It has been a busy few days in Indianapolis for former Michigan football players.
While their season may have ended a couple months ago in a 33-32 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, these ex-Wolverines have been participating at the NFL Combine — an event which, in this day and age, carries close to as much importance as on-field production does. Michigan sent 14 players — the most of any college team — to the invitation-only combine.
For a week, players from across the country underwent testing (both physical and mental) under the close examination of NFL front office executives, coaches and scouts. The combine is an arduous, uniquely-designed job interview where a good showing can result in a prospect skyrocketing up draft boards. On the other hand, any sort of slip-up is scrutinized and can negatively affect a player’s position in April’s NFL Draft.
For the 12 Wolverines who participated in the physical drills (former tight end Jake Butt and cornerback Jeremy Clark sat out while undergoing rehabilitation for injuries suffered during the season), the results were mixed. Some, like former defensive lineman Taco Charlton, posted eye-popping numbers, while others tested on the lower end of their position groups.
Yet there may not have been another Michigan player who was watched more than Jabrill Peppers, a fitting outcome considering all the hoopla the former athlete generated in his three years in Ann Arbor.
Peppers — a do-it-all Heisman finalist who played in all three phases of the game — had a particularly intensive combine, testing with both the linebackers and defensive backs on consecutive days.
His is a special case; while Peppers spent most of his time as a linebacker for the Wolverines last season, carving out a role as a knifing, penetrating run defender and edge-setter, NFL prognosticators have debated which position he will play once he reaches the league.
One of the bigger questions entering the combine was whether Peppers will stick inside the box or become a safety. The other side of the ball is not out of the question, either. NFL.com’s Chase Goodbread tweeted two days ago that a couple teams “have asked” Peppers about playing running back or slot receiver.
But while Peppers did play some offense last year, mostly in a wildcat formation, the most likely scenario is that he sticks on defense — after all, he played the bulk of his snaps as a Wolverine there. Peppers began his career as a defensive back, moving into a role as a nickel defender under former defensive coordinator DJ Durkin. In his first year as a starter, he displayed a penchant for disrupting wide receiver screens and providing run support from the secondary, while also playing a decent amount of pass coverage (of which results were mixed).
Then, when Durkin left and was replaced by Don Brown, Peppers moved even closer to the line. Designated as the SAM linebacker, he took on even more of an attacking role — blitzing often — and played even fewer snaps in coverage.
It is a testament to Peppers’ athleticism that, amidst this positional uncertainty, he has remained in the first round in most draft projections — although that uncertainty may have been cleared up at the combine.
Peppers himself was quoted at the combine Saturday as saying he is a safety, and his physical measurements would imply the same. At 5-foot-10 and ⅞ inches and 213 pounds with an arm length of 30 and ¾ inches, Peppers ranks in the third, zeroth and eighth percentiles amongst linebackers, respectively, according to mockdraftable.com.
His 40-yard dash, 10-yard split and broad jump were all tops amongst linebackers at the combine, but his size may preclude a shift to the secondary, where his speed and agility still rank close to the top.
And though the question of which position Peppers will play at the next level may have a definite answer, a move back to safety may give way to additional queries. His coverage skills will certainly be among them; according to Pro Football Focus, Peppers gave up 58 receptions to opposing receivers in 93 targets over his three seasons at Michigan. Scouts may point to his lack of experience shadowing receivers and tight ends and advise their teams to opt for safer choices in players who have roamed the defensive backfield for the entirety of their careers.
None of this, though, appears to have outwardly affected Peppers.
“The bottom line is, I’m a ball player, and I’m a hell of a ball player,” Peppers said to assorted members of the media on Saturday. “I intend to run fast, I intend to look smooth, doing whatever it is that I’m asked to do. After a couple of interviews, I think these coaches pretty much know what they’re going to get.”