EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When the New York Giants traded star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to the Cleveland Browns in March, Giants general manager Dave Gettleman repeatedly stood defiant in the face of criticism about the trade, boasting that he could not turn down an opportunity to deal the talented-but-mercurial receiver for the “haul” he received.
“It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Gettleman told Yahoo Sports at the time.
One of those first-round picks was the No. 17 overall selection in this year’s draft, which turned out to be massive defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. The other first-round pick Gettleman was referring to wasn’t a future pick, at all; it was a former first-rounder who has, in the months since, been largely written off as a throw-in, one who admits he does not feel respected.
“Nah … definitely not, definitely not,” third-year safety Jabrill Peppers told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “But at the end of the day man, I don’t need that to put that chip on my shoulder. That chip’s already on my shoulder. Now, it definitely adds fuel to the fire but the fire’s already been lit.”
Peppers, 23, was one of the most polarizing players in the 2017 NFL draft, one whose elite athleticism and enthusiastic, confident attitude made him an intriguing player for both the Browns — who ended up taking him 25th overall — and Gettleman, who brought Peppers in for a top-30 pre-draft visit back when he was GM of the Carolina Panthers.
Peppers’ general rawness, particularly when it came to his ability to diagnose offenses, often showed on tape as a rookie in 2017, when he was one of the lowest-graded safeties who logged at least 50 percent of snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Peppers attributes some of this to the fact he played several different defensive positions at the University of Michigan and never got to settle in at any spot longer than a year.
“I never really got to work strictly on perfecting my craft,” Peppers said. “My second year in the league, that was my first time ever really working on man-to-man coverage, zone coverage.”
Peppers lined up all over his rookie year in Cleveland, playing deep safety and other positions he didn’t play much at Michigan, where he was essentially a linebacker his final season in 2016. But being thrown into the fire like that as a rookie also taught him the importance of preparation.
“[Before that] I was just naturally [playing] based off my understanding of football — I felt like I didn’t have to work because I was getting over,” Peppers said. "But now when you’re not getting over, you’re not the most athletic guy on the field anymore, you’re not the fastest, you’re not the quickest, those things [like studying] are what’s going to bring it over the top.”
And last season, Peppers’ improved understanding of offensive concepts began to show, when he quietly graded out (according to PFF) as one of the 25 best safeties in football (23rd) among the 101 who played at least 20 percent of their team’s snaps.
Peppers, who recorded 79 tackles, one sack and an interception in 2018, was especially effective as a blitzer last season — his 12 quarterback pressures were tied for the third-most among safeties — and as a run defender, where his athleticism and aggression allowed him to beat blockers to the point of attack.
And while the third-year pro is still focused on improving his pass coverage — he doesn’t think he’s bad, per se, but he knows he needs to improve his eye discipline so he can diagnose plays quicker — the Giants were thrilled about what they saw from him in organized team activities, and think he can cover some of the best tight ends in the NFC East.
“He’s tough, he’s got really good instincts, he can play on first, second, third and fourth down — he can go back there and return kicks — he’s got good ball skills, based on what I saw in the offseason, he picks things up extremely well,” Giants coach Pat Shurmur told Yahoo Sports. “We like his ability to tackle and cover ... all the things he needs to do as a safety.”
The biggest way Peppers is already making his presence felt, teammates and coaches say, is with his attitude. When he’s out there on the field, he makes you feel his presence at all times.
“I see a young guy who is ultra competitive — I’m talking about who’s coming in first when we’re doing drills and stuff, who’s got the best break coming out [their backpedal],” said safety Michael Thomas. “He’s talking. Just know this — you can hear Pep, wherever he’s at.”
It’s not condescending, Thomas said, and it’s not demeaning. It’s refreshing, and tight end Evan Engram — who Peppers was playfully jawing with during walkthrough on Thursday — agrees.
“I love it,” Engram said. “He pushes it to a whole ’nother level. That’s gonna make our defense nastier, more savage. That’s gonna make our offense hungrier to make plays.”
What’s more, Peppers is excited to be a Giant, too. Not only is he playing for his hometown squad — he grew up in nearby East Orange, New Jersey — his role in coordinator James Bettcher’s defense is similar to what he was allowed to do at Michigan in 2017, when he played the “Viper” — a hybrid linebacker/safety position — in defensive coordinator Don Brown’s 4-2-5 scheme.
“It’s very similar,” said Peppers, who is expected to replace team leader Landon Collins, who was allowed to sign with division rival Washington in free agency. “Just the way Bettcher used his players, his disguises to make coverages look like other coverages, I think it’s going to give a lot of people a hard time.”
Peppers enters camp at 5-feet-11 and 210 pounds, a little heavier than the 205-208 range he reported at last year. He is excited to give offenses a hard time, too, all in hopes of reminding people that he’s nobody’s throw-in, even if he was traded for one of the league’s most recognizable players in Beckham.
“I didn’t have an elite year — you know, it was good and good’s not good enough,” Peppers said. “I definitely feel like I don’t get enough credit, but I’ve just got to do more. Once I play the way I feel like I should be playing, I think the narrative’s definitely gonna change.”
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