Right or wrong, the expectation with first-round picks in the modern-day NFL is that they’ll contribute right away. For most rookies in their developmental cycles, this is possible. While they may not play at an elite level, more rookies are contributing in a positive fashion than ever before. But for some, adjusting to the speed of the NFL game can be tough, particularly when learning a new position or mastering a new defensive scheme.
That’s been the case for Cleveland Brown safety Jabrill Peppers, an excellent athlete with the size and speed to be a salivating prospect, but none of the positional refinement to play safety. Peppers was a box defender in his college career, playing a pseudo-linebacker, big-nickel role for Michigan where he often was asked to do more against the run than the pass. Peppers was never the most instinctive player, but he made up for his weaknesses in college by being physical and fast between the tackles and even to the sideline.
At 5-11, 213 pounds, Peppers obviously wasn’t playing linebacker in the NFL, so a safety role was going to be the best fit for him. Most agreed he would be better suited around the box where he played in college, but the Browns have instead asked him to play heavily in a single-high role, which he had almost no experience with at Michigan. The team believed his speed and range as a center fielder would play to its advantage, but what the Browns failed to realize is that there is a lot more to playing free safety. Route recognition, instincts, ball skills and understanding offensive tendencies (route combinations, down-and-distance schemes from opponents, etc.) are huge parts of playing a single-high role, and Peppers is nowhere close to being ready for that.
While Peppers was massively overrated as a prospect and received an early third-round grade from me, he has a role he can play for a team if he’s used correctly. It isn’t as valuable as a single-high free safety, but if Cleveland used him closer to the line of scrimmage and as a mismatch eliminator against bigger slots, Peppers would be more reliable. Instead he’s an absolute liability on the back end, and Cleveland has to simply hope that he takes a bigger step toward the end of his rookie campaign, especially by next season. Right now, it has been ugly for Peppers.
For Dallas Cowboys defensive end Taco Charlton, excuses don’t come as readily. I was not a big fan of Charlton before the draft, ranking him as the 55th player on my board when he was being heralded as a top 10-15 pick. He stepped into a scenario in Dallas with a very winnable starting job opposite DeMarcus Lawrence and a role similar to the one he played in college as a 4-3 defensive end.
But Charlton has been incredibly ineffective, largely due to the fact that he simply isn’t a consistently physical football player. His length and bend for his size enamored some scouts, but Charlton is frequently the last defender off the ball, and doesn’t have the intensity or snap-to-snap power to work through blockers if he doesn’t win the edge cleanly. The rookie was overly reliant on a spin move in college, but he didn’t always set it up well. NFL tackles have pinned him consistently when he tries to spin on them. His technique and execution are sloppy, and if you’re not physical in the NFL, you don’t have a prayer of being an every-down player. Given his first-round status, that is what will be expected of Charlton eventually.
I’m “team never-give-up-on-a-player-after-a-tough-rookie-season,” so you can take the bust labels out of the equation for these two, but if Cleveland wants early returns from Peppers, it will need to change the way it deploys him or accept the fact that it could be a long growth process at free safety. That shift seemed to begin to happen last Sunday, where the Browns put him in the box and blitzed him a number of times. It isn’t the role one generally envisions for a first rounder, but it’s what he’s best at right now.
For Dallas, a lot of this is on Charlton, but the Cowboys also have to stress technique and pass rush moves with him, especially in the offseason. Charlton needs to be fully committed to the weight room and getting stronger in his upper and lower half, because NFL offensive linemen have simply bullied him around during his rookie season. He’s playing a much more limited role than Peppers, and I wouldn’t expect that to increase significantly this year. It’s all about the long-term payoff with both of these players, and even though I believe they were over-drafted and are clearly off to rough starts, it’s far too early to give up hope that they can grow into strong contributors for their teams.