The Arizona Cardinals have shown the ability to properly employ hybrid defensive players in recent years. While they didn't invent the concept, the Cards' successes with safety/cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and linebacker/safety Deone Bucannon have given confidence to draftniks, if not other NFL organizations, that "tweener" players can qualify as valuable early-round daft picks and become productive professionals.
Last year’s hybrid draft darlings were Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack. Both players were touted as the best player in a limited class by at least one name-brand draft analyst. Ramsey went to Jacksonville with the fifth overall pick, while Jack, at least in part due to a lingering meniscus injury, fell to the early second round (also to the Jaguars). After the seemingly endless fanfare leading into draft weekend, which included comparisons to Charles Woodson (Ramsey) and Ray Lewis (Jack), anything short of Hall of Fame induction in Canton will be disappointing. Kidding, kidding…but seriously, these guys better be good.
This brings me to this season’s early hybrid hype monster: do-it-all, third-year sophomore Jabrill Peppers of Michigan. According to his head coach, Jim Harbaugh, Peppers is "that kind of athlete that has the greatest in the world type of athleticism." Ok. No pressure, kid. During that same interview, Harbaugh went on to say that Peppers can play cornerback, safety, linebacker, and nickel back. He can return punts and kicks, and serve as the gunner on special teams. Anything else, coach? "Offensively, probably right now could probably be our slot receiver and would give…all of our running backs a run for their money to be the best running back on the team. Could be a wildcat quarterback. Could be an outside receiver." Holy moly, Harbaugh loves this kid. He’s not alone, either. I did a double-take last fall when one color commentator praised Peppers as the best player in the Big Ten. Now, the Big Ten may not be the strongest conference, but it did boast four top-ten draft picks this past spring. This is lofty praise for Peppers. Is he worthy?
Let’s start with Harbaugh’s offensive boasts. Peppers gained 72 yards on 18 carries last year, good for four yards a pop. He scored from six yards out on a wildcat run against Minnesota, and added a second rushing TD against Rutgers. His longest play from scrimmage was this 28-yard jet sweep shovel pass against Michigan State:
The guy can fly. Part of me wishes he was exclusively an offensive player because I want to see the ball in his hands. But still, for all the excitement, Peppers averaged a modest 5.6 yards per play on 27 offensive touches last season. In comparison, Braxton Miller, a strictly offensive player who handled similar types of touches, averaged 8.8 yards on 68 plays. Granted, Miller did see a few downfield targets in the passing game, but generally both players were having their numbers called near the line of scrimmage.
In the kicking game last year, Peppers returned eight kickoffs for a 27.9 yard average, and 17 punts for an 11.4 yard average.
He did not score on a return last season, though he did come close against Minnesota. It will be interesting to see if Peppers continues to see as much return game action, or if the coaches decide to save him for scrimmage snaps.
As far as I know, Michigan still plans to involve Peppers on offense. I imagine they may even ramp that up a notch. But for all of his talent with the ball in his hands, I’ve only seen him projected as a defensive player at the NFL level. This is where things get tricky. Peppers looks best in and around the line of scrimmage. For my money, he looks better playing linebacker than Jack did, at least in terms of play recognition and being around the ball. Peppers looks disciplined against the run and is not easily fooled by option fakes and keepers. Michigan lists him as a linebacker/defensive back, but if he is a linebacker he’s tiny by pro standards. I’ve seen him listed as heavy as 208 pounds, and his team bio currently has him at 6’1" and weighing 205 pounds. Given his stature and that he often throws his shoulders into tackle attempts, I’m a little concerned about Peppers’ durability if he’s going to be hanging out in the box. Giving credence to those worries, he missed all but three games in 2014 with leg issues, and he missed the bowl game last year with a hand injury. As for the bulk, Bucannon was listed a 211 pounds when he was drafted and is now showing up on the official roster at 220. It stands to reason Peppers can add some beef as well.
Harbaugh said Peppers’ best role was "nickel." Here he is over the slot against a trips formation, and he immediately sniffs out the screen and slips through two would-be blockers:
R.J. Shelton deserves the assist for his drop on the busted play, but Peppers was all over it. This is where he’s at his best in coverage. Peppers is adept at covering the short plays in front of him - ins, outs, slants - where he can use his downhill speed to take away the route or break up the pass. Here, he’s playing wide, off his man, and he sees what’s coming, gets a bump, and chops over the top for a pass breakup (one of his 10 PBUs last season):
Things get dicier for Peppers in coverage down the field. I know that college defensive backs are often coached to play the receiver rather than trying to find the ball, but this can lead to some ugly, flailing attempts to locate. Against Minnesota, Peppers cheated in, expecting tight end Brandon Lingen to run an out, and instead Lingen beat him inside and forced Peppers to play catch-up. While his speed did indeed close the gap, Peppers wound up raising both ams in desperation and losing track of the ball and receiver:
This isn’t the only time I’ve seen Peppers look out of place covering down the field, and as a result I don’t see him as an outside cornerback. In contrast, I thought Ramsey, could play cornerback (and apparently he will in Jacksonville) in addition to his in-and-out of the box safety snaps.
On the flip side, I like Peppers’ tape as a linebacker/safety hybrid better than Jack’s. I think Bucannon is a pretty fair comparison for Peppers’ ceiling, but Deone intercepted 15 passes and forced six fumbles during his college career. Peppers has yet to force a single turnover. While he’s clearly an exciting athlete, and even an instinctive looking defender near the line of scrimmage, I need to see more disruptive playmaking before I get on board with Peppers as a first round draft pick. If he can fill that production gap, he’ll move up in my book, but for now he’s a Day Two projection heading into the season.