers has the athleticism to match up in man coverage against slot receivers in spread schemes. He also has the range and speed to play high safety and help out over the top.
Against downhill rushing attacks and pro-style offenses, Peppers can play around the line of scrimmage. This allows him to be a run defender while handling coverage duties against play-action passes and running backs leaking out of the backfield. Peppers hunts for work and uses his plus closing speed to put himself in a position to get to the ball as much as anyone on the playing field. Peppers is an excellent weapon as a blitzer and isn't afraid to drop a shoulder to deliver a blow when the time comes.
The biggest weakness for Peppers right now is his size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds, per school measurements). Peppers has the size to be a combination safety who can spend some time in the box. However, if he's going to be asked to make a living around the line of scrimmage full-time whenever he enters the pros, he will need more bulk and muscle on his frame. Peppers has a tendency to duck his head into his tackles, so improving his form tackling and overall technique will be essential if he is to transition into that combination role.
NFL scouts will also be keeping a close eye on is his production when it comes to takeaways. Peppers has yet to log an interception or fumble recovery and has only one forced fumble in his college career. While he has the speed and range to get to more plays, he still needs to cash in with turnovers.
NFL comp: Tyrann Mathieu
The easy comparison to make is to former Michigan great Charles Woodson. Woodson had an enormous impact on the game as a defensive back, a return man and even an occasional offensive weapon. There is no doubt that Woodson's game is what Peppers should aspire to. However, I'm not ready to compare Peppers to one of the great defensive playmakers of the last 20 years.
I'm still going to make a lofty comparison, though. How about Tyrann Mathieu? Sure, this is based off of aggressive projections, but Peppers has the physical talent and potential diversity of impact that could lead him on the same trail as the Arizona Cardinals' defensive back. Peppers is bigger than the Honey Badger and also lacks Mathieu's playmaking resume, but both players excelled on special teams in college and both are important chess pieces for their defensive coordinators. It's a high-end comp now, but a clean comp to Mathieu is an attainable goal for Peppers based on what he's capable of doing on the field.