Jabrill Peppers could do no wrong early on in his football career. A five-star recruit coming out of high school, he joined the University of Michigan and over the next three years developed into one of the finest players in the country.
By 2016, Peppers was a Big Ten Defender of the Year and finalist for the Heisman Trophy. The linebacker/safety hybrid was also generating considerable draft buzz after he declared his intention to forgo his final two years of eligibility to turn pro.
But while that decision paid off initially — he was drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns and delivered a promising rookie campaign despite playing out of position — Peppers has struggled to live up to his status as a 25th overall selection ever since. His playing time decreased in his sophomore campaign in the NFL, and he was traded to the New York Giants the following offseason.
While not necessarily spending the subsequent three years in obscurity, Peppers still had a relatively quiet time with the organization. He appeared in 32 games and played a starter-level role, but coming off a torn ACL generated little initial buzz as an unrestricted free agent this year.
This allowed the New England Patriots to pick him up on a one-year, $2 million contract. The structure of the deal essentially guarantees Peppers a spot on the team’s roster for 2022, but his role and eventual impact on the New England defense has yet to be determined.
That said, at least on paper, Peppers and the Patriots appear to be a perfect match.
Head coach Bill Belichick, after all, places a high value on versatility and the 26-year-old has a lot of it. He lined up all over the secondary during his time in New York, regularly moving between box safety, free safety and slot cornerback alignments. He even spent time split out wide or on the defensive line.
While not always successful while wearing those different hats, Peppers has shown that he can do a lot of different things on a football field on a high level. In turn, he appears to fit in well with a defense already employing versatile defensive backs such as Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant and Joshuah Bledsoe.
While his recovery from the torn ACL that ended his 2022 campaign is a factor to consider, Peppers returning to his pre-injury levels would give Belichick and company another chess piece to work with. His tape as a Giant is proof of that, and suggests ways in which the Patriots might feel comfortable employing the former Day 1 draft selection.
Let’s start off by looking at one of Peppers’ best traits, his ability to attack the pocket as a box defender.
Aligning in a two-point stance over Denver Broncos tight end Eric Saubert (#82), Peppers (#21) is threatening a blitz from his box safety positioning within the Giants’ inverted two-deep zone defense. He indeed charges forward after the snap, and finds an opening between Saubert and wide receiver Tim Patrick (#81).
Peppers’ role as a blitzer is more nuanced than just attacking, no questions asked. He has to read the play unfolding in front of him, and to make a decision whether or not to pursue the running back or quarterback depending on who has the football. As can be seen in the clip above, Peppers shows some hesitation but recovers quickly after realizing that QB Teddy Bridgewater (#5) still holds onto the ball.
Peppers showed some good reactionary skills and lower-body quickness — two skills that also make him a productive punt returner — to make the cut without losing much speed. As a result, he forces Bridgewater into a quick throw that eventually falls incomplete.
In general, it appears Peppers is most confident aligning in the box. This should not come as a surprise, though, given his college experience at the linebacker position.
The following play is another example of that, with Peppers aligning slightly offset on the defensive weak-side edge.
Peppers again shows some proper recognition on this play, reading tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (#85) as a pull-blocker from the left end of the offensive line. With Okwuegbunam crossing the formation to serve as a lead blocker for running back Javonte Williams (#33), the veteran safety quickly goes into run defense mode rather than focus on Bridgewater.
While he again starts off rather cautiously, Peppers accelerates quickly to catch up to Williams and take him down from behind. The Broncos lost a yard on this play, with Peppers’ quick reaction and burst helping shut down the stretch run before it even reached the perimeter of the defense.
What both of these plays have in common is that the offenses left Peppers unblocked on purpose. However, he also is not afraid to get physical with bigger linemen or tight ends on the opposite side of him. Despite being listed at 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, which is solid size for a safety but not a linebacker, Peppers has never shied away from initiating contact with blockers and ballcarriers alike — both as a run defender and in the passing game.
His physicality is arguably one of his best traits, and it allows him to make up for some of the disadvantages he has in coverage. Take the following play versus the then-Washington Football Team as an example:
New York is showing a one-deep man-to-man defense that has Peppers lined up opposite Logan Thomas (#82). Washington’s tight end has a significant size advantage — he is listed at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds — but is unable to get open versus some tight coverage from the Giants’ starting safety.
Peppers, after all, is able to get a solid jam on Thomas upon releasing into his route. This move slows the tight end’s momentum down and allows the defender to stick with him throughout his seam pattern. As a result, quarterback Taylor Heinicke (#4) is forced to test the coverage on the boundary to no avail.
If he is able to play press-man or get physical with players at the line of scrimmage, Peppers can be a very effective player versus tight ends. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty, so to speak, in an attempt to re-route pass catchers.
The same is true when he is asked to cover running backs releasing into the flats or on wheel routes: Peppers’ play diagnosis and reactionary skills also make him a good matchup in scenarios like these.
That being said, he does have some weaknesses that the Patriots will need to mask in order to make him a successful piece of their defense. One of them is his lack of length, which puts him at a natural disadvantage versus bigger tight ends or wide receivers.
On this play against the Broncos, Peppers is lined up opposite Albert Okwuegbunam again and gives up a conversion on 3rd-and-6. With the Giants in man coverage, he has to stick with the 6-foot-5, 258-pound tight end — a job that is made harder by the fact that Okwuegbunam is allowed a free release at the line of scrimmage.
Peppers has the straight-line speed to run with him — he ran a faster 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine back in the day — but is powerless against a well-placed pass. Even if it does not land perfectly in front of the tight end, he simply lacks the length to reach around and break up the throw.
Unless he is able to re-route a player or mess up the timing with the quarterback, he will find himself in difficult situations. The same also is true when matched up against wide receivers or running backs aligning on the line of scrimmage.
Peppers simply does not possess the twitch, and at times the instincts, to keep up with slot receivers consistently.
On this play, he misplays the route run by the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp (#10) out of the slot and ends up out of position as the wide receiver maneuvers toward the sideline. Granted, a lot of defenders have had their issues guarding Kupp, but Peppers’ lack of quickness in man coverage is on full display on this play.
Speed is, again, not an issue with Peppers but his short-area twitch oftentimes does not allow him to keep up with quicker players in the slot. Accordingly, the Patriots will have to pick their matchups carefully when it comes to the veteran defender.
So, what does all of that mean for the team? Despite his shortcomings, Peppers is certainly a starter-level defender who can help New England due to his experience and versatility. If put in the correct spots — near the box, allowed to charge forward and challenge players physically — he is more than capable of making a positive contribution.
Time will tell how well he will adapt to the Patriots and their system, and how the team’s coaches plan to employ him, but the signing follows a pattern that has been established in the past. Peppers is a do-it-all safety who might not just help create favorable matchups near the line of scrimmage, but also to muddy the defensive waters a bit.
Players such as him, Dugger and Phillips are regarded primarily as box safeties but they can move all over the formation. New England therefore using more four-safety packages featuring that trio and Devin McCourty would not be a surprise, and in fact another move towards a “positionless defense” slot cornerback Jonathan Jones was recently mentioning in a social media post.
At the very least, though, Peppers is another low-risk signing that comes with significant upside both on an individual level and from a more holistic defensive perspective.