By Ben Axelrod ,
With the 2016 NFL draft having officially passed, fans and prognosticators alike have already turned their attention toward next year’s selection show.
And if you’ve looked at any one of the many “way-too-early” 2017 mock drafts that seem to flood the market this time of year, you may have noticed an emerging trend—aside from Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson’s seemingly inevitable future as a Cleveland Brown.
While you’d have to go back to 2008 to find the last time Michigan possessed a heavy first-round presence, the early forecast for 2017 calls for the Wolverines’ return to the forefront of the draft. And although much can change in both the NFL and Ann Arbor in the next 12 months, Jabrill Peppers is the player garnering the most interest from those who follow the draft closest.
“Get ready for the comparisons between Jabrill Peppers and [Jacksonville Jaguars No. 5 overall pick] Jalen Ramsey,” Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Analyst Matt Miller wrote in his “way-too-early” predictions piece.
“The former 5-star recruit has been turning heads since high school, and now that he’s unleashed in Jim Harbaugh’s system, Peppers is making NFL-level plays.”
With minicamps following the 2016 draft yet to have even started, opinions on Peppers‘ prospects for 2017 vary.
Miller slotted the Michigan safety as his No. 10 overall pick, while Pro Football Focus slotted him at No. 22. WalterFootball.com pegged Peppers as its No. 8 pick and SBNation.com placed the 6’1″, 208-pounder at its No. 23 pick.
For a player who will still have two years of eligibility available to him after he completes his upcoming redshirt sophomore season, it should hardly come as a surprise that there’s little consensus to be found in mock drafts that will likely change at least a dozen times over the course of the next year.
But even with just one year of significant playing time to his credit at the college level, this much appears to be agreed upon: Peppers is a fascinating pro prospect, even if we don’t yet know what position he’ll be playing at the next level.
“He’s the athletic hybrid player for which the NFL is looking,” PFF’s Steve Palazzolo wrote in his 2017 mock draft on Tuesday.
The nation’s top-ranked athlete in the 2014 recruiting class, Peppers was thought by some to be a future cornerback upon arriving in Ann Arbor, where a lower body injury forced him to miss the majority of his freshman season and ultimately take a redshirt.
In 2015, the New Jersey native proved to be one of the nation’s most versatile players, playing safety at an All-Big Ten level, while also averaging 5.8 yards per touch (151 yards on 26 touches) and scoring two touchdowns after becoming a two-way player at the midway point of the season.
“I can think of five different positions he could be really good at in football. Can somebody be the Willie Mays of football? Can somebody be the five-tool player, the five-position player? Maybe. Maybe that’ll end up being Jabrill Peppers,” Harbaugh said near the end of last season. “He’ll find his absolute best position as you go along. It’s interesting to think about and consider the possibilities.”
This offseason, the Wolverines staff has dreamed up another one of those possibilities, slotting Peppers as an outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Don Brown’s system.
If Brown’s history at Boston College and Connecticut before that is any indication, Peppers’ latest position switch should only help improve his rising draft stock.
Current Indianapolis Colts linebacker Sio Moore totaled 31.5 tackles for loss while playing a similar role under Brown at UConn in 2011 and 2012, and Seattle Seahawk Kevin Pierre-Louis recorded 108 tackles, 10.5 of which came for a loss, and six sacks at Boston College in 2013.
Tampa Bay Buccaneer Josh Keyes tallied 11.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2014, a year before junior Matt Milano racked up 17.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in Brown’s final season with the Eagles.
For all of those impressive stat lines—and in the case of Moore and Pierre-Louis, increased draft stocks as a result—none of them possessed the same type of 5-star talent apparent in Peppers. That will likely lead to the premier position in Brown’s defense making an even greater impact in the coming year, given the safety-turned-linebacker’s ability to not only blitz, but effectively drop into coverage.
“He’s playing at a high level there, so I’m happy with him. From a coverage standpoint, it’s everything we expected. I think he’s picked up the linebacker pieces of it pretty well,” Brown said in the spring. “The last three guys are in the NFL that I’ve coached that have played that position. You expect a lot at that spot, so we’re going to get what we expect.”
As for his NFL future, Peppers figures to eventually make a return to safety, a position he won’t completely abandon in the Wolverines scheme in 2016. It’s also worth noting the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year may ultimately opt for multiple of years of development at his new spot, as he’s previously vowed to obtain his degree before declaring for the draft, in a since-deleted tweet.
But if Peppers learns as quickly in the classroom as he did on the field, graduating in just three years isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Plus, tweets aren’t binding, and a lot can obviously change between now and next spring.
For now, Peppers remains the most intriguing prospect in a process that’s built on—and often rewards—the unknown.
Shop for Michigan Wolverines gear here.