Goodbye, Jabrill Peppers

Goodbye, Jabrill Peppers

March 15, 2017

As we all remember, Peppers went to Paramus (NJ) Catholic, where he was coached by current Michigan linebackers coach Chris Partridge. He chose Michigan in May of 2013 (LINK), roughly nine months before National Signing Day. One of the most celebrated players in the 2014 class altogether, Peppers was a star in New Jersey for winning four state championships (two at Don Bosco, then two at Paramus Catholic) and generally having ridiculous athleticism. I gave him a TTB Rating of 100.

Hit the jump for more on Peppers’s career.

Peppers was expected to make an immediate impact in college, but his season started off slowly and ended with a whimper. He made 8 tackles and 1 punt return for 6 yards during the first three games, but a lower leg injury forced him to sit out the final nine games of the year. When Brady Hoke was fired, new head coach Jim Harbaugh and new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin had big plans for Peppers. They played him mostly as a slot corner as a redshirt freshman; he responded with 45 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 10 pass breakups. His most exhilarating plays were left for offense, though, where he played running back and slot receiver. Overall, he rushed 18 times for 72 yards and 2 touchdowns, and he caught 8 passes for 79 yards. Once Durkin left to be the head coach at Maryland, new defensive coordinator Don Brown came in with an eye toward putting Peppers at SAM linebacker, so he put on a few pounds. He made 72 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 1 interception (for 11 yards), and 1 forced fumble in 2016. He also continued to shine on offense (27 carries, 167 yards, 3 TDs) and special teams (14.8 yards/punt return and 1 TD, 26.0 yards/kickoff return). While he didn’t put up otherworldly statistics in any single category, the breadth of his work was impressive. College football rarely sees a player contribute so much in all three phases of the game, and that was likely the impetus for him getting invited to New York City as a Heisman finalist.

125 tackles, 21.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, 1 INT (for 11 yards), 1 FF, 10 PBUs
45 carries for 239 yards (5.3 yards/carry) and 3 TDs
10 catches for 82 yards (8.2 yards/catch)
18 kickoff returns for 483 yards (26.8 yards/return)
39 punt returns for 510 yards (13.1 yards/return) and 1 TD

5th place in Heisman voting (2016)
Paul Hornung Award (2016)
Lott IMPACT Trophy (2016)
Unanimous First Team All-American (2016)
Big Ten’s Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year (2016)
Big Ten’s Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year (2016)
Big Ten’s Rodgers-Dwight Returner of the Year (2016)
All-Big Ten First Team Linebacker and Return Specialist (2016)

This sounds extremely petty, but as a Michigan fan, I can’t help feeling shorted a little bit on the Jabrill Peppers Experience. When he signed in 2014, he was the number one Michigan recruit of the Rivals era (LINK), since surpassed by #1 overall player Rashan Gary. When I looked back at the top cornerback recruits in the modern recruiting era (LINK), I came up with a comparable of Eric Berry. Michigan got some great performances out of Peppers, but not as many as hoped. Frustratingly, he only played three games as a true freshman, and then he proceeded to miss each of the bowl games following the 2015 and 2016 seasons. As an early entrant to the NFL draft after a medical redshirt and two mostly fulfilled seasons, he played in just 27 games as a Wolverine, or an average of 9 per year. He might have helped Brady Hoke win a couple more games in 2014 (though that may have helped Hoke’s job security, which probably would have been a negative), and his absence from this past season’s bowl game against Florida State probably cost Michigan a victory and an 11-2 season.

On top of the injury stuff, Peppers never turned out to be the turnover machine that many expected of him. The #1 cornerback in the class of 2014 ended his career with just 1 takeaway, an intercepted deflection against Ohio State. Literally every other #1 cornerback in the Rivals era forced more turnovers during his career, save for a couple guys who ended up playing offense. He never scored a defensive touchdown, and he only broke up 10 passes – all of which came in 2015.

But that’s enough of the bad stuff. Peppers was exhilarating at times. He probably could have excelled at numerous positions if he had ever settled down, including running back, slot receiver, cornerback, safety, or outside linebacker, not to mention punt returner and kick returner. Whenever he had the ball in his hands, thoughts of Denard Robinson popped into mind. Anything could happen, and while he didn’t have the pure top-end speed of Robinson, he was a little more unpredictably agile. He also took some chances with catching the football on punt returns that always looked dangerous, and yet they never ended poorly. While he did muff a couple punts that skittered out of bounds or he recovered himself, he never had a turnover on any of the 113 times he touched the ball during his career. That’s pretty remarkable for a guy who spent most of his time playing defense.

