Football is moving away from traditional positions. Pro Football Focus named Cardinals running back David Johnson the NFL’s best receiver last season and Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly the league’s best coverage player the season prior. Increasingly, safeties can become linebackers on any given play, linebackers can moonlight as slot corners, and receivers can become running backs. We haven’t seen this much versatility since Vin Diesel pulled off “fast driver” and “guy who cares about family” in the same franchise.
And so on the brink of the 2017 NFL draft, no question — not which quarterback will be hideously overdrafted, not whether Cleveland will overthink the obvious Myles Garrett pick at no. 1, not whether the Jets will do something laughable — is more impactful for the future of the league than where this class’s two most versatile players will be selected.
There’s Stanford offensive weapon Christian McCaffrey, a nominal running back who not only stated that he could play any receiver position on a given play but also focused almost exclusively on showcasing his receiving abilities at his pro day. Then there’s Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, a linebacker converted from safety who’s better at defensive back and maybe even better at returning kicks. He broke tradition to work out with two position groups (linebacker and defensive back) at the NFL combine, and when Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, the brother of Peppers’s college coach, Jim, was asked at his predraft press conference which positions Peppers could play in the pros — safety, a hybrid safety/linebacker, or even inside linebacker — Harbaugh responded, “Yes … all of the above.”
In theory, this should be great. Versatility is increasingly prized in the game. Ask people around the league about positionless prospects like Peppers and McCaffrey, though, and the enthusiasm dims: Despite evolving schemes, an uptick in elite athletes, and the mounting evidence that these flexible players are the key to a great modern offense and defense, come draft time NFL teams are still afraid of atypical prospects.
“In the NBA, several years ago they started this — if you had a certain type of body and athleticism, they were picking you regardless,” says Howard Griffith, a former NFL fullback and current analyst at the Big Ten Network. “It didn’t matter if you were one-and-done, or whatever, they were taking you for the upside. The NFL hasn’t yet done that. The NFL wants to look and say, ‘We have three years of tape of you doing this.’ Put yourself in a scout’s position; it’s not easy to do. Teams want comparisons, they want to say, ‘He’s like so-and-so,’ and with a guy like Peppers, you can’t do that. It’s a harder sell.”
McCaffrey and Peppers are some of the best athletes to enter the NFL in recent memory. McCaffrey ran the second-best three-cone drill since at least 2003 among players classified as running backs at the combine. He tied for the second-best vertical jump this year with 37.5 inches. Peppers, meanwhile, delivered one the two best broad jumps among players classified as linebackers and won the 40-yard dash among the position group by .12 seconds. They have the athleticism to play anywhere on the field — and that’s part of the problem.
Peppers and McCaffrey may not wind up being drafted in slots that clearly reflect their talent, but they have a clear connection to the future of the NFL, which will require drafting players who have limited tape showing the full extent of what they’ll be able to do in the pros. The NFL player is getting more flexible; the evaluation process will have to get more flexible as well.
“This debate is about the evaluation process,” says Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout and current director of scouting development at The Scouting Academy. “I think the league likes positional versatility, but it gets into a gray area when you don’t have a clear archetype so a coach can know automatically how you’ll use him. The sample sizes are getting smaller on players like that.” When discussing another versatile 2017 prospect, Ohio State running back/return man/receiver Curtis Samuel, on a conference call with reporters, former scout and current NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah noted that one big question about positionless players “sounds kind of silly”: what meetings the player will attend. “He can do both, but he’s going to be in one positional room,” Jeremiah says.
Griffith adds that one problem for these versatile athletes, and one that will weigh on NFL teams’ minds, is the current collective bargaining agreement, which limits the amount of on-field practice time, and caps the number of padded practices at 14 during the regular season. Due to those blockers, players typically have to start exclusively at one position, hindering their ability to learn schemes for multiple positions right away. Thus, as talented as Peppers and McCaffrey are, teams may fear that their contributions will initially be limited until they can learn full NFL schemes at multiple positions.
McCaffrey initially focused on one position at Stanford: When he arrived on campus, the coaching staff saw him as a pure running back. But they also knew that he excelled at receiver in high school and eventually attempted to ease him into catching a few passes. Once that happened, it didn’t take long for them to realize that he could easily master the entire route tree. “We’d teach him a bang-8 route, a seven-step post, and we’d only have to show him on film once,” Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren says. “He was good at it because — really — he’s just good at life.” McCaffrey quickly became one of the most talented pass-catching running backs in the country. In his sophomore year, he caught 45 passes for 645 yards on his way to a second-place Heisman finish.
Bloomgren calls some of the criticisms leveled against McCaffrey “ridiculous,” including whether McCaffrey can run between the tackles. “It’s like, ‘Have you ever seen us play?’ We run power.” Bloomgren believes that McCaffrey can do exactly what he did at Stanford in the NFL: be a three-down back, a capable pass protector, and a “day-one competitor for the kick return job.” Bloomgren, a former NFL assistant, says that when putting McCaffrey at receiver, he would start him out in the slot and work outside from there as his career progresses; he believes that the Heisman runner-up will fit in the modern NFL because “teams want to run 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) and then split Christian out wide and run 3x1 trips (three receivers stacked on one side of the field).”
Bloomgren, who mentions Carolina as a scheme fit thanks to its trips personnel, says that even when McCaffrey splits out wide, his ability to get open easily means he’ll never disappear from the game. Making McCaffrey the focal point of the offense was never an issue. In fact, Stanford faced the opposite challenge. “For us, the problem wasn’t getting him touches,” Bloomgren says, noting that McCaffrey almost always got open in the passing game. “The problem was ‘How are we going to be smart enough to not give him 65 touches in 66 plays?’ We would have if we could.”
Even amid concerns, McCaffrey is expected to go by the middle of the first round. Peppers, meanwhile, was regarded as a top-five pick last fall, but is now more commonly given a late-first-round grade and finds himself having to take on Chris Simms on Twitter after the analyst called him “overrated.” This week, the Associated Press wondered if he would even be a first-round pick.
It’s harder to evaluate Peppers than McCaffrey, Hatman says, because Peppers played linebacker for Michigan’s entire 2016 season, while McCaffrey moved around more. Griffith agrees, saying: “[Peppers is] getting penalized for doing exactly what the coaches wanted him to do at Michigan. The NFL wants to see a guy who will do anything he’s asked, but they also want to see him where he’ll play in the NFL.”
Not everyone is concerned: “There’s no doubt in my mind that he can go back and play safety,” the Ravens’ Harbaugh said at his presser. “Now, some people are questioning that, [but] having watched him work out numerous times now, there’s no doubt he can play deep. Then he brings the ability to play up. He can cover tight ends, he can blitz as good as anybody I’ve ever seen, and he can play the run as an inside linebacker at about 208 pounds [or] 212 pounds, maybe.”
Earlier this spring, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. spoke to NJ.com about an emerging thought on Peppers’s skill set: It’s not defined enough. “I think for a defensive coordinator to see a guy who he thinks he can define a role for, I think Peppers’s versatility was great,” Kiper said. “It also worked against him because he never could show what he could be to really define one position and really work that position.”
Peppers is baffled that despite the three years of highlights (at the very least, the man can return a punt!), the questions still linger. “At the end of day some reasonings for me not being able to play safety are mind-blowing,” Peppers told reporters at his pro day. Jeremiah called him one of the toughest evaluations in the entire draft class.
When the season starts, unconventional players like Peppers and McCaffrey will be the backbones of a handful of NFL teams. The NFL evaluation process just hasn’t yet caught up to that reality.