Mention the word catfish to any millennial and I’d bet the first word that pops into their head has nothing to do with the animal. That technology-addicted twenty-something will likely relate the word to the popular MTV show titled, Catfish. The show and popular term “catfished” that sprouted off of the show refers to someone luring another person into a relationship by means of a fictional persona they’ve created online through social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter or dating applications like Tinder. To dumb it down even further it’s really just someone lying to you about who they really are.
So what does this have to do with Jabrill Peppers? Well, I think Michigan and the national media catfished us all.
At first glance what’s not to love about a player that’s been compared to Jim Thorpe and Charles Woodson? Peppers’ is a do-it-all special athlete who impacts the game in all three phases. He’s your new-age hybrid defensive back/linebacker that’s a perfect fit for today's pass-heavy NFL. He’s dynamic as a returner that routinely flips field position while also showing the ability to take one back for a touchdown. If that isn’t enough, he’s also a weapon on offense.
Sounds like a no-brainer Heisman candidate to me. The NFL could honestly do a spin-off of the Bachelor with Jabrill Peppers as the star and have every NFL GM competing weekly for a rose. In Tinder terms, everyone is swiping right on Peppers without a thought and praying for a match.
As Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast my friend.”
Look, I don't get any joy out of critiquing someone like Jabrill Peppers because on all accounts he’s an awesome person, an impressive athlete with a terrific work ethic but after peeling back the curtain and putting him under the microscope it’s pretty clear he’s not the player he has been built up to be. At least not yet.
Since Peppers does have the ability to play in the NFL in all three phases of the game (Offense, Defense & Special Teams) let's walk through each category one by one.
Games Watched: Wisconsin (2016), Iowa (2016), Colorado (2016), Ohio State (2016), Michigan State (2015) & Minnesota (2015)
When it comes to Jabrill Peppers as a defender the first word that comes to mind is versatile. Michigan took advantage of Peppers supreme athletic talents and played him everywhere from linebacker to slot corner to boundary corner to free safety to strong safety.
In 2016, Peppers spent the majority of his time at linebacker, which immediately made the universe wonder if he was the next "moneybacker" in the NFL since he came up as a heralded 5-star defensive back recruit. Moneybacker ($ILB) is a term/position made popular by Arizona Cardinals defender Deone Bucannon. In this role, Bucannon is asked to be a major factor in stuffing the run and be a ballhawk in the secondary. This is a position that requires speed, physicality, and instincts. After watching Peppers 2016 film this position isn't in the cards.
Whether you want him roaming the middle or outside at linebacker the fact is it'll be a disaster as long as he's afraid to get physical. In the GIFs above Michigan is playing against some of the more traditional pro-style offenses and Peppers is more than happy to just retreat and be blocked 10+ yards down the field. His lack of will to fight is embarrassing at times.
Another thing that was disconcerting with Peppers on defense is the lack of a consistent fire under his ass. Peppers is pretty carefree and is more than willing to make a business decision and let someone else make a play. Show me one successful player in the NFL with that mindset. It now makes sense why he only was a part of one takeaway at Michigan and never forced or recovered a fumble. He just doesn't play with a ball-hawking mentality.
In the play below we have a 2nd & 4 to start the 2nd half. Peppers is at the top of the screen in coverage. Colorado does your classic RPO (Read/Pass Option) play. The QB keeps the football and when he starts to run is about 7 yards away from the yard to gain. Meanwhile, Peppers realizes this and needs to come up 4 yards to stop the QB from getting the first down. Peppers nonchalantly comes up and just falls over the QB who is right at the marker. My issue here is that I know Peppers can fly downhill and lay a pop but decides to play this like a 175 lb DB would. I can name a handful of safeties in this class that would have loved to lay a shot on the QB here.
Above are a couple of more plays that just leave you a little puzzled. Peppers comes in unblocked off the edge and has a great opportunity at a tackle for a loss but puts the breaks on instead of laying out. Other plays he just takes poor angles and doesn't care to break down or use good technique. That 4.46 speed that he showed at the combine isn't always apparent.
Where Peppers does excel is when the play is in front of him and he has an open lane to fly downhill. This is why I think his best fit on defense would be at strong safety.
Peppers also did well as a blitzer..Again, the plays where everything is in front of him and he's able to set his eyes on a target and show that shot-out-of-a-cannon like burst is where he shines brightest.
