With the NFL Draft in the books and voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with defensive back Jabrill Peppers.
Name: Jabrill Peppers
Position: Safety/Defensive back
Jersey number: 3
Opening day age: 26
Size: 5-foot-11, 215 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? 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 Cleveland 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 the New York Giants 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 between New York and Cleveland, 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 to keep him in the fold through the 2021 season.
What did his 2021 season look like? With the Giants having picked up his fifth-year option at a fully guaranteed $6.77 million the previous offseason, Peppers entered 2021 as a lock to make New York’s roster. And why would he not have been? He had a productive first two years with the club and was an established presence as a box safety and part-time special teamer. Furthermore, Peppers was a leader in New York’s locker room and was voted a captain before the start of the 2021 regular season.
Unfortunately, his fifth campaign as a pro turned out to be a challenging one for the former first-round draft pick: injuries forced him to miss a significant portion of the season and eventually end it on the sidelines. After already missing time because of a hamstring issue, Peppers suffered a season-ending knee injury in late October versus the Carolina Panthers. He ruptured the ACL in his right knee on a 6-yard punt return in the third quarter, and also suffered a high ankle sprain in the process.
Up until that point, Peppers had appeared in six of seven games and been on the field for 229 of a possible 452 defensive snaps (50.7%) as well as 38 more on special teams (of 175; 21.7%). Along the way, he registered 29 tackles — 25 versus the pass, four versus the run — as well as five quarterback disruptions including a sack. While those numbers are quite solid, Peppers struggled in pass coverage: he gave up 20 receptions for 226 yards and a touchdown on just 23 targets.
While he did average a solid 6.4 yards on his nine punt returns, his season as a whole was a rough one even before the season-ending injury suffered in Week 7. Peppers’ subsequent free agency experience being a quiet one did therefore not come as a surprise; despite his first-round pedigree he remained unsigned for almost three weeks after hitting the open market in mid-March.
What is his projected role? 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 skillsets. In Peppers’ case that means he will likely not be employed in one clearly-labeled role, but rather line up all over the secondary to take advantage of his 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.
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 is his salary cap situation? Peppers joined the Patriots on a one-year, $2 million free agency contract earlier this year. While the total value of the deal is relatively small, his entire $1.05 million base salary and $300,000 signing bonus proration are guaranteed. Given that he can also earn up $3 million in play-time incentives, New England is basically allowing him an opportunity to prove himself coming off a season-ending knee injury.
How safe is his roster spot? Based on the structure of his contract alone, Peppers is very much guaranteed a spot on the Patriots’ roster this year. After all, releasing him would create a dead money charge of $1.35 million compared to only $375,000 in savings. While he appears to be closer to the bottom of the depth chart than the top — he projects behind Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger in the box safety/star linebacker department — he should be on the 53-man team come the regular season.
One-sentence projection: While him suddenly turning into an All-Pro should not be expected, Peppers should be able to carve out a regular role on both defense and special teams.