Michigan's Jabrill Peppers, a 2016 Heisman Trophy finalist, is arguably the most polarizing prospect in the 2017 draft class despite an impressive highlight reel that shows him delivering impact plays from eight different positions (safety, cornerback, nickel defender, linebacker, Wildcat QB, running back, receiver and return specialist). Although the 6-foot-1, 207-pound dynamo nearly claimed college football's top honor due to his unrivaled versatility, scouts are undecided about his best position as a pro and the uncertainty has devalued his position in some circles.
As crazy as it sounds, some coaches and evaluators would rather have a prospect with a clearly defined position to plug into their scheme instead of a potential star with an unspecified role heading into the league. With that in mind, let's open the book on Peppers and examine the Michigan standout's potential as a pro.
What I'm hearing
"He is a box safety or nickel linebacker. He doesn't play well in the back end and is just OK in man coverage. He does have a knack for blitzing and finding the ball in the box. I think you need to have a plan for him because he is good in the return game and he loves playing football. ... I just struggle with him as a defensive player." -- AFC college scouting director
"I think he is a better offensive player than defensive prospect. I'm concerned about the lack of interceptions and his lack of physicality. He is more of a run-and-chase defender to me. He might have a chance as a 4-3 (weakside) linebacker but I believe he might be better with the ball in his hands." -- AFC college scouting director
"I think he could be a pretty good safety, but I see him as more of a strong safety. I would keep him close to the line of scrimmage because he is a little slow to key and diagnose plays. He should get better with more reps. ... I think he is a good player and an explosive returner, but he needs to go to the right team. Scheme fit will be crucial for him." -- AFC senior executive
What I'm seeing
Peppers might be the most versatile prospect I've studied in the past decade. He lines up all over the field on both sides of the ball and is a dynamic playmaker in the return game. As a three-way player with speed, athleticism and explosiveness, Peppers is a coach's dream on the field. He can deliver splash plays at a moment's notice and his versatility will make it easy for a creative defensive coordinator to build a gameplan around his unique talents.
As a run defender, Peppers is best described as a "run-and-chase" player. He is at his best running ball carriers down from the backside or floating to the edges to make big hits on perimeter runs. Although he is prone to making a "cut tackle" (shoulder-block runners through their thigh pads) instead of wrapping up runners, his tape shows that he is an effective tackler who rarely misses.
In coverage, Peppers is a natural man-to-man cover guy with good feet and movement skills. He easily blankets tight ends down the field and also holds his own against receivers in the slot or out wide. Peppers' versatility in coverage would allow a defensive coordinator to remain in his base defense against "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs) on early downs. As a zone defender, Peppers flashes awareness and instincts as a curl/flat or hook/curl defender. He maintains vision on the quarterback and shows a decent feel for route recognition in space.
In pass-rush situations, Peppers flashes outstanding speed, quickness and acceleration exploding through gaps. He drills quarterbacks in the pocket when he has a free run and his ability to get them on the ground adds a dimension to the defensive game plan.
In the return game, Peppers earns high marks as an explosive playmaker with the ball in his hands. He consistently fields the ball cleanly and has a knack for finding the crease in coverage. While I believe his natural skills make him better suited to thrive as a punt returner as a pro, he is effective enough as a kickoff returner (26.8-yard average) to merit double duty. In fact, Peppers' dazzling running skills as a returner and occasional offensive weapon should convince his special-teams coordinator to build around his big-play potential.
From a critical standpoint, I worry about Peppers' size and speed minimizing his impact. As a box-area defender, his suspect "take-on" skills (shed and disengage from blockers) make him a liability against downhill running teams. As a pass defender, Peppers' lack of production (only one career INT) makes him a hard sell as a ballhawk for coaches obsessed with acquiring turnover producers. While I must point out that man-coverage defenders typically generate fewer interceptions because they have their backs to the quarterback and rarely see the ball thrown, you would like to see more splash plays from a defender viewed as a game-changer on the second level.
Overall, I believe Peppers is a Swiss Army knife-like defender with outstanding playmaking potential. He should thrive as a "Rover" around the box with the capacity to deliver splash plays on selected blitzes or in coverage as a designated tight end stopper. With Peppers also capable of energizing the return game with his electric running skills, I think he can be a key contributor early in his career as a "two-phase" standout.
Peppers' versatility and playmaking skills remind me of a young Weddle at Utah. The two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year played a variety of positions with the Utes (safety, corner, nickel, Wildcat QB and return specialist) but scouts couldn't identify his natural position despite his impressive collegiate resume. I believe Peppers' positional flexibility has hurt his value on some draft boards, but astute evaluators and creative defensive minds will appreciate his multi-faceted game as an intriguing chess piece in the secondary, particularly as a box-area safety in a scheme that features safety blitzes, "robber" coverage, and traditional zone schemes. If he is allowed to play to his strengths as a playmaker, he will thrive and could become an all-star at his position.
Where he should be picked
As one of the most polarizing prospects in the draft, Peppers' draft range is hard to determine without knowing how teams value his versatility as a defender. Creative defensive coordinators will find a way to tap into his talents as a Swiss Army knife-like defender, but rigid play callers will focus on his shortcomings as a player and miss out on his potential contributions as a hybrid safety/linebacker.
With that in mind, I believe Peppers is destined to come off the board within the first 50 selections, and probably in the second round between picks 32 and 59. Teams like the New England Patriots, Jacksonville Jaguars, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans would be ideal fits based on their schemes and coaching staffs.
The Titans, in particular, would be intriguing given defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's ability to craft his game plans to enhance Peppers' skills as an impact player. The Hall of Fame CB helped Troy Polamalu become a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in a dynamic zone-blitz system. He could tap into Peppers' versatility to make him an impact player early in his career. New England would also be an intriguing destination for Peppers based on how Bill Belichick is able to put defenders in specific roles to take advantage of their skills.