Now let's talk about Peppers in coverage. Peppers has spent time all over the secondary and has had varied success. In the play below, Peppers quickly weaves through traffic and gets out to his man in the flat. Again, that click-and-close burst pops out at you. Even though the play is to the short side of the field it's impressive the RB isn't even able to gain a yard on the play. Range shouldn't be an issue with Peppers and I can see it even becoming a strength down the road as he gets more comfortable and his anticipation and route recognition improves.
Where Peppers struggles is when he's in space or in man coverage with a receiver down the field. Peppers can panic and when that happens he gets super handsy. This surprised me because for having years of experience in the secondary and being a plus athlete you would figure he'd be lighter on his feet and have better anticipation for routes. Peppers only INT in college actually came on a play where he was beat on a simple curl route and the ball deflected off the WR's hands back to him. Funny how that works sometimes.
One area where Peppers doesn't lack anticipation and vision is as a returner. Peppers should get all the chances in the world to prove himself as a returner in the NFL. Simple as that.
Michigan also worked Peppers into the offensive gameplan for a handful of snaps each game. Just like as a returner Peppers looked natural with the ball in his hands and showed that same elusiveness. Some around the NFL believe running back would actually be his best spot at the next level. While we have a limited sample size to work with I do see potential there.
It's true that Jabrill Peppers is a tougher evaluation because he never settled into one position on defense in college. From an NFL standpoint, I think Michigan screwed him over there. I also think that maybe Peppers is a positionless defender because he's not especially good at anything on defense. Honestly. After watching Peppers I think most are using the tough evaluation statement as a crutch because Peppers has been propped up as this elite talent we still feel the need to put him in that box. We're already seeing people like Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr backpedal from their in-season rankings. There is a reason why guys.
From a defensive perspective Peppers is an early Day 3 caliber player, right now. He is a safety prospect who has struggled in coverage, is afraid to get physical and just hasn't shown that instinctive and fearless play. It just doesn't look like it comes natural to him and that's why I have an issue with just projecting improvement. On a positive note, he is an explosive athlete who is at his best when attacking downhill, whether that's blowing up a screen pass or blitzing the QB. He reminds me of Keanu Neal in this aspect of his game.
Peppers does add value as a returner and has the ability to make a transition to offense. Peppers will fit into any locker room and there are no issues with his work ethic. Every team knows they are getting a high-character guy.
If I were a GM, I would give Peppers a year or two to develop on the defensive side of the ball. If strides still aren't made at safety then I would be comfortable with a position change to running back. Ty Montgomery is a realistic comparison if he goes that route.
If there was an NFL Tinder, Jabrill Peppers bio would read something like, "21, 6'1", 205 lbs, 4.37 40, Heisman Finalist, BIG 10 Defensive, Linebacker, and Specialist of the Year, Consensus All-American, Paul Hornung Award Winner."
That's a sexy resume. Once we remove the pretty Snapchat and Instagram filters I think it obvious that we've all fallen in love with the idea of Jabrill Peppers, not the actual player he proved to be at Michigan. Michigan and the media did a terrific job of branding him.
Peppers was awesome for the Michigan program and college football and I love that teams are willing to let players like Peppers dazzle on both sides of the ball but his versatility isn't as rare as it's made out to be. Other big name prospects in the 2017 NFL Draft like USC's Adoree Jackson and Washington's John Ross have played on both sides of the football and are special return men.
For fun, let’s compare Jabrill Peppers to another player who made an impact on offense and defense recently. We'll use each player's last two years in college for this exercise.
Team Record: 20-6
Offensive Stats: 45 Carries, 239 Yards, 5 TD, 10 Receptions, 82 Yards, 0 TD
Defensive Stats: 110 Tackles, 18.5 TFL, 3 Sacks, INT, 11 PD, 0 FF, 0 FR
Team Record: 21-6
Offensive Stats: 82 Carries, 706 Yards, 8 TD, 10 Receptions, 104 Yards 0 TD
Defensive Stats: 42 Tackles, 2 TFL, Sack, 6 INT, 6 PD, FF
That mystery player is former Wisconsin QB/WR/S, Tanner McEvoy. McEvoy went undrafted but made a few splash plays with the Seahawks as a rookie last year. McEvoy isn't the player or prospect Jabrill Peppers is. I'm just having fun and pointing out that plenty of college players can produce when given the opportunity.
I'm rooting for Peppers and I hope the NFL team that drafts him is willing to have patience and has a plan for how they want to use him in the secondary.
However, if I'm an NFL GM I'm swiping left on Peppers until the late 3rd or early 4th round.
NFL Player Comparison Spectrum: TJ Ward, Micah Hyde, (X)/Patrick Chung, Johnathan Cyprien