NFL draft: Why U-M's Jabrill Peppers is a fit for the Detroit Lions

Jabrill Peppers isn't a perfect NFL prospect by any means.

He measured a hair under 5-foot-11 at the combine earlier this month, he played a super-utility position at Michigan that doesn't translate perfectly to the NFL, and his lack of takeaways on the defensive side of the ball - he forced just two turnovers in 27 career games - is rightfully a concern of scouts who project him as a safety in their league.

But Peppers has two very important things going for him as NFL teams begin to set their boards for April's draft, and that's why I gave him to the Lions with the 21st pick in my latest mock draft.

Peppers is a dynamic player who can have an immediate impact as a return man and perhaps even as a gadget player on offense, and he's a chess piece on defense in a league that's increasingly favoring more specialized roles on that side of the ball.

No. 1 alone doesn't make a player a first-round draft pick, though given the transition period many rookies face, it's nice to know that Peppers will at least make an impact in Year 1.

No. 2 is why Peppers, despite questions about his size, coverage skills and even his role, belongs in the first round.

The Lions' biggest needs after this first wave of free agency remain on the defensive side of the ball. They need a pass rusher to pair with Ziggy Ansah, a playmaking linebacker that can be the face of that unit and a cornerback to complement Darius Slay.

Peppers fills none of those roles, but he would play -- and I think eventually be an impact player -- in dime and nickel packages that are used upwards of 70% of the time across the league. No, Peppers isn't a linebacker, but he can cover running backs out of the backfield or tight ends in the short area and have success.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said he dropped Peppers out of the first round of his latest mock draft because he's not sure exactly what role Peppers will fill in the NFL.

"I thought he could be (like the Arizona Cardinals') Deone Bucannon for a while, but the more I study the tape, I think he’s just not as physical or as strong as Bucannon," McShay said in a teleconference today. "I don’t know that he can move inside. So now we’re talking about a guy who has to play some of the nickel, outside the box, and then has to hold up in coverage more in terms of deep coverage. And I thought he struggled when he was forced to quickly turn and run, change directions, those sorts of things."

McShay isn't entirely wrong, but smart defensive coordinators can move Peppers all over the field and give offenses fits, just as offensive coordinators do with specialized running backs and receivers.

"It's a matchup game," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said at the combine. "Everybody’s getting tired of me saying it’s a matchup game, but it is. And Bill Belichick’s the best that ever did it and I think other teams are trying to figure out what he does and why he does it. Jabrill Peppers is a matchup player. On first down he might be in one place and on third down and 8 he might be in another place.

"He can play in the middle of the field because he’s going to run 4.3 and have great range, but he can line up at nickel. And if you really want him to cover that running back, who’s a matchup running back, like Christian McCaffrey, now you’ve got Peppers lined up on McCaffrey, I’d pay money to see that. So it’s a matchup league and I think people are starting to figure that out."

Peppers isn't the perfect player for the Lions.

Taco Charlton, Derek Barnett and Reuben Foster, to name a few, would be better options if they were available at 21.

But he's a good player who fits an underrated need -- starting safeties Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson are both entering the final year of their contracts -- and that's why I gave him to the Lions in my second mock draft.

Contact Dave Birkett: dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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