Dougherty: No place for Jabrill Peppers on Packers?

Pete Dougherty
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Michigan's Jabrill Peppers carries the ball against Maryland during a 2016 game in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Jabrill Peppers might be the most confounding player in this year’s NFL draft.

The University of Michigan standout won the Paul Hornung Award last season as the most versatile player in college football. He played primarily linebacker and nickel corner, but also lined up at safety, outside cornerback, return man, running back and even option quarterback.

He’s a talented guy.

But evaluations for him as an NFL prospect are all over the map.

Mike Mayock, the top draft expert for, said last month that he considers Peppers a top-10 talent. Chris Simms, a former backup quarterback in the NFL and now an analyst for Bleacher Report, called Peppers the most overrated player in the draft.

There’s a decent chance Peppers still will be on the board when the Green Bay Packers pick at No. 29. With all the talk of what a dynamic player he is, I’ve been wondering whether the Packers might see him fitting the slot cornerback in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defensive scheme. It’s a critical position in Capers’ defense — Capers has named the position “star” and the Packers don’t have a proven multi-talented player there.

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With Peppers’ all-around abilities, I wondered if he could be a Charles Woodson or Troy Polamalu in that role, playing cat and mouse with the quarterback, sometimes covering, sometimes blitzing, filling holes in run defense and generally disrupting things.

I talked to three NFL scouts about it, and their responses show why Peppers can confound as an NFL prospect: One thought his best position is running back; the other two said defense, but one as a linebacker and the other as a safety. A scout I texted with liked him as a cornerback. So go figure.

After speaking with the scouts, I’d bet against Thompson taking Peppers if he’s available at No. 29. But take that for what it’s worth. The Packers’ GM very well might see something special there. We’ll find out on April 27 if Peppers still is on the board at No. 29.

For the record, at the NFL scouting combine Peppers measured 5-feet-11⅞ and 213 pounds. He ran the 40 in 4.46 seconds. Last season, he had 16 tackles for a loss, one interception and one pass defended. He also scored five touchdowns on offense, rushed for 239 yards (5.3-yard average), averaged 8.2 yards on 10 receptions, and averaged 26.8 yards as a kickoff returner and 13.1 yards as a punt returner.

I asked the first scout where he’d play Peppers, assuming he’d say linebacker, safety or slot corner.

“The guy is an incredible athlete, and the fact that you can use him in several different spots is very intriguing,” the scout said. “The problem is he’s not great at any one of those spots. …

“This guy’s not a great football player. When you play him you’re going to find out there are things you can’t do with him. There are more things you can’t do with him than you can do with him. The one trait that’s best of his, when you put the football in his hands he has a feel how to run. I think he can be a hell of a running back.”

Scout No. 2 said he’d first play Peppers at linebacker. A new trend in the league is using undersized players at linebacker to match up better in the passing game. The Arizona Cardinals (Deone Bucannon) and Los Angeles Rams (Mark Barron) have been using a safety at starting linebacker the last couple years; the Packers started playing Morgan Burnett more at linebacker as last season went on and plan to use him there even more this season.

“From there, figure out if (Peppers) is better off playing in the box like a linebacker,” the scout said, “or can you give him more stuff in space like a strong safety?”

The third scout said he’d only draft Peppers if his team ran a defense that usually plays one safety near the line of scrimmage. Seattle and Atlanta are the most obvious examples, though other teams are incorporating that more into their schemes as well. New England deploys players in multiple roles probably more than anybody in the league.

“(Peppers) likes to be in the traffic, he likes to be in the mix of things,” the scout said. “I think he’s more of a box safety, and if you don’t play that scheme, I really believe it’s a wasted pick.”

None of the three scouts interviewed was biting on Peppers becoming a Woodson or Polamalu in the slot.

“Polamalu could tackle,” one said. “You put him near the line of scrimmage he was going to avoid (blockers) and he was going to find a way to the ball. I don’t think this guy has that. Woodson, even as a corner he was a fierce tackler, a wrap-up-get-guys-on-the-ground player. Ball hawk. Always around (the ball). Skill. Not even the same guy. People will compare Woodson to Peppers, and it’s not even fair.”

Said another scout: “(Peppers) has got the full speed; if you’re going to run him in a 40 he’s got that. He doesn’t have that burst, acceleration, change-of-direction to play nickel for me. He’s not Charles Woodson. Charles is so much smoother. Same with Polamalu. … . I think this guy is strictly a safety.”

Does that mean Thompson won’t draft Peppers? Not at all.

I doubt the Packers’ GM would select him at No. 29 as a linebacker, since Burnett already fills that role. Safety? No need there.

So it would be as a slot corner, where the Packers can use help ASAP. It all comes down to what Thompson thinks.

For all we know, the GM might envision Peppers becoming a star. But the guess here is Thompson will see better options elsewhere.

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