For Patriots fans who don’t follow college football, the signing of safety Jabrill Peppers may slip under the radar. But for those who watch football on Saturdays as well as Sundays, seeing Peppers’ name likely provided some excitement. There are a handful of college players each year that just scream “what if Bill Belichick got his hands on this guy?” Peppers was one of those players.
During his two seasons as a starter at Michigan in 2015 and 2016, Peppers was one of the most electric players in all of college football. His versatility was unmatched – he played linebacker, safety, and cornerback on defense, covered and returned kicks and punts on special teams, and the Wolverines even had a package on offense featuring him as a Wildcat quarterback.
In the 2016 season alone, Peppers recorded 66 tackles with 13 for a loss and three sacks, as well as an interception in 12 games, while also totaling 170 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns on offense, and averaging a Big Ten-best 14.8 yards per punt return with another score there. That performance had him in rare company, as a primarily-defensive player named a finalist for the Heisman (Lamar Jackson ended up winning that year).
Following the 2016 season, Peppers was named a unanimous All-American, the Nagurski-Woodson national Defensive Player of the Year, Rodgers-White Return Specialist of the Year (both national awards), and won the Paul Hornung Award which is awarded annually to the most versatile player in all of college football. Later on, he was also named to the Sporting News College Football All-2010’s team as a safety.
With that production and those awards on his resume, Peppers elected to forgo his final two years of eligibility, and entered the NFL Draft as a redshirt sophomore. After a a strong showing at the Combine that included a 128-inch broad jump and a 4.46 40, he was drafted 25th overall by the Cleveland Browns.
Those just learning about Peppers’ impressive resume and physical skillset may wonder why they haven’t heard as much from him since then. To this point, he’s been unable to find similar success in the NFL – in part due to circumstances outside of his control. There’s been very little stability in his pro career to this point.
Peppers was thrown right into a major role on one of the most dysfunctional teams in recent NFL history, the winless 2017 Browns. He showed improvement from year one to year two after a tough rookie campaign, but just as he was getting comfortable in Cleveland he was traded to the New York Giants as part of the Odell Beckham Jr. deal.
Once again, Peppers was stuck on a rebuilding team with an in-flux coaching staff. He played only 11 games in 2019, and the team continued to overhaul the roster and staff after the season.
In 2020, under first-year head coach Joe Judge, Peppers seemed to turn a corner. Now a team captain, he recorded a career-high 91 tackles and 2.5 sacks, and more than doubled his previous best total pass deflections with 11. He also had his best season as a punt returner as a pro, averaging 12.5 yards per return.
After being used primarily as a deep safety in Cleveland, Peppers was used all over the formation in New York. In 2020, he played 383 snaps in the box, 264 as a slot corner, 143 as a free safety, and 44 as an outside corner (per PFF). He even was used to rush the passer, blitzing 38 times.
Unfortunately, Peppers wasn’t able to keep that momentum going in 2021. Six games into the season, he suffered a torn ACL.
So, what does this all mean as Peppers, who is now 26 years old, joins the Patriots? Since his rookie year, Peppers has shown flashes of being the dominant player he was at Michigan. However, for multiple reasons, he hasn’t been able to play to that level consistently.
In New England, he’ll be with a team that specializes in getting the most out of a players’ existing skillset, and puts a premium on versatility. For the last 20 years under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have been a team that can get the most out of players who play the game the way Peppers does. While there likely won’t be any Wildcat packages for him in New England like there were at Michigan, he should have a number of chances to contribute right way.
There are already two stellar box safeties in the building in Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips, so initially there may not be many snaps available at that position. However, both Peppers and Dugger have the speed to play deep safety in the Patriots’ defense, and have played that position before. In one sense, Peppers could be a depth option behind Devin McCourty, or play alongside him in select situations similar to the old Duran Harmon role. Or, the Patriots could have a package where they put Dugger deep with McCourty and play Peppers in the box, maximizing the athleticism on the field in certain spots or to handle certain matchups.
He could also help out at cornerback, where the team’s depth has gotten exceptionally thin this season. Peppers has been primarily used as a slot corner, and would be another option along with Myles Bryant to back up Jonathan Jones. His presence on the roster could also allow the team to move Shaun Wade to the boundary full time, where the help is mostly needed. While Peppers doesn’t have as much history playing on the boundary himself, the Patriots’ seeming path towards having a ‘positionless’ secondary could see him rotate in out there as well.
That’s all just in the secondary. Peppers can factor into the linebacker position as well, both as an off-ball linebacker and edge rusher. Last season highlighted a need for athleticism at the position, and Peppers certainly brings that element.
Finally, we can’t forget special teams. With the departure of Gunner Olszewski, there’s an immediate need for a punt returner. Plus, the team hasn’t had an established kick returner for a few seasons now. Peppers should compete for both of those jobs in camp.
A lot has happened since Peppers was a three-phase star at Michigan. Five seasons and two (bad) teams later, he’s failed to be the same impact player in the NFL. The Patriots have done extremely well for the last two decades capitalizing on players in those kinds of situations – talented but playing out of scheme or misused – and helping them reach their potential. They’ll now look to do the same with Peppers on a one-year low-risk, high-reward deal.
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Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.