During the 2016 season I once labelled Jabrill Peppers as the “visa card of the Michigan defense, everywhere you want to be.” Incoming defensive coordinator Don Brown from Boston College determined early on to feature the athletic Peppers at his “Viper” position, which is a hybrid position that replaces the Sam (strong side) linebacker in a nickel defense.
Playing in that spot, often near the line of scrimmage and shadowing tight ends, Peppers put up 66 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, three sacks, an INT, a pass break-up, and finished 5th in Heisman voting. The Wolverines also used him for punt and kick returns as well as a Wildcat QB on offense, roles which allowed him to score three touchdowns over the course of the year.
While he started as a corner when he first arrived at Michigan, he finished his career in Ann Arbor playing in all three phases while being primarily featured in a very versatile hybrid role because the Wolverines were trying to maximize his two greatest attributes, a high mental capacity and elite acceleration.
You can see the former simply from the wide variety of different ways that Michigan would use him last year despite it being his first year in a new defense. The latter was on display all year and then quantified at the NFL combine when he ran a 4.46 40 and jumped a 35.5” vertical.
Now the big question is where the versatile athlete fits in the NFL, which is a tricky question in a year when NFL-bound DBs don’t necessarily want to have a lot of big questions about how they project because of the depth at the position this year.
How Peppers was used at Michigan
Despite playing in the big, physical Big 10, the Wolverines used Peppers a lot closer to the line of scrimmage then many other teams might have done. The goal was to use his higher level of understanding about the game, physicality, and burst in order to help stuff the run, jam TEs, and bring man blitzes.
There’s a lot going on closer to the action and less time to process it all, so Peppers’ ability to understand the game was very useful and important in a role that has to have a high-functioning understanding both of the coverages and the main run fits.
His physicality and burst were really helpful near the action as well since it allowed Peppers to match up on tight ends without getting run over either in the run game or in the passing game when he was jamming guys at the line. He was better at the latter, but the Wolverines were often able to help him out against the run game thanks to a 3-4 Over defensive front that gave him quite a lot of protection.
The nose (Ryan Glasgow, 6-4, 300 pounds) and anchor end (Chris Wormley, 6-5, 300) would both line up to the run strength of an offense and make it pretty difficult for opposing teams to get blockers loose to pick off Peppers when he was crowding the line of scrimmage on the edge.
His run duties were usually either to force the edge, which he would do with his quickness and stoutness playing lower than many of his blockers, or to fill a cutback lane. He was good forcing the edge and opponents had trouble reaching him or rooting him out from his spot:
If he was playing inside of blockers and couldn’t use his speed to win the edge and force the ball back in, he was more vulnerable:
Playing up close though he was able to jam TEs when they wanted to get into routes, blitz the QB with his elite acceleration, and give Michigan versatility with their blitzes.
The biggest challenge with Fire Zone blitzes (generally featuring man or matchup zone coverage these days) is that they often isolate linebackers inside. Teams will often bust those blitzes by immediately going after the remaining inside LB who isn’t blitzing but with Peppers close to the action he was regularly able to fill that role while a linebacker blitzed.
The 2016 Michigan secondary was loaded with good coverage players and Peppers’ ability to play some man coverage while also bringing value-add hanging out near the line of scrimmage had a multiplier effect on their whole system. Particularly for safety and fourth leading tackler Dymonte Thomas, who was free to roam and help over the top while surrounded by good coverage players at the other four spots in the Wolverine secondary.
In fact, in some regards Michigan was held back by a safety tandem that “only” produced four INTs and 12 pass break-ups despite playing behind a front and coverage players that set them up for big success.
But does the NFL accept Visa?
NFL defenses don’t look for all of the same things as colleges because they have a different focus. Whereas the best and most talented offenses in college are generally oriented around the run game in the NFL it’s all about the drop-back passing game. The drop back passing game executed at a high level is the most difficult thing to defend in football, as defensive guru Nick Saban can attest. It’s also one of the more difficult things to master, so major college programs tend to accumulate talent with an eye for dominating in the run game instead.
So college defenses generally choose their players and position them with a mind for taking away runs and option concepts whereas in the NFL you have to be wary of pass game matchups above all else.
Michigan was able to enjoy some of the best of both worlds last year with Peppers on the field. Whereas a team like Ohio State has to be careful about who plays safety behind their sam linebacker, with Peppers Michigan had a guy that was able to be active and quickly present on the edge without sacrificing anything in coverage. Ohio State’s sam linebacker Chris Worley needed to be supported by their field safety Damon Webb (a converted cornerback) to avoid problems in coverage but Peppers made life easier in coverage for the defenders behind him.
In the NFL Peppers may find himself in a role that’s set up to make plays in coverage rather than serving to help others around him. NFL defenses won’t be as excited about Pepper’s ability to help play the run or blitz up front, that’s all useful but it’s not going to command a high draft ranking.
What they may be more interested in is his ability to grow into a roving safety that can drop down in the box to match up with a TE or slot WR or alternatively bring range and tackling on the back end without the offense being certain of where he’ll end up.
So whereas at Michigan he was hanging out around the box and keeping people guessing about whether he was in coverage locking down an inside target or perhaps blitzing...
In the NFL he’ll likely find himself playing at depth and adding the ability to hawk the ball from a deep zone to his arsenal...
Peppers’ acceleration and football IQ could be most lethally weaponized in a Troy Polamalu-type role in which he can move around actively before the snap while leaning on his speed and closing ability to get where he needs to go just before or even just after the snap.
If an NFL team sees that kind of potential for him as a master of disguise and a player that can be an impact performer all over the field then his unorthodox usage at Michigan could be what sets him apart in a safety-rich draft class.