INDIANAPOLIS — Jabrill Peppers knew what was coming before he even stepped to the podium at the NFL Scouting Combine on Saturday afternoon.
What position are you going to play?
It’s the question that’s been on the mind of every NFL expert and analyst since Peppers declared for the draft soon after his junior season at Michigan came to a close.
Peppers, a Heisman Trophy finalist who lined up all over the Wolverines’ defense, proceeded to send a loud and clear message to all 32 NFL teams with his response.
“What do I look like?” Peppers asked. “I’m a safety.”
Don’t get Peppers wrong. The 5-foot-10, 213-pound playmaker is open to playing wherever he’s asked, but he’s selling himself to potential suitors as a safety first and foremost.
He’s not claiming to be the next Deone Buccanon or Charles Woodson. Are teams looking at him as a hybrid defensive player? Of course. Have some even asked about how open he’d be to playing offense? A few have.
Yet, Peppers came to the combine determined to prove he can play the position he intended to play in Ann Arbor before injuries in Michigan’s defense forced him to become a 200-pound linebacker.
“I tell (teams) my natural position is definitely in the defensive backfield,” Peppers said. “I had to fill a void this year because it was best for the team, and if I had to do it all over again I would. I didn’t think it’ll hurt me. My mindset was whatever I had to do I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability and try to make plays when I can. I think that’s what I did and that’s what I’m gonna continue to do.”
Donning a “LB” training shirt, Peppers explained that he was grouped in with the linebackers because that’s where he played last season. In a rare occurrence, he’s working out at both linebacker and defensive back this week in Indianapolis before returning to Michigan for his March 24 pro day.
Hybrid players who transcend a single position are growing in popularity across the NFL. In Green Bay, one of the strengths of the Packers’ defense in 2016 was its unique utilization of Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde, whose importance grew even more due to injuries at both inside linebacker and cornerback.
Although Peppers labels himself as a safety, NFL personnel directors are taking a long, hard look at how far his versatility and athleticism could be stretched, especially after he ran a 4.46-second time in the 40-yard dash and put up 19 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
Peppers’ time was the fifth-fastest time in the 40 by a classified linebacker in combine history.
“When you look at Peppers, you look at what he does, wow,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera earlier this week. “Here's a guy that gives you some safety traits. Here's a guy that can probably come down in the box like a nickel, come down in the box like a linebacker. And if you ever really did need it, you can put him on the offensive side as well. He's got a lot of special teams value. So you have to really break it down to how does he fit you.”
Peppers started 25 of the 27 games he played at Michigan with 86 tackles (21 for a loss), 3½ sacks, 10 pass deflections and an interception, along with 45 carries for 268 yards and five touchdowns as a wildcat-option on offense.
He also anticipates he’ll continue to return punts after averaging 13.1 yards on 39 career returns for the Wolverines, including one touchdown.
This past year, Peppers became the first player in Big Ten history to win three individual awards (Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year, Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year and Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year).
It was enough to make him a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, becoming the first defensive player to receive the honor since Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o in 2012.
“He can do anything,” said Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough of Peppers. “In my mind, I think he can play safety. I think he can play linebacker. I think he can return punts. I think he can do it all. Whatever team gets him will have a lot of options.”
Peppers’ diversified skill set has drawn comparisons to Charles Woodson, his childhood idol who contributed to the East Orange, N.J., native’s decision to go to attend Michigan.
When asked which NFL player he feels resembles his game the most, Peppers told reporters he best compares to Seattle five-time All-Pro safety Earl Thomas.
“I’m not a Deone Bucannon or anything like that,” Peppers said. “Those guys are, you know, extremely bigger than I am. So I used to model my game and still model my game after guys like the Earl Thomas’.”
Many scouts are intrigued by Peppers’ versatility, especially with the rise in hybrid linebackers who are athletic enough to cover tight ends in the middle of the field, but also capable of defending the run.
Peppers said a few teams have expressed interest about his offensive capabilities, lauding him for being “very dynamic with the ball in his hands.”
Peppers understands the natural uncertainty about where he’ll fit into the NFL game since most of his production came at multiple positions. In his mind, however, the flexibility he displayed in college showed what he’s capable of in the NFL.
“(There are) a lot of unknowns, I don’t know what all of those things are,” Peppers said. “But the bottom line is I’m a ball player and I’m a helluva ball player.
“I’m just gonna keep improving to the best of my ability, stay grounded, ignore all the outside noise, nothing else matters to me, besides what they think and besides the way I play.”