Positional distinctions are disappearing. Rushing yards are losing meaning. And offensive and defensive schemes are shifting from game to game — if not drive to drive. The most popular sport in America is changing faster than it ever has before — yet the way we talk about the game has largely stayed the same. It’s time for the conversation to catch up to the shifting concepts redefining front offices and gameplay nationwide. So welcome to The Ringer’s You Don’t Know Football Week, where we’ll explore and attempt to better understand the evolutions already occurring on the gridiron — and the reboots we’d like to see make their way to the game next.
Jabrill Peppers was a trial balloon for the modern NFL. The league is supposed to be more accepting of hybrid players who can play multiple positions thanks to coaches who are supposed to be getting more creative. At Michigan, Peppers was the über-athlete; he played snaps at 11 different positions. In his final college season, he was a 205-pound linebacker who projected to the NFL as safety, a position he played earlier in his college career. But he also had experience playing running back and returning kicks. Oh, and he could play corner, too.
If the NFL is truly going the way of basketball, where positional designations mean less and less every year, then Peppers should’ve been a top prospect. And Cleveland’s decision to take him with the 25th overall pick seemed to suggest as much.
Except, Peppers himself would beg to differ. He does not think NFL evaluators did a particularly good job with him.
“The one thing everyone loved about me in college hurt me at the next level,” Peppers told me of his versatility.
When I suggested to Peppers that coaches and GMs must’ve loved his ability to play across the field, he immediately pushed back.
He said that “88 percent” of teams hammered him for playing too many positions in his college career and not playing his eventual NFL position—safety—enough. (For his part, Peppers said he doesn’t regret where he played because his Wolverines won a lot of games during his tenure.) A typical conversation with teams during predraft meetings, Peppers told me, went like this: “They said, ‘You do everything. You’re here, you’re here, you’re here. We’re going to play you at one position. How can we be sure that you’re going to master this position?’”
“My response was: ‘Everything I do now is just sheer athleticism.’ I didn’t really have the privilege to just keep ironing and sharpening my craft at one position,” Peppers said. Without any classes to attend or strict limits on practice time, Peppers told coaches he’d master whatever position they asked him to play.
“If I can do all of these things at a high level and you don’t think I can do one thing at a high level, it just did not add up to me,” Peppers said. “I didn’t really try to defend myself, it’s like—if you didn’t think I could play a certain position, don’t draft me. I didn’t say that, but that’s how I was feeling.”
Positional flexibility is generally a positive in the NFL. Bill Belichick has long valued the defensive back who can play safety or corner. Guards who can play tackle and vice versa usually have longer careers than one-trick linemen. But Peppers suggests that, at least right now, your flexibility can reach a point of diminishing returns. If you’re doing too many things, then teams will worry you can’t do enough things well. Given how he said NFL teams reacted to his collegiate positioning, Peppers is worried his experience will give pause to the next generation of flexible defenders whose coaches ask them to perform multiple roles.
“I kind of felt it sent a bad message to kids going to college,” Peppers said of amateur players who play multiple positions. “I feel like now people are going to shy away from it, based off of what I went through. They’ll praise you in college for it and when it’s time to get to the next level, all these doubts seem to circulate. [Evaluators] seemed to flip-flop.”
Remember, he was the one who brought all of this up.
“How everything unfolded—I’m definitely going to have a chip on my shoulder.”
NFL offenses are spreading the field out, using bigger and faster receivers in a variety of spots on the field, and to mirror that, defenses are finding bigger and faster guys to put everywhere on the field. There’s a premium on players who can keep up with receivers, tight ends, and running backs, but can also lay a big hit or help in the run game. Panthers coach Ron Rivera told me that Shaq Thompson was a great example of the modern defender. Arizona’s Deone Bucannon is a safety who plays linebacker, Washington’s Su’a Cravens played linebacker but will move to safety this season. Despite their value to the modern game, none of these players were selected in the top 20 picks of the draft.
Peppers will not speculate on where he’d have gone if he played safety every snap in college—he considers that a what if and he doesn’t entertain those—but it’s safe to say he thinks he’d have gone higher.
ESPN’s Todd McShay had Peppers as his no. 4 overall prospect in December. By the spring, McShay had him as a second-round pick and said he was “struggling with his evaluation” of the Michigan star, mostly focusing on how despite playing there in college, Peppers was too small to play NFL linebacker like Bucannon has.
There were other doubts about Peppers. He tested positive for a diluted drug test sample before the draft, one of two first-rounders who’d been flagged. (Former Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster was the other. He was drafted by the 49ers.) Peppers also said teams asked why he’d produced only one interception in college.
Cleveland, however, was not among those teams who wondered about his ability to create turnovers.
“The Browns, they saw it in me,” Peppers said. “They said, ‘I know you can judge a deep ball by the way you return punts, it’s basically the same thing, just the way the ball is coming down is different.’”
If Peppers becomes a dominant force—at any position—he could be the key to a resurgence (surgence?) of the Browns, who have not had a .500 season since 2007 and have been in the bottom half of the league in points allowed in four of the past five seasons.
He’s grateful that the Browns believed and he’s thrilled to be in Cleveland. But Peppers is particularly perturbed about the predraft process since, he said, he spent most of the combine and winter workouts trying to answer every question about his game. His hip flexibility was in doubt, so he worked on flipping his hips. “And I was faster than a lot of people thought,” he added. “But people made a bigger deal about my versatility in a more negative than positive way.”
Peppers called himself a “winner” and said he had no reservations about doing what his college coaches needed. Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said that Peppers had to be moved around to maximize the defense because he was such a dynamic athlete. Coming out of high school in 2014, Peppers was known as one of the best athletes in America: Rivals ranked him the no. 3 prospect and the no. 1 cornerback.
“I didn’t have film at safety because I had to do what my team needed me to do, which was play in the box more, to provide that speed and prevent guys from getting to the edge on rushes and forcing things back inside,” he said. “A lot of people thought I was overrunning plays, but no one really know the ins and outs of the system except the people who run the system.”
Plenty of talent evaluators thought he’d be great at running back, and Peppers said he’s open to playing offense in the pros but certainly not full time. If his team needed it, sure, but he said he has the wiring of a defender and that’s his natural role.
Browns coach Hue Jackson said he loves Peppers’s versatility and flexibility. This week, Peppers had what the Cleveland media universally termed a “dominant practice.” He hit the crap out of a guy.
here's footage of Jabrill Peppers' huge hit on Rannell Hall at practice today, via the Browns pic.twitter.com/Ckf9a0kC9C— Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm) August 15, 2017
“I think he's showing you,” Jackson said this week, “he can play anywhere.”
Peppers is optimistic about this Cleveland team despite its four wins over the past two seasons. He’s as angry about the criticisms of the Browns as he is about the criticisms directed at him during the draft process. He wants to change the perception and thinks the team has the young talent to do it.
“We all have the same mindset,” Peppers said. “We’re going to go out here and kick some ass.”