Greg Cosell's NFL draft preview: Jabrill Peppers' NFL fit, and a deep class of defensive backs

Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers became a household name in college football last season because of his versatility. He played many different positions for the Wolverines, and played well.

What the NFL has to figure out is where Peppers fits as a pro.

I think Peppers needs to focus on and learn one position at the NFL level. And despite his high-level athleticism, I think he’ll have a transition to make in the NFL and it could take time for him to develop into a quality player. He had a lot of snaps in the box in college, and that won’t be the case in the NFL.

I think Peppers is at his best playing in space away from bodies where his athleticism and movement can be maximized. He’s not a naturally physical player, but he can be a multi-dimensional safety with the ability to match up man-to-man on tight ends and play the slot in sub-packages.

Jabrill Peppers played offense and defense with Michigan last season. (AP)
Jabrill Peppers played offense and defense with Michigan last season. (AP)

Here’s what I see as Peppers’ strengths and weaknesses, and after that I’ll offer my breakdowns of some other top defensive backs in this draft class:

STRENGTHS

NFL teams won’t have to worry about Peppers being overmatched athletically.

Peppers is very athletic and fluid in his movement with twitch and explosion. He has an excellent burst and change of direction, both in the box and outside the formation.

While I think Peppers will have to settle at one position, his versatility is a plus. He can match up against wide receivers or tight ends in the slot. He had snaps at single-high safety in some sub-packages. He not only had the physical ability to play multiple positions effectively, he understood how to play multiple positions too.

Peppers was at his best when he was clean, in space, and could react with his quickness and explosiveness. He was a terrific fit in Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense, where he was a hybrid linebacker-safety who played near the line of scrimmage in multiple alignments and could react to the play.

You can get a sense of his explosiveness when he is playing in space on this stop against Penn State:

(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)

Here is some excellent coverage from the slot by Peppers:

(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)
(YouTube.com/BigTenNetwork)

WEAKNESSES

I don’t think Peppers is at his best playing in the box. This brings us back to how NFL teams will view him in his transition.

Playing in the box negates Peppers’ athleticism and movement skills. It forces him to play physically, which is not his strength. He looked to avoid blockers in the run game and make plays with his movement and athleticism. Because of that, I don’t see him making a transition like Arizona Cardinals safety/linebacker Deone Bucannon, who can be a box linebacker in a base defense.

Perhaps Peppers can play in the box at times in specific packages, like Su’a Cravens last season with the Washington Redskins. But overall I think he transitions to the NFL as a safety based on his size (213 pounds) and movement traits, plus the fact he’s not a naturally physical player.

Peppers has good skills, and his NFL team will have to figure out the best way to deploy him.

Here are some of the other defensive backs who should be selected early in this draft:

LSU S JAMAL ADAMS

Adams is a very good prospect, in part because he will give an NFL defensive coordinator a lot of scheme versatility. There are almost no scheme limitations with Adams, and coaches will love his commitment and playing personality – he’s competitive and passionate. He trusts what he sees, and he’s decisive and aggressive in his reactions. He plays with great speed and range as a sideline-to-sideline safety, and also played with physicality and toughness in the run game.

I think at this point Adams is a more versatile and better player than Ohio State’s Malik Hooker. He’s a more complete safety prospect than Landon Collins coming out of Alabama, and Collins became an excellent player in his second season with the New York Giants. He’ll be effective in the NFL near the line of scrimmage with his physical nature, can play deep in a two-shell zone or be very effective as a “robber” in the middle of the defense.

OHIO STATE S MALIK HOOKER

Hooker is a big safety who covers ground quickly and easily. He plays downhill with conviction and aggression. There’s no hesitation when he sees it. He has a physical nature to his game, and the speed and range to play single-high safety and be an eraser on the back end.

The issue I have with Hooker right now is there isn’t a lot of discipline to his game. He’ll need to be coached and taught a lot of basic fundamentals – he has a tendency to take some bad angles, and his aggressiveness led to the lack of discipline (though, you always would rather have a player who is aggressive by nature. He’s a bit inexperienced and unrefined, and needs improvement as a tackler.

WASHINGTON S BUDDA BAKER

Baker is an intriguing prospect who is likely to be seen differently by different teams due to size limitations. He is a shade under 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds. But he has a lot of athletic and movement tools to work with and plays with a high level of intensity and competitiveness. He plays the game with acceleration and velocity.

My sense is Baker profiles best as a back-end safety in base defenses, with the speed and range to play as a single-high safety but also could play as a slot cornerback in sub-packages. Some will see similarities to Tyrann Mathieu due to his size and possible utilization; Baker has that kind of skill set, so scheme and deployment in personnel packages becomes critical to his success.

OHIO STATE CB MARSHON LATTIMORE

While Lattimore is a good-sized, athletic cornerback who can play press man, at this point I see him as a far better athlete than football player as a result of his lack of experience. There’s not a lot of technique discipline to his game. He will be a bit of a project at the NFL level as he learns the subtle disciplines of NFL cornerback play.

When I watched Lattimore, I saw him have a tendency in press man coverage to get back on his heels before reacting to the receiver, and he also would take a false step in press coverage. Those things can presumably be cleaned up by coaching. He’ll also need a lot of footwork and technique work to play off coverage effectively – he didn’t play much off coverage at Ohio State.

It’s certainly possible, and maybe likely, that Lattimore develops into a big-time man-to-man cornerback in the NFL. But it will be a process, and teams will need to be aware of that if they draft him early.

IOWA CB DESMOND KING

King will probably be a good fit with the right team, but the team fit is important. King lacks some of the desired physical traits teams look for in an outside cornerback – size, quick-twitch and speed – but teams that feature zone concepts as their coverage foundation will see King as a very valuable prospect. He has an intuitive feel for playing to his help over the top, and tailgating and undercutting routes. That’s valuable in the NFL. His competitiveness and physical play will translate well to the NFL.

Some teams could see King as a safety prospect due to his lack of size (just under 5-10, 201 pounds) and timed speed (4.55-second 40-yard dash). But I think with the right team and defensive scheme, I believe he can play cornerback in the NFL.

More NFL draft breakdowns from Greg Cosell:
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky
Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer
Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes and Cal QB Davis Webb
LSU RB Leonard Fournette
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey
Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon

Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Clemson WR Mike Williams

Western Michigan WR Corey Davis
Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett and the defensive line class
Alabama TE O.J. Howard and the tight end class
Washington WR John Ross and the receivers class

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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.

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