NFL draft profile: No. 30 — Michigan DB Jabrill Peppers, versatile but hotly debated player

Michigan DB-RS Jabrill Peppers
5-foot-11, 213 pounds

Key stat: Lined up at several positions at Michigan — cornerback, linebacker, safety, quarterback, punt returner, kick returner, etc. — and accounted for 1,325 yards the past two seasons (82 yards receiving, 239 rushing, 483 kick return yards, 510 punt return yards).

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Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers is a jack of all trades whose NFL position is a matter of conjecture. (AP)
Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers is a jack of all trades whose NFL position is a matter of conjecture. (AP)

The skinny: Heralded recruit who was compared to Charles Woodson, his boyhood idol, even before Peppers committed to Michigan. He overcame a tough childhood to star in football and track, and after missing most of his freshman season with a leg injury, Peppers broke out in a big way in 2015 and 2016. He played mostly in the secondary in 2015 but (because of Michigan’s exceptional depth in the secondary and needs up front) moved to linebacker in 2016. Peppers was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy Award voting this past season. He also was one of the best returners in the country the past two seasons, despite limited opportunities and teams trying to kick away from him, and also moonlighted on offense as a runner — often taking direct snaps at quarterback as a change of pace.

Peppers declared early for the 2017 NFL draft and will turn 22 in October. Worked out at the NFL scouting combine in both linebacker and defensive back drills. Worked out at his pro day at safety and cornerback in front of a massive contingent of key NFL evaluators.

Best-suited destination: One of the more debated prospects in this class, Peppers’ pro destination is unclear. Most teams — and Peppers himself — believe his best NFL position on defense will be safety, but that could include a variety of assignments, and he certainly could be counted on to contribute immediately as a returner. More than one team views Peppers as either a slot receiver or third-down running back more so than as a defensive back.

He appears best suited as a deep safety who can roll down over the slot, and he perhaps could be a zone corner for certain teams. Patient teams, plus those that value talent over carved-out prototypes, will appreciate Peppers’ unique blend of skills. Also those that lean heavily on the coaching staff to project scheme fits will have a better idea how to utilize him right away.

These teams might be more intrigued by him than others:  the Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins (who, for instance, had a plan with Su’a Cravens and executed it well), Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers, New England Patriots, New York Giants, Tennessee Titans, Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans and Detroit Lions.

Upside: Extremely gifted athlete who is almost certain to impact the game in some way. Electric with the ball in his hands — a big play waiting to happen. Can ignite a stagnant offense in an instant, especially in the return game, and impact all three phases (see Colorado, Rutgers games). Instinctive, effective gap shooter on defense who closes fast and can take down runners from behind for losses (see UCF game). Improved tackling with move to linebacker. Can cover running backs (and some H-backs) in space. Wouldn’t be lost as slot corner. Has all the requisite tools to become a good safety in time. Can plant and drive on the ball in front of him. Could be a weapon as a blitzer, from the slot or elsewhere.

Downside: One college interception — and it came off a deflection. Missed chances at potential picks. Shockingly few turnovers created or plays on the ball. A lot of his tackles for loss in the run game came from the backside on missed blocks (or unblocked situations). He has barely played any true deep safety and will need to learn the position from scratch. Might need assignments kept simple at first. Might never be a true three-down defender and versatility won’t translate fully at the next level. Still seems to lack great coverage instincts and appears to second-guess himself at times. Needs to trust his eyes better, scouts say, and learn more intricacies of offensive route concepts. Still can get sloppy when tackling head on. Needs to improve when shedding blocks. Less-than-ideal length, including short arms, could limit him in press coverage as well.

Scouting hot take: “We’ve discussed him a lot. One of our coaches thinks he could be a good [running] back, and I don’t disagree. I felt like we went through this whole thing a few years ago with Landon Collins in a way. Not that they’re the same player at all, but you spend all this time explaining why you don’t like a guy or why he won’t succeed, it just feels like it’s counterproductive. Tell me what [Peppers] can do well and we’ll work backward from there. I think if you stop worrying and learn to love the player … [laughs] he’s a safety, he’ll be a decent safety, and you just have to teach him how to play it. It’s easy to overthink the guy if you start with the flaws.” — AFC college scouting director

Player comp: There’s not much sense in comparing Peppers to Woodson — a once-in-a-generation talent with elite instincts — or a box safety-linebacker such as Mark Barron or Deone Bucannon. Instead, Peppers is a sturdier, more explosive rich man’s Micah Hyde, who is a do-it-all player in high school who has become a terrific returner and nickel defender on the next level. Another veteran NFL evaluator mentioned a comp of Will Blackmon, a versatile college DB-receiver-returner who carved out a nice NFL career after some early setbacks. But Peppers is even better.

Expected draft range: Top 40 picks, but there’s not a long history of safeties with one college interception going in Round 1. In fact, every first-round safety since 2002 had at least four INTs coming into the league.

Previous profiles

Nos. 51-100: Here’s who just missed the cut
No. 50: Indiana OG-C Dan Feeney
No. 49: Iowa DB Desmond King
No. 48: Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham
No. 47: Wisconsin pass rusher T.J. Watt
No. 46. Alabama pass rusher Tim Williams
No. 45. Washington CB Sidney Jones
No. 44. Alabama LB Ryan Anderson
No. 43. Ohio State WR-RB Curtis Samuel
No. 42. Florida DT Caleb Brantley
No. 41. Connecticut DB Obi Melifonwu
No. 40. USC CB-KR Adoree’ Jackson
No. 39. Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes
No. 38. Michigan State DL Malik McDowell
No. 37: Ole Miss TE Evan Engram
No. 36: Florida LB Jarrad Davis
No. 35: Washington S Budda Baker
No. 34: Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon
No. 33: Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey
No. 32: Florida CB Quincy Wilson
No. 31: Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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