In the 2017 NFL Draft the Cleveland Browns took Jabrill Peppers with their second pick in the first round. Leading up to the draft many pundits said if you take Peppers, you have to have a plan. I even wrote about him.
His comparison were bizarre. He was mostly compared to Pro Bowl players despite never playing to that level on defense in college. When Peppers played the single-high safety role in college, he would often get caught in “no man’s land.” People thought he would be able to play sideline to sideline and make rangy plays. When you don’t trust what you see or get good jumps, your speed is negated. That was the case with Peppers.
Last year with the Browns he was playing 20 yards off the ball. It was a terrible idea and, to no surprise, it didn’t work. While the Browns did him no favors by putting him deep, Peppers still didn’t perform well. His route recognition was poor. He was hesitant. His tackling angles were even worse. It was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The Browns refused to make a change and essentially punted his development in his rookie year.
Recent news came out saying that Peppers is going to play near the box. He would rotate down a handful of plays per game as a rookie. We saw him do this quite a bit in college. This is where the majority of people wanted to see Peppers play as a rookie. How will he fare there in his second year? Let’s break that down.
In college, against power running teams like Wisconsin, playing near the line of scrimmage didn’t go well for Peppers. He got blocked into oblivion. It got to a point where he was backing up to avoid contact with the lineman. The way football has evolved into a sub-package game, it’s not uncommon for players his size to play linebacker. The Chargers used a 200-pound “linebacker” on 80 percent of their snaps toward the latter half of the year. The thought process: Give up a little bit against the run and in exchange allow the pass defense to drastically improve. That’s what the Browns need.
They had a very good run defense a year ago. That means nothing today. It’s all about getting after the quarterback and being good in coverage. Peppers should fare better in the slot, though it’s another area where he didn’t shine in college. I do believe he will be a good blitzer and make an impact there.
In college, his reaction skills were a tick slow. What you saw was a guy relying on his athleticism… but everyone is an athlete in the NFL. The best example in college was when he was lined up against Curtis Samuel of Ohio State, who ate him up. It didn’t show up in the box score, and Peppers actually got his lone interception from a ball that went off Samuel’s hands, but he was exposed getting in and out of his breaks. Looking at the guys Peppers will go against, he won’t have many favorable matchups. Ideally, the Browns would let him be an athlete and react on the fly, having him coming downhill and hope he avoids blockers with his athleticism.
What makes things tough: Peppers’ flashes of quality are always so few and far between that it’s tough to give him credit for them. He doesn’t really have a tangible on-field strength — that played out his rookie year. He is likely better in the slot as opposed to in the box, where he can’t be exposed physically. What he is asked to do next year will be interesting.
If Derrick Kindred, the box safety last year, gives us any idea, Peppers will likely be blitzing quite a bit off the edge and roaming around the intermediate middle of the field, with the occasional slot coverage. That’s his best bet.