. . . his negated punt return touchdown against Rutgers in 2016. The ball skills, speed, agility, and awareness were all on display on that one play. Symbolically, it represents a career that could have been awesome but never quite reached its potential.

There’s been some talk that Peppers will slide to the second round of the NFL Draft, but I don’t see that happening. Even if he’s a safety/linebacker tweener and even if he hasn’t blown people away with his play or his testing numbers, the potential is too high for him to drop out of the first. Some team with a good roster already will take him and figure out what to do with him.


  1. Comments: 904
    Joined: 8/13/2015
    Mar 15, 2017 at 7:13 AM

    Helluva play.

  2. GKblue
    Comments: 175
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Mar 15, 2017 at 8:16 AM

    How I long for those days long gone by where our best guys stuck around for four years.

  3. Comments: 568
    Joined: 1/19/2016
    Mar 15, 2017 at 4:11 PM

    Great writeup Thunder!

    Go Blue

  4. Comments: 3181
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Mar 15, 2017 at 8:31 PM

    Very fun player. Probably overrated by many fans. I went to fan photo day before his freshman year and he had by far the longest line for autographs of anyone, before playing a down. But set aside the hype and he was kid that was flat-out fun to watch. It was also fun to debate how best to use an electric athlete like him. His importance was evident with how badly he was missed against FSU when our formerly elite defense got knocked on it’s heals for the first part of the game and struggled to contain big plays. To be disappointed by an all American and Heisman finalist is crazy to me.

    I’m not sure he has the tools to be a great CB or great RB but he certainly could have been a pretty decent one at the college level. I’m probably in the minority but I think Michigan found a pretty ideal fit for him and he helped spearhead an elite defense despite a significant change in scheme and DC.

    In the next level it shouldn’t be that complicated. He seems like a nickel-corner / hybrid safety. Teams will test him in coverage but there’s no real reason to think he won’t be able to handle it.

    Still, I think he goes high second round. The NFL combine showed a good athlete (no surprise) but not knock-your-socks off athleticism that indicated he was under-utilized in college. With first round picks you want a sure thing and a guy who can come in and make an instant impact, preferably as a starter. Peppers isn’t that. He’s more like a QB that you have to develop except not a QB obviously.

    • Comments: 2083
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Mar 15, 2017 at 9:04 PM

      I think if he had been developed to be a cornerback or a running back, he could have been great. For cornerback he doesn’t have the build right now, but if he took off a little bulk and played at 195 lbs. or so, I think that would have helped with his change-of-direction skills a little bit. And if he drilled the coverage stuff, he probably would have improved his anticipation and recognition skills. If he were bred to be a running back, I think he would have been Michigan’s best running back in a long time, too, maybe even better than Mike Hart. I don’t think he would be an Adrian Peterson who would dominate the NCAA and NFL, but he would have been very good.

      I don’t think you have to be a great athlete to go late in the first round of the draft. There are some freaks who go top-15 or so, but when you get down around #25 or so, teams are picking guys who can help them remain near the top of the league, not guys who can be “franchise players.” I don’t think Peppers is a franchise guy.

      • Comments: 904
        Joined: 8/13/2015
        Mar 16, 2017 at 7:34 AM

        I think he would be very tough to play against at Cb. In part because I think he would play it quite differently than most corners. I can see him employing just the nastiest initial punch with a borderline illegal, but nearly imperceptible grab and pul that would make it very difficult to run anything that even remotely resembles a timing route.

        • Comments: 3181
          Joined: 8/11/2015
          Mar 16, 2017 at 11:55 AM

          Our best cover corner in a decade was a guy who totally lacked power. I think length is more important than strength here and instincts (experience) help with timing if you are trying to get away with grabbiness.

          • Comments: 904
            Joined: 8/13/2015
            Mar 16, 2017 at 12:39 PM

            You miss the point. Length is indeed a wonderful asset for a corner, but I’m not rating attributes.

            I’m simply suggesting that Peppers could/would/will play the position differently because of his having a different kind of body. Our best corner this year was indeed our smallest corner but he by virtue of his frame can’t hope to play the position like Peppers, who would/will likely inject some measure of brutality into the practice of press coverage that Lewis, Stribling and Clark can not.

            • Comments: 3181
              Joined: 8/11/2015
              Mar 16, 2017 at 8:24 PM

              We saw Peppers cover people – he wasn’t as good as Clark, Stribling or Lewis. Those guys were all great at jamming people and it wasn’t because of strength. Lewis may be short but has decent length.

