Let’s say you’re coaching a football team and you’re just about to put the finishing touches on this week’s starting line-up. You’ve filled in all the positions except safety, and you have to choose between two players: the best overall athlete on your squad and the most fundamentally sound safety in the division.
You’ve plugged in your best overall athlete into many positions this year: running back, linebacker, defensive back, safety and punt/kick return. He makes you feel comfortable no matter where you place him, even if some of his skills at a particular position are average. On more than one occasion, he’s provided a big play just when your team needed it.
The fundamentally sound safety, on the other hand, only plays safety. Your safety has hands of stone, and couldn’t play linebacker if his life depended on it. This young man has natural ability in the secondary, often calling out routes before the snap and providing reliable over-the-top help for his cornerbacks. He’s got good feet, takes away the Y-seam and can shut down the middle of the field to all comers.
This is not an easy call, is it Coach?
I have to admit, Gentle Reader, my pre-combine draft crush was Jabrill Peppers. So, I began this article with high hopes that he’d be still my beating pigskin heart.
Peppers: The Jack of All Trades…
I’ve always envied utility players, and the value they bring to their team. A coach can place them nearly anywhere and feel comfortable with his decision. It’s a level of skill that the majority of the world does not possess. That’s what initially drew me to Peppers: You can put the man on the gridiron and expect a high level of play.
Peppers brings with him a list of accomplishments and trophies: Lott Trophy, Hornung Award, Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year and Unanimous All-American. He’s a threat to return any kick or punt for a huge play. Kyle Shanahan could place him in as a slot receiver, motion him across the formation and run the ol’ Merced High fly.
New defensive coordinator Robert Saleh can line Peppers up in the box, stunt the defensive line left and send him on a looping blitz to the right. The sheer speed of Peppers makes him very hard for a guard or tackle to pick up on a slightly delayed C-gap blitz. Plus, he can change direction on a dime to chase down a counter or correct himself if he over-pursues a ball carrier. Does Saleh need a quarterback spy against Seattle? No problem. Peppers can do that.
The 49ers haven’t had a defensive player with this kind of ability since they rented Deion Sanders in 1994, nor have they had any heart on special teams since Blake Costanzo left the team after 2011. Peppers could easily be the kind of player who gets molded into a rare NFL utility player, providing a needed momentum swing at the right time in a game.
… But the Master of None
For all the positions Peppers played for Michigan, linebacker will not be a position he plays in the NFL. At OLB, he knifes inside too often, giving up the edge and his outside shoulder to a pulling guard or fullback. He rarely takes on blocks head-on at OLB or MLB. He explodes through an open A or B-gap but gives no thought to breaking down to make a stop. I found him out of position to make a contribution to run or pass plays more than I’d like to see.
Peppers has a bad habit of peeking in the backfield when he’s at linebacker and playing a ‘robber’ position in a cover 3 or playing safety in cover 2. He moves his feet before the snap but then stands motionless looking at the quarterback. His athleticism allows him to get back into position now and then, but he cannot fall back on that in the NFL. The professional game is simply far too fast to make a quick recovery after a tight end, or Z receiver blows by you with some quintuple move.
For some reason, Peppers has a bad habit of moving forward when playing the slot corner position and while playing free safety. Now, maybe Michigan ran a defense that called for Peppers to go forward instead of back, but that seems very odd. Some plays, his ability allowed him to recover and make a stop. On other plays, Peppers was not providing help over the top or was, once again, well out of position.
I did not see Peppers play much press coverage, and even Pro Football Focus stated that Peppers “gives too many free releases off the line of scrimmage.” Julio Jones and Antonio Brown are not going to let these types of flaws go unnoticed.
So, Who Do You Start?
It’s clear a 3-in-1 player is not worth the second overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. In some mock drafts, Peppers falls to the Patriots, and for some reason, that seems like the right fit for this young man. In the right hands, and in the right position, Peppers can morph from the pure athlete to a fundamentally sound safety.
I’d still love for the 49ers to draft Peppers, but only if they traded back into the first round or could land him with their second-round choice.
2015: Michigan vs. Michigan State
2016: Michigan vs. Colorado
2016: Michigan vs. Iowa
2016: Michigan vs. Ohio State
2016: Michigan vs. Penn State