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NFL DRAFT PREVIEW | DEFENSIVE BACKS

Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers may be the most versatile player in the draft

Jabrill Peppers worked out with two position groups at the NFL Combine.michael conroy/associated press/file

You can’t blame Jabrill Peppers if he’s suffering from an identity crisis as the clock ticks down to Thursday’s NFL Draft.

One thing the former Michigan standout isn’t suffering from is a crisis of confidence.

Though he considers himself a safety, Peppers was grouped with the linebackers at the NFL Combine because that was his primary position last season. When he asked to switch, he was informed that the only way he could work out with the defensive backs was if he performed with both groupings.

“I was like, ‘That’s easy,’ ’’ said Peppers. “That’s no problem at all.’’

Even doubling down in Indianapolis — working twice as much as most of the NFL hopefuls in town — had to be considered a reduced workload for Peppers, who played cornerback, safety, linebacker, running back, slot receiver, and return man during his time in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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Peppers doesn’t really care for labels. Teams can call him anything they want — he knows he can play anywhere — as long as some team calls his name this week.

However, he may have hurt his chances of being a high pick, as ESPN reported Monday that he had tested positive for a diluted sample at the combine.

“The bottom line is I’m a ball player and I’m a hell of a ball player,’’ said Peppers at the combine. “And I intend to run fast, I intend to look smooth doing whatever it is I’m asked to do.

“I’m just going to keep improving to the best of my ability, stay grounded, ignore all the outside noise. Nothing else matters to me besides what they think and besides the way I play.’’

The way the 5-foot-11-inch, 213-pounder plays is with instincts, ferocity, and speed. Those are traits that will serve him — and his future employer — well no matter where he lines up on the field.

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Peppers was mainly a safety and special teamer during his first couple of seasons at Michigan. That all changed when Don Brown arrived on campus last year.

The former Boston College coordinator and one of college football’s best defensive architects caught a glimpse of Peppers and knew he had something special.

“Basically I took my brightest guy and gave him a bunch of things to do, and he did them all, and he was great at them,’’ Brown recently told ESPN.

Peppers’s skill set allowed him to be productive at every position. He had the quickness to play corner, the speed to play safety, and the strength to play linebacker. Peppers may be best suited to play a hybrid box safety/slot corner position, similar to the way the Patriots use Patrick Chung.

Peppers believes that teams will take a cue from the way he was used, making hybrid players more the norm than the exception.

“I definitely think that trend will continue,” he said. I definitely think there are a lot more guys [capable of it]. It’s just about their coaching staff kind of letting them do things.

“But one thing I will recommend is to just make sure they stay on their technique. Don’t rely on your athleticism a lot. I think that was one of my biggest flaws. But I’m cleaning that up and it’s all coming together for me.’’

While much of the talk surrounding Peppers is about his versatility, there is a school of thought that some teams have him labeled as a tweener — a guy that’s pretty good in a lot of spots but has no real true position. Peppers, who considers himself a safety first and foremost, is aware of those reports but doesn’t pay them much attention.

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“I don’t worry about that at all,’’ he said. “I control the controllables. 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.’’

Though he ultimately believes he’ll settle at safety, Peppers believes even then his versatility will be a major asset for his club.

“Free or strong,’’ he said. “I’m very fast, I’m stronger than the typical DB and tougher than the typical DB since I played linebacker in the Big Ten at 200 pounds. So that’s anywhere from nickel, and I can play some corner still. So we’ll see. It’s going to be a fun process.’’

A lot has been made about the fact that Peppers recorded just one interception in college, but he has shrugged off that criticism and pointed to the fact that he played a lot of linebacker, where interception opportunities aren’t as frequent.

“I tell [teams] my natural position is definitely in the defensive backfield,’’ he said. “I had to fill a void [at linebacker] this year because it was best for the team, and if I had to do it all over again, I would.

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“I don’t think that’ll hurt me. My mind-set was, whatever I had to do, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability and try to make plays when I can. I think that’s what I did and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.’’

