While teams may have concern over drafting Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers in the first round, he also represents the continuing trend of positionless football players whose stock is rising as offenses become more versatile.
Jabrill Peppers stood at the NFL Combine podium on Saturday in Indianapolis with the letters "LB" next to his nametag, anticipating the first question from the horde of media forming a semicircle around him. Is that the position he would like to play?
"What do I look like?" he said dismissively. "I'm a safety. I'm a safety. Yes, I'm a safety."
Peppers was forced to work out with the linebackers group over the weekend based on how the Wolverines categorized him last season. In need of his athleticism there, Michigan asked Peppers, who has the size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and speed (4.46 40-yard dash) to play safety, to try linebacker and fill in as needed on the field – even, occasionally, to play offense.
That put him in a unique situation during the Combine process. Peppers asked his agents if he could work with just the defensive backs group, but rules dictated he couldn't unless he worked out with the linebackers, too.
"I was like, that's easy," Peppers said. "That's no problem at all."
Peppers represents the continuing trend of hybrid football players entering the NFL, as well as the uncertainty that teams have when it comes to grading "tweeners," as they're affectionately called. Peppers, of course, sees himself playing in the defensive backfield, a position of need for the Redskins as they look to upgrade last year's defense.
Nobody questions his athleticism or playmaking ability. Peppers collected 66 tackles, 13 for a loss, three sacks and an interception last season at linebacker. But if teams want to risk taking him in the first round, they also want to be certain about his role.
"I think there will be some NFL teams, their job is to be sure about it, and they need to have a plan for Jabrill Peppers," NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein said over the weekend. "Really, he's not going to be a linebacker, he's going to be a nickel linebacker inside, he's going to slot sometimes, he may play some two-high. I just want to see him fine-tuned into a role. [Michigan] asked him to do so much, there were times where he was just moving around at the snap where he wasn't even – he was almost too much Troy Polamalu. I think he's got to be in a more fine-tuned role. And I think if you want to put him in a role, I think figuring out what he does for your defense is going to be very important."
The Redskins had a case study last season in second-round pick Su'a Cravens. The USC product had a similar role as Pepper with the Trojans in his final year, playing a mixture of linebacker and safety in the box. Washington decided to use him as a linebacker in nickel and dime formations throughout the season so he could learn the defense better, and Cravens showed spurts of his playmaking spark.
Eventually, near the end of the season, he worked with the secondary group and plans to practice as a safety in his second season. Injuries, which he experienced a couple of as a rookie, remain a concern as the team determines where best to use Cravens. But they see his versatility as a benefit much more than a burden.
"I think that's why we drafted him because that's where we knew football was going," head coach Jay Gruden said. "A lot of spread offenses nowadays, so you have to have more athletic linebacker-safety type guys on your team that are more hybrid-type guys. You see Barron in [Los Angeles], you see Buchannon in Arizona. There's a lot of guys who are doing that right now, being very effective and we think Su'a can even branch off and be, play an inside linebacker in dime packages, play nickel in base and maybe play safety obviously in some nickel packages. There's a lot of things he can do."
Indeed, this is the argument for Peppers' stock in the NFL. So much talk around the Combine revolves around "prototypes" and finding the quintessential kind of player for a position that requires a base weight and height. But as the NFL continues to evolve – as players use more of their talents in different settings -- so do those kinds of labels.
Pepper sees this trend continuing as offenses become more complex and spread out, but warns other players to rely more on their technique than their athleticism, a mistake he's only been recently correcting over the last two months.
"I don't worry about that at all. I control the controllables," Peppers said. "I'm pretty much effective wherever I'm gonna be put. I don't have a lot of tape at safety, but I'm a pretty damn good safety. I think a lot of teams notice that. They have the tape. They asked me for tapes of me playing corner, me playing some safety, but ultimately I hope a lot of questions are answered after this weekend."
Pundits project Peppers to be later-first round selection based on NFL teams' anxieties about drafting a player they don't have a distinct spot for yet. But the amount of flexibility he provides could prove to be a bigger strength, and with the right coaching and fit, could make him one of the more dangerous picks in this year's drafts.
"That's what coaching's all about, getting the most out of your players and we have to do a better job, I have to do a better job of that offensively, defensively, special teams. Putting the players in the right position to succeed," Gruden said. "We have to adjust our scheme, our style depending on the players that we have and I think Coach [Greg] Manusky, Coach [Matt] Cavanaugh, Coach [Ben] Kotwica, I think we'll do a good job of that."