The New England Patriots’ defense lost its number one cornerback, Pro Bowler J.C. Jackson, in free agency and has not been able to replace him yet. That being said, the team has added to the group to bolster its depth across the board.
The latest such addition was made on Tuesday, with safety Jabrill Peppers joining the Patriots on a reported one-year contract worth up to $5 million. A former first-round draft pick who spent time with the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants, Peppers adds another versatile piece to a New England secondary trying to find itself in the post-Jackson era.
Name: Jabrill Peppers
Opening day age: 26
Size: 5-foot-11, 215 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022
A former five-star recruit who decided to leave Michigan with two years of eligibility left, Peppers entered the NFL as the seventh defensive back selected in the 2017 draft. The Browns invested the 25th overall pick in the first round to bring him aboard, and he made an immediate impact on their defense. Primarily aligning as the starting deep safety, he appeared in 13 games as a rookie and was on the field for three-fourths of Cleveland’s defensive snaps.
Despite the promise Peppers showed in his first year as a system, his playing time decreased during his sophomore season and his role started to look different: the Browns decided to use him across their secondary and not in one pre-defined role. The ex-Wolverine performed well in this setting, but the team still moved on from him the following offseason. Peppers was one of the players included in the blockbuster trade that sent wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from New York to Cleveland.
Peppers spent three seasons with the Giants, primarily serving as their starting box safety. Along the way, he added 32 more games to his résumé to bring his career total to 59. During those 59 contests, he intercepted four passes — including one returned for a touchdown — forced four fumbles and recovered five, and registered 4.5 sacks. His solid performances prompted New York to exercise the fifth-year option in his rookie contract. However, Peppers tore his ACL in October 2021, just six games into that fifth season.
What is his projected role in New England? The Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick have never been a team to put players into predefined boxes, but rather attempt to use them according to their skillset. In Peppers’ case that means he will likely not be employed in one clearly-defined role, but rather line up all over the secondary to take advantage of his impressive versatility. He will primarily be used as a box safety compared to, for example, as a boundary cornerback, but he should be expected to wear multiple hats.
Where does he fit on the defensive back depth chart? The top of the Patriots’ depth chart at the position is set in stone, with Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger forming one of the best safety trios in football. Despite his status as a former first-round draft pick, Peppers therefore projects as number four behind them. That said, New England’s coaching staff will likely still find a way to get him regular snaps.
Does he have positional versatility? The Patriots value versatility in their defensive backs, and Peppers has a ton of it. The 26-year-old lined up all over the secondary during his time under Joe Judge in New York, regularly moving between box safety, free safety and slot cornerback alignments. He even aligned split out wide or on the defensive line on occasion. Peppers is a true jack of all trades, who adds another chess piece to New England’s hybrid defense.
What is his special teams value? With the exception of his first year with the Giants, Peppers has seen regular action in the kicking game ever since joining the league in 2017. He has experience on all four return and coverage teams, and also the field goal/extra point blocking units. Furthermore, Peppers has been a productive return man: he has run back 83 punts for an average of 8.3 yards per return, and also averaged 22.0 yards on his 34 kickoff returns.
What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? The full details of Peppers’ contract will determine just how much salary cap space he will command this year, but the broad terms of the deal so far reported — a maximum cash intake of up to $5 million — suggest that he is likely playing on a deal that is rich on incentives rather than cap-relevant value. Peppers not taking up a significant portion of New England’s currently limited resources would make sense.
What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? Even with Peppers in the fold on top of the Devin McCourty re-signing, safety is an under-the-radar need for New England. Contractually, McCourty is on his last legs with no clear replacement for his deep-field abilities currently in the fold. Adding Peppers does not change this, meaning the team could still invest in a safety early next month.
One-sentence verdict: The Patriots are now another step closer to a positionless secondary.
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