“The interception thing? Come on,’’ Brown told ESPN. “He’s got good hands. The dude catches punts! Are you kidding me? That’s the hardest thing in the world to do.’’

Peppers said the guidance he received under Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was invaluable as he gets ready to play football at the highest level.

“He definitely did a great of preparing us,” said Peppers. “We couldn’t have asked for anyone better to fill the void when coach [Brady] Hoke left. He was hard on us, but he made it businesslike and [taught us] what to expect at the next level. And I’m more than grateful for that.’’

Top defensive backs in the draft

PLAYER

POS.

SCHOOL

HT.

WT.

40

ROUND

Jamal Adams*

S

LSU

6-0

214

4.56

1

Has a nice package of size, strength, and speed, allowing him to play press man or zone coverage. Excellent instincts, awareness, and closing speed. He will slip blocks fluidly and is a vicious tackler.

Marshon Lattimore*

CB

Ohio State

6-0

193

4.36

1

An outstanding mirror player, he has the quickness and long arms to drape players and knock balls away at the last second. A very confident player and has receiver-like moves after interceptions.

Jabrill Peppers*

S

Michigan

5-11

213

4.36

1

Highly instinctive and versatile player who can line up anywhere and make an impact. Also one of the best return men in this class. Like getting two players with one pick.

Gareon Conley*

CB

Ohio State

6-0

195

4.44

1

Very smart and anticipatory player. He'll cut off receivers and use his long arms to shield his opponent and get his hands on the ball. An excellent backpedaler and changes directions fluidly.

Malik Hooker*

S

Ohio State

6-1

205

n/a

1

Has been slowed by recent surgeries for a hernia and torn labrum but should be good to go for rookie camp. Excellent recognition skills, vision, and closing burst. A true ballhawk, had 7 picks in 2016.

Tre'Davious White

CB

LSU

5-11

192

4.47

1

A four-year starter, he led the SEC with 14 pass breakups in 2016 and had six picks in his career. Has outstanding playing speed, quickness, and hand strength. Could thrive best as a slot corner at the NFL level.

Marlon Humphrey*

CB

Alabama

6-0

197

4.41

1

Long, lean athlete with long, strong arms allowing him to match up well with bigger receivers. Like most Tide stars, he's smart and instinctual, and a good tackler. His father Bobby (running back) and mother Barbara (track) were stars in Tuscaloosa.

Kevin King

CB

Washington

6-3

200

4.43

1-2

Tall, athletic corner with excellent playing strength. He can jam receivers with his strong hands and cover them deep with his long arms. More fast than quick, he may be the best run support corner in the draft.

Budda Baker*

S

Washington

5-10

195

4.45

1-2

An instinctive heat seeker, he makes up for a comparative lack of size with speed and toughness. Can play safety or hybrid linebacker. Was very productive (200 tackles, 5 INTs) in his career.

Obi Melifonwu

S

Connecticut

6-4

224

4.40

1-2

Blew away the competition at the combine with track star speed and athleticism (44.0 inches in the vertical leap, 141 inches in the broad jump). A bit of a tweener (does he bulk up and play LB?) but could emerge as a star in the right scheme.

Best of the rest: *Teez Tabor, Florida, CB (6-0, 199, 4.62); *Sidney Jones, Washington, CB (6-0, 186, 4.47); Desmond King, Iowa, CB (5-10, 201, n/a); Justin Evans, Texas A&M, S (6-0, 199, n/a); Corn Elder, Miami, CB (5-11, 183, 4.55); John Johnson, Boston College, S (6-0, 208, 4.61); *Josh Jones, North Carolina State, S (6-1, 220, 4.41); Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson, CB (6-1, 199, 4.40); *Quincy Wilson, Florida, CB (6-1, 211, 4.54); *Adoree’ Jackson, Southern Cal, CB (5-10, 186, 4.42).

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*underclassman


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.