              I think it’s a stretch to argue Peppers would revolutionize technique at the position. If that’s what you’re saying.

              Anyway Clark is bigger and stronger than Peppers so if anyone is going to be physically overwhelming people at the line it’s him.

              • Comments: 2083
                Joined: 7/13/2015
                Mar 16, 2017 at 9:01 PM

                Clark is taller. He wasn’t listed as being significantly heavier during his career (Peppers was 205, Clark was 206), and he’s BARELY stronger (if you go by bench press, Clark did 20 reps and Peppers did 19, which is a negligible difference).

                I don’t think anyone’s saying that Peppers was as good at playing cornerback as Clark, Stribling, or Lewis, but that’s a bit unfair, because they were full-time corners and he wasn’t. We’re talking hypotheticals here. And I do think that Peppers could have been a very physical cornerback, and he’s definitely a more physical player than most receivers.

              • Comments: 904
                Joined: 8/13/2015
                Mar 17, 2017 at 8:08 AM

                Peppers practiced at Viper. The other three practiced at Corner, all day, every day.

                And yes lanky, the other three and particularly Lewis were great on the jam. And I am not suggesting that Peppers will revolutionize the position, I am simply stating that he will be more violent on the jam. His body, like everybody’s body will cause him to play the position differently. As demonstrated in the recent pieces on defensive backfield play, there are many ways to get the job done, and while those pieces were about the strategy, the same is true of the individual at the physical level.

                I will say that at 5 to maybe 8 lbs. lighter and having dedicated practice time to the position, I believe Peppers is likely both a better boundary corner and a better field corner than Lewis who I think is a flat out born nickel/dime guy with a bright future covering the likes of Julian Edelman. Who, and as an aside, I just recently noticed is a bender.

                I doubt that he ever gets the chance to be a day in and day out corner. I wouldn’t use him that way only because i think he’s more valuable playing multiple positions in much the same way he played here. I wouldn’t line him up at LB anywhere near as much as he did here as per Thunder’s reasoning, but I absolutely wouldn’t be afraid to here and there and then bring him … or not.

      • Comments: 35
        Joined: 2/24/2017
        Mike Knapp
        Mar 16, 2017 at 10:55 AM

        I agree that Jabrill could have been our best running back since Mike Hart. He’s fast and elusive, and has good vision. I’m sure, like others, I was hoping for some more big plays out of that position the last few years.

        That being said, if you’re a guy with the athleticism, skill, and experience to play defense (or any other position) on the college level, I’m curious as to why you’d choose to be a running back anymore. Their NFL careers are laughably short and they’re imminently replaceable at that level. Injuries abound, and odds are that you’re out of football by your mid-20s.

        • Comments: 3181
          Joined: 8/11/2015
          Mar 16, 2017 at 11:59 AM

          Well put. The Simpson-Payton-Dickerson era is over. Teams are using rotations, passing more, and RBs are increasingly viewed as replacement parts.

          There will certainly be the occasional electric playmakers who make a real difference, but as pointed out, their lifespan is short.

          • Comments: 3181
            Joined: 8/11/2015
            Mar 16, 2017 at 12:00 PM

            lifespan is a poor word choice there because unfortunately it’s also true literally

      • Comments: 3181
        Joined: 8/11/2015
        Mar 16, 2017 at 11:52 AM

        Could be true but it’s rather speculative. Like me saying Devin Gardner would be a great QB had he been coached by Harbaugh, or Deveon Smith would be a Heisman contender if he was running behind a vintage Michigan or Stanford line. I believe those things but someone who believes otherwise is just as ‘correct’ about a hypothetical.

        Maybe slimming down would have made a difference for CB but as is; Peppers doesn’t have elite speed or elite change of direction and is exploitable in one-on-one coverage.

        RB I see as a more plausible but he’s no Reggie Bush. Given Denard Robinson’s struggles transferring his skills to the RB position – and Denard clocked a faster 40 than Peppers did – I don’t think we can be so sure that Peppers would excel at RB either. We don’t have much sense for his willingness to block, blitz pickups, hands, route running, etc. and as a runner I would put him below Denard. Furthermore, this ignores the OL issues that all but prohibit great RB production.

        To go in Round 1 I think you either have to have great potential (elite size/athleticism*) or already be an excellent player that can be plugged into a starting lineup. I don’t think Peppers is either yet at the NFL level. That all said, there is little doubt he will be good within a few years. It just might take a little time to figure out.

        *or QB skills

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