- He may not have a lot of tape at safety, but Jabrill Peppers has made it his mission at the NFL combine to show teams that's the position he should be playing.
INDIANAPOLIS — ”I don’t have a lot of tape at safety,” Jabrill Peppers said Saturday, ”but I’m a pretty damn good safety.”
The NFL, for the most part, will have to take his word for it.
Peppers played linebacker for Michigan last season, after splitting the 2015 season between safety and a nickel-corner role. A permanent move to safety is the anticipated transition coming for Peppers once he hits the next level.
As Peppers said, though, there is limited recent evidence that he can play that position. So, people have spent this week—and many more weeks in the run-up to the combine—talking about Peppers like he’s an alien visitor from another planet. ”What is he? What can he do? Can he learn?”
He will try to clear up a few things at the combine, although even that process has been a little jumbled. Peppers is listed as a linebacker here (wearing the No. 24, by the way, in case you’re buying into any of those Peppers-Charles Woodson comparisons). He will run with the linebackers Sunday, but work out with the defensive backs Monday.
”Well 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 gonna make me do linebacker stuff,” Pepper said. ”So I asked if there was somehow, some way I could do the DB work, because that’s what I was doing all off-season and leading up to the combine.
”And I told my agents that and they made it happen, and they said the only way I can do it is if I do both. I was like, that’s easy. That’s no problem at all.”
(A note: This is a bit of a strange and arbitrary stance for the NFL to take. Greg Ward Jr., for example, was listed as a wide receiver at the combine despite playing quarterback throughout his college career.)
Michigan had depth in the secondary last season: potential first-round pick Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling at cornerback, Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill at safety—all four could be drafted in April, with Lewis a potential top-50 pick. The Wolverines were less well off at linebacker, so Peppers shifted to a SAM linebacker spot in defensive coordinator Don Brown’s scheme.
”You don’t have to substitute,” Brown told USA Today in October of one advantage of Peppers in that role. ”You can play with your regular personnel, and he can play multiple positions. … If he hadn’t been here, we’d have to play a big guy and a nickel. He’s all wrapped up into one, he can do all of those things.”
The position switch allowed Michigan to maximize the defensive talent it had on the field. It didn’t do many favors for Peppers’s NFL projection.
”I tell [NFL teams] my natural position is definitely in the defensive backfield,” Peppers said. ”I had to fill a void this year because it was best for the team, and if I had to do it all over again, I would. ... My mindset was whatever I had to do, I’m gonna 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 gonna continue to do.”
On that playmaking: Peppers finished last season with 66 tackles, including 13 for loss and 3.0 sacks, but he picked off just one career pass—it came in his final game, at Ohio State. (Peppers sat out Michigan’s Orange Bowl loss with a hamstring injury.)
Which is another topic of conversation. Some of Peppers’s most impressive splash plays last season came on offense and as a return man. Were the lack of momentum-shifting moments on defense Peppers’s fault, or was he simply not put in position to make a ton? Zero interceptions as a DB in 2014 and ’15 is a letdown; one in 2016 as a SAM linebacker isn’t unusual.
”I’m very fast, I’m stronger than the typical DB, tougher than the typical DB, since I played linebacker in the Big 10 at 200 pounds,” said Peppers, who checked in this week at 5’ 10 7/8”, 215 lbs. ”So that’s anywhere from nickel ... I can play some corner still. We’ll see. It’s gonna be a fun process.”
Fun. And maybe a little confusing. If nothing else, Peppers’s goal in Indianapolis is to give NFL teams a clearer idea of where he belongs.
”What do I look like?” Peppers responded when asked Saturday about his position. ”I’m a safety. I’m a safety. Yes, I’m a safety.”