INDIANAPOLIS — Three lines formed around Jabrill Peppers’ podium about 30 minutes before the former Michigan defender was scheduled to meet the media Saturday. Five minutes later, the area grew even more saturated.
Curiosity surrounded no player at the 2017 NFL Combine quite like it did with Peppers. He played linebacker last year at Michigan and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. An All-American. The Big Ten’s defensive player of the year. He returned kicks, caught passes and ran the football as a wildcat quarterback. He played defensive back for two years before becoming college football’s ultimate hybrid player.
At 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds, what position will he play in the NFL? That was the first question Peppers fielded, and he emphatically answered with his own question.
“What do I look like?” Peppers asked. He waited and nobody answered. Then with a chuckle he said, “I’m a safety.”
Peppers’ answer ran counter to his No. 24 combine jersey with a big “LB” across his midsection. Reluctantly, he will run and lift with the linebackers on Sunday. Peppers wanted to compete with the defensive backs, but he was denied.
The reason? He played linebacker last year. So he and his agents petitioned to allow him to compete in defensive back drills.
“They only way I could do it is if I do both,” Peppers said. “I said, ‘That’s easy, that’s no problem at all.’ ”
So Peppers will compete Sunday as a linebacker in the running drills and spend Monday with the defensive backs. It’s just one more way for him to show NFL clubs how badly he wants to play in the secondary.
In his one-on-one meetings this week, his versatility ignited a primary round of questions. He provided straightforward answers.
“Basically they asked me where do I see myself playing?” Peppers said. “If they were to draft me, where would they put me? What are my strong suits? What are my weaknesses? Just things like that.
“I tell them my natural position is definitely in the defensive backfield. I had to fill a void this year because it’s what was best for the team. If I had to do it all over again, I would. I didn’t think it would hurt me.”
Peppers repeatedly emphasized his value as a safety. He talked about his coverage skills and the drills he didn’t work on last season because he was a linebacker. He touted his work ethic and his toughness. He said he plans to run a sub “4.45” in the 40-yard dash.
“The bottom line is I’m a ballplayer, and I’m a hell of a ballplayer,” Peppers said. “I intend to run fast. I intend to look smooth doing whatever it is I’m asked to do. After a couple of interviews, I think these coaches pretty much know what they’re going to get.
“I’m pretty much effective wherever I get put. I don’t have a lot of tape at safety, but I’m a pretty damn good safety. I think a lot of teams noticed that. They have the tape; they asked me for tapes of me playing corner, me playing safety. Ultimately, I hope to have a lot of questions answered after this weekend.”
Peppers’ comparisons with linebacker/safety hybrid players such as Deone Buchanan, Shaq Thompson and Kam Chancellor are prevalent. But Peppers considers himself more like Seattle free safety Earl Thomas. But in the NFL’s sub-package style of play, Peppers’ versatility provides coaches with possibilities.
“When you look at Peppers, you look at what he does: ‘Wow,’ ” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “Here’s a guy that gives you some safety traits. Here’s a guy that can probably come down in the box like a nickel, come down in the box like a linebacker. And if you ever really did need it, you can put him on the offensive side as well.
“He’s got a lot of special teams value. So you have to really break it down to how does he fit you, and what other special traits he has to have the rest of the football team.”
Nearly 12 minutes into his interview session, Peppers walked off the podium. After he runs and backpedals and leaves Indianapolis, the NFL draft echo chamber will shift opinions and speculation will swirl. To that, Peppers has no opinion. He’s concerned with only what the decision-makers think. That’s what will determine his location this April.
“They can question whatever they want to question,” Pepper said. “They can’t question my work ethic.”