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  • College football's most physically gifted player is a linebacker... for now. Three other thoughts from the defensive lineman and linebackers' Saturday.
By Joan Niesen
March 04, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS — Saturday at the combine meant defensive linemen and linebackers, bringing the draft’s most talented crop of players through the media interview room. We got Myles Garrett, who looks like he could star in a Marvel movie if this whole football thing doesn’t work out, Jonathan Allen, who already looks and talks the part of an experienced NFL player, and Jabrill Peppers, the most versatile player to come through Indianapolis in years. Thirteen likely first-round picks met the media (a 14th, Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster, was scheduled with the group but was sent home after arguing with a hospital worker Friday). Here are my final batch of thoughts from Indianapolis:

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1. One of my favorite things about the combine is the chance to hear players give scouting reports of other players. On Saturday, the best player on the team that lost the national championship evaluated the best player on the team that won it—and the two have plenty of familiarity, playing on opposite sides of the ball and against each other in the title game for two straight years. So without further ado, here’s Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen on Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson:

“Just his composure (is impressive). We hit the guy, I can’t even count how many times, just trying to put him out. We were trying to crush him. And he just came back tougher. Just his competitiveness. He’s the best player I’ve ever played in college by far.”

“A lot of guys who play the quarterback position, by the end of the game, they’re not really going through progressions like they did at the beginning because they’re worried about the (pass) rush. DeShaun Watson played exactly the same in the first quarter as he did in the fourth quarter.”

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2. “Overheard at the combine” is a fun game. In today’s edition: “Chunky’s here, and Taco’s going over there.” That’s Illinois defensive tackle Chunky Clements (real name: Jarrod) and Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton (real name: Vidauntae).

3. Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers is going to have a busy couple of days. Peppers, who did media interviews Saturday, also joined the bench press with the linebacker group that afternoon. He’ll do on-field linebacker drills Sunday and on-field defensive back drills Monday. “I was informed that since I was listed as a linebacker in college, that I had to only work out with the linebackers, so they were just going to make me only do linebacker stuff. So I asked if there was somehow, some way I could do the DB work, because that’s what I was doing all offseason and leading up to the combine. I told my agents that, and they said the only way I could (do the DB work) was if I did both. That’s easy.” (Peppers also says teams have talked to him about playing as a receiver in the slot, as a running back and on special teams.)

Peppers is one of a handful of college defenders whom Andy Staples referred to as “Swiss army men." They can do everything, practically, the perfect antidotes to fast-paced spread offenses around college football that have made many opposing defenses look predictable. Such players certainly exist in the NFL but are rarer due to the size necessary to play at linebacker. It’s simply easier to be versatile in college. Peppers is certainly a player who could do it all at the next level, but on Saturday he was insistent that his most natural position is in the defensive backfield at a safety spot. It was strange to hear him talk about his versatility as if it could be viewed as a negative. “I had to fill a void this year because it was best for the team,” he said. “If I had to do it all over again, I would. I didn’t think it would hurt me.”

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Here’s the thing: Being perhaps the most physically gifted college football player this decade is not going to hurt Peppers at the next level, even if he hadn’t nosed his way into defensive back drills. He may be best suited to stay around his current weight, 213 pounds, and play in the backfield in the NFL, but he should be a lesson to college players that they need not pigeonhole themselves too early. “I definitely think the trend will continue,” he said. “I definitely think there are a lot of guys (with similar skill sets to me); it’s just about coaches letting them do things."

He also had a piece of advice for the future Jabrill Pepperses of college football (may they be abundant and as fun to watch as he was, amen): “Make sure they stay on their technique,” he said. “Don’t rely on 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.”

4. One of the most interesting guys I spoke with Saturday was Devonte Fields. The Louisville linebacker ended the 2015 season as perhaps the best defensive player in the game, and he elected to return for his senior season. Going into 2016, it was easy to argue the 6’4” 240-pound linebacker was a first-round lock, but his senior season was less than inspiring. Fields finished the year with 45 tackles (he had 63 in 2015), 9 tackles for loss (22 in 2015) and 6 sacks (10.5 in 2015). He attributed the drop in part to garnering more attention than he had the year before; in 2015, Fields had returned to big-time college football after suspensions and a year at community college after facing domestic violence charges.

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