No. 5 is the most beautiful of football enigmas, a Rorschach test in Jumpman cleats.
Stare at the inkblot for a few seconds. Now tell me what you see in Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers:
An outside linebacker?
A wildcat quarterback?
A slot receiver?
A kick returner?
Where does Peppers really, really, really fit, long-term?
“There are going to be some people who fall in love with him as a safety and there’s going to be some people who think, as an outside linebacker, he’d be perfect,” former NFL head coach and analyst Mike Martz said. “If you (put) him into the bubble in a 4-3, with his abilities, I think he’d be perfect there. The weak outside linebacker in the 4-3, I think he’d have a shot there.”
“The personal opinion?” offered longtime ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, “He’s going be a really good strong safety, and he could play at the next level.”
“I think that, truthfully,” said Russ Lande, a former NFL scout and college scouting director for the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, “if I had the answer to that, I’d be the million-dollar man.”
The case for outside linebacker
It’s a package deal, only the package is crazy: 6-foot-1, 205 pounds of mostly muscle and granite …
— JP5 (@JabrillPeppers) July 24, 2014
… with an engine that’s been hand-timed at 4.31 in the 40-yard-dash. Or the same pace as NFL cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and Trae Waynes. A Silverado that does Porsche Spyder rpms.
Last fall, the redshirt junior tried more positions than the Kama Sutra, including duties as a kick and punt returner. He took part in 986 snaps, 765 on defense, 50 on offense, and 171 on special teams.
Peppers’ “anchor” position was cornerback, but the title was largely ceremonial. The New Jersey native recorded 45 solo tackles, 5.5 tackles for losses, 10 pass breakups, 72 rushing yards, 79 receiving yards, averaged 11.4 yards per punt return and 28.4 yards per kickoff runback. He was a finalist for the 2015 Paul Hornung Award, presented to the most versatile threat in major college football, and, on spec, deserves to be a finalist for the 2016 Heisman Trophy.
Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh has moved Peppers to strong-side linebacker and says he wants to play the kid 90-95 snaps per game. But he’s also leaving the percentages of where those particular snaps land up to the imagination.
“From what I’ve seen of him, I’d say linebacker,” Lande said. “I’m not convinced he can cover at the level you want an NFL safety to cover. Being good in coverage in college is different than being able to handle it in the NFL. I want to see it proven to me. Maybe he can.”
Labels are a funny business. You never know which ones might actually stick. Or, for that matter, why.
“There’s the issue,” Martz said. “When you start boxing a guy into a corner and saying, ‘This is what he is,’ you have a chance to be wrong.
“I mean, I wouldn’t worry about it. If I Iooked at him and if he was a really productive player, I’d worry about what (to do) after we drafted him. When I got the job in St. Louis, they kept saying, ‘(Ex-Tennessee standout) Leonard Little is a linebacker.’ But when we put his hand on the ground (as a rusher) on the scout team, we couldn’t block him.
“He’s so instinctive, when you watch him, he just sticks out immediately.”
Some coaches and personnel types balk at making comparisons, but not with Peppers. When Martz — whose NFL track record includes a 53-32 record as coach of the Rams and an NFC title in 2001 — visited Michigan’s spring camp for a few days this past April on the invitation of Wolverines passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, he came away gushing about No. 5.
“He kind of reminded me of the Hall of Famer from Tampa Bay, (John) Lynch,” the longtime coach and offensive coordinator said.
“He has that athletic prowess where he’s capable of doing just about anything. The thing that impressed me is how quickly he can shift gears when the ball’s in the air and the plays that he made. Especially with him, just watching him play, their practice, I’ve never seen a team practice like that. I was just blown away by it.”
Still: An outside linebacker playing at under 210 pounds? One that returns kicks?
“Yeah, but you have to remember, it makes sense when you start looking at where college football is offensively, with three receivers all the time, the read option,” Martz countered. “All that stuff that they run, it makes more sense to have an athlete like him at outside linebacker, which is a lot more like a defensive back than a traditional linebacker. His ball skills, like when he shifts gears out there, there’s no messing around.”
As for projecting at the next level, Martz tossed out another name, ex-Rams safety Adam Archuleta.
“He was an outside linebacker in college that we made a safety,” Martz said. “The instincts and the ability to get through traffic — it’s really such a big deal. I just think that they’ve done a good job (with) that outside linebacker position in college football, to make that a premier position. That’s a guy you have to count on (as) a coverage guy and a blitzer. He’s got to do so many things. He’s maybe your best athlete on defense. He’d be superb as an outside linebacker.”
The case for safety
Which then brings out another, more modern comparison: Arizona outside linebacker Deone Bucannon, a strong safety/hybrid linebacker in the Cardinals’ 3-4 scheme, a fast tweener with enough size (6-1, 220) to mix it up inside the box.
“An explosive, dynamic type of guy who plays close to the line of scrimmage,” Lande said. “At that spot … he can cover tight ends and cover running backs out of the backfield, he can pursue (ball-carriers). Whereas if he’s playing deep, I just don’t know if he can. It’s more of a case of I haven’t seen it yet than he can’t do it.”
The consensus is that the smart play involves getting Peppers into space — but how much space is too much? And how does a defender under 215 pounds keep from getting swallowed up by the grizzly bears along the line of scrimmage?
“They’re going to have to take on blocks, they’re going to have to deal with constant contact,” Lande said, noting Peppers’ quick feet. “I think that’s what helped Bucannon so much … if a lineman or tight end can’t get their hands on him real quick, he’s going to get around them, he’s going to make the tackle.
“I think that’s the spot Peppers can be in. The question is, ‘Can he get to 220 pounds, or will he always be 215-218?’ Now everybody says he’s 218; the debate is whether he can be physical when he gets to the next level.”
Punch clocked in at this past winter’s Citrus Bowl between Michigan and Florida, although Peppers didn’t because of a hand injury. But he’s looking forward to a longer look at the defender-return man-athlete-whatever as part of the broadcast team for the Wolverines’ season opener against Hawaii.
“It just depends on where Michigan wants you to see him,” Punch said. “And I believe Harbaugh is going to put him where not only he can help the team, but (also) help himself at the next level.”
The case for who-the-hell-knows
And lo, the quest for context. Charles Woodson? Brian Urlacher? In three years as a freakish, 6-4 collegian at New Mexico, the latter played safety, linebacker, receiver, and returned kicks. He ran back 13 punts and six kickoffs with the Lobos from 1997-’99 while also catching seven passes for 61 yards; in 1999, the ex-Chicago Bears great tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns (six).
“Athletically, (Peppers) has got the receiver traits,” said Lande. “The problem is, I’ve never seen the kid run routes. Does he have the physical traits? He probably does.
“If you get him the ball in space, he’s pretty athletic and pretty (nimble) and I’m (sure) that’s why you would try to do something like that.”
And Lande drops yet another name onto Peppers’ comparative pile: Carnell Lake, the former UCLA defensive back who would go on to five Pro Bowls as an anchor in the Steelers’ secondary under then-coach Bill Cowher.
“There’s some similarities, just in terms of the type of athlete,” Lande said. “If you look at Peppers, I think Lake was probably a little bit more explosive and well-built at his position. But there are definitely some similarities in terms of comparing them and their roles. Lake was a special football player to me.
“To me, (Peppers) has to prove that he’s as elite as a player as he is as an athlete. I think that’s the debate that people want to figure out.”
And it rages on. One inkblot at a time.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler