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Jabrill Peppers Is the Most Versatile Defender in the Draft

The former Michigan star’s skill set is increasingly valuable in an era of positionless football. Plus, this year’s class is loaded at cornerback, and more takeaways from Monday at the combine.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The 2017 NFL combine has arrived, meaning it’s time for prospects to perform drills in their underwear, franchises to chart their futures, and anonymous scouts to provide irresponsible quotes. So who and what is creating the most buzz? The Ringer NFL staff has you covered, providing five thoughts from each day in Indianapolis.

1. Jabrill Peppers is a perfect modern defender. Peppers, the former AP first-team All-American at Michigan, worked out with the linebackers over the weekend, and he made it clear he didn’t want to be there. He moved around to different spots — on defense, offense, and special teams — during his Wolverines career, but said he sees himself as a safety at the next level. Instead of just talking about that at the combine, though, he did something unheard of: He worked out with two position groups on two separate days. On Monday, Peppers showed why he’d like to be a defensive back. He looked like a natural backpedaling and catching the ball. Check it out:

Peppers will not be considered an elite prospect at this draft — most mocks peg him in the second half of the first round. But there’s a case to be made that this type of position flexibility should boost his stock. NFL offenses are growing increasingly positionless: Running backs can move to slot receiver and catch balls seamlessly; tight ends can line up anywhere on the field; and more pass catchers are being used than ever before. Peppers can help to combat that, as he can do anything when defending the passing game: He can play nickel corner, he can be an every-down safety, and he can serve as a linebacker in the dime package. An increasing amount of offensive players can play anywhere on the field — look at Christian McCaffrey in this draft — but far fewer defenders can do the same. Peppers may not be a can’t-miss prospect at one position, but he’s a rare talent who should (and likely will) get picked in the first round. If you’re a defensive coordinator who doesn’t know what to do with Peppers, perhaps the problem is yours, not his.

2. I want to own an NFL team so that I can draft Obi Melifonwu. On Monday, Melifonwu, the former UConn safety, recorded the combine’s second-best broad jump since 2003 and its seventh-best vertical jump since the same year. He ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. Oh, and he is 6-foot-4 and 219 pounds. I would desperately like to draft him, even though I know that I lack the power to do so.

Melifonwu was a four-year college starter whom compares to George Iloka, the talented Bengals safety. A franchise is going to fall in love with his athleticism; sticking a player like him in the middle of the field can ruin an opposing offense’s day. He can jump to disrupt any pass, he has the speed to stick with any receiver, and he can cover ground quickly enough to help on any play while the ball is in the air. His visible disappointment with his vertical jump of 44 inches indicates that he’s previously jumped higher. That’s the equivalent of a guy hitting a 500-foot homer and knowing he left some meat on the bone. Draft Obi Melifonwu.

3. This draft is deep as hell at corner. If there’s one place that teams can find great value in this year’s draft, it’s at cornerback. Sure, there are blue-chip prospects like Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore (who pulled up with a tight hamstring Monday) who are certain to go in the first round, but there are also prospects who’ll be snagged in the second through fourth rounds who are nearly as good. UCLA product Fabian Moreau is one of them — a 6-footer with a 4.35-second 40-yard dash, a 38-inch vertical leap, and a 136-inch broad jump, great marks in every category. Central Florida’s Shaquill Griffin ran a 4.38 40, posted a 38.5-inch vertical, and registered a 132-inch broad jump. Potential starting cornerbacks should be available after the first round, which could hurt the value of the elite prospects like Lattimore or Florida’s Teez Tabor. When corners are everywhere, it may make sense for teams to target less-stacked positions earlier in the draft.

4. The tall defensive back revolution is here. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock made the point Monday that cornerbacks are getting taller, and the channel’s broadcast showed how. Twenty-one cornerbacks at the 2017 combine measured in above 6 feet; in 2003, Mayock said, that number was seven. I’ve done plenty of reporting on how athletes in the NFL have changed — Jimmy Smith, the talented Ravens cornerback, told me about how few people thought his 6-foot-2 frame was a benefit when he entered the league in 2011 — and how after Seattle started winning with raw, tall, long corners, they became all the rage.

It took a few years for that trend to fully take hold — and a few instances of teams overdrafting bad corners simply because they were tall — but the tall, talented cornerback movement is here to stay. And the fact that so many DBs put up historically good combine numbers in the broad and vertical jumps shows that these athletes will be key for defenses in slowing down offenses that are getting statistically better than ever.

5. Overthinking season begins. OK, the combine workouts are done. Now, there’s one thing to remember: The amount of times a player’s draft stock will “rise and fall” between today and the start of the draft on April 27 is typically vastly overstated. Most teams will make some adjustments after pro days and as they gather more information about prospect personalities, but more than anything, the next two months are filled with a whole lot of boredom — and that means that certain guys will start to gather “buzz.” That buzz is almost always a media creation. The vast majority of top prospects have made their case. Don’t overthink things. Instead, spend the next two months watching Feud. You’ll like it.