INDIANAPOLIS — Jabrill Peppers has become accustomed to the questions: Is he a safety? A linebacker?
The answer seems obvious to the Michigan standout.
“What do I look like?” he asked the crowd gathered around inside the Indiana Convention Center at the NFL Scouting Combine last week. “I’m a safety.”
For the NFL, it’s not that simple — which is why Peppers was wearing a shirt with the letters “LB,” for linebacker, emblazoned across his chest while discussing where he expects to play in the NFL.
Peppers, an exceptional athlete projected as a late first-round pick in the upcoming draft, is caught in the margins where the NFL’s traditional linguistics no longer align precisely with the game itself.
Peppers played defensive back at Michigan until he was asked to switch over to linebacker this past season. The Wolverines had a logjam in the secondary and moving Peppers allowed them to play all their best defenders, and to morph between base and nickel packages without substituting.
Peppers made the switch willingly, but it didn’t do his draft process any favors.
“I don’t have a lot of tape at safety,” Peppers said. “But I’m a pretty [expletive] good safety.”
Because Peppers is listed on the Michigan roster as a linebacker, he was forced to work out with the linebacking group at the combine. He was told before the combine that, if he wanted to tryout with the defensive backs, he was going to have to find a loophole.
“I asked if I could just, if there was somehow, someway, that I could do the DB work because that’s what I was doing all offseason and leading up to the combine. And I told my agents that and they made it happen,” Peppers said. “They said the only way I could do that is if I do both and I was like, that’s easy. That’s no problem at all.”
The confident Peppers ran with the linebackers Sunday, differentiating himself with a 4.46 second 40-yard dash, but worked out with the defensive backs Monday. Peppers projects as a mid or late first-round pick, and probably improved his draft stock for teams salivating over his speed and burst, dreaming up different ways to use him on the field.
Scouts and analysts used to knock players who they claimed didn’t have a position but versatility seems now to have become not just a positive trait but a necessary one.
Peppers said that, over the course of various meetings with teams, he was asked about playing running back or slot receiver, too, as well as on special teams.
Various mock drafts have speculated that Peppers could be a nice selection for the Redskins at No. 17 overall. Washington has certainly shown interest in similar players, including last year’s second round pick Su’a Cravens.
At the time, Cravens was a hybrid safety/linebacker from USC. Cravens played at linebacker last season, his rookie year with Washington, but coach Jay Gruden has said the plan is to start him at safety in 2017.
Cravens collected 33 tackles, a sack and an interception in 11 games in 2016 playing 26.87 percent of defensive snaps and also working on special teams.
Gruden said the Redskins still see Cravens doing some work as an inside linebacker in dime packages next season, as well as playing in nickel. If there remains some uncertainty around Cravens’ position, at least Gruden knows he’s got options.
“Everybody just says ‘Hey, just throw him in at nickel! Hey, he should play safety! Hey, he should play backer! He should play rover,’ whatever that is. You know, I think we will find something for him,” Gruden said during the combine.
Peppers, at 5-10 and 7/8 inches, 213 pounds and faster than Cravens, may actually be a clearer fit at safety. Cravens, at 6-1 and 226 pounds, seems better suited to play in-the-box.
Compared to Cravens or other players like Los Angeles’ Mark Barron or Arizona’s Deone Bucannon, Peppers would be at a size disadvantage playing linebacker. Peppers is equally comfortable playing strong or free safety, and he’d rather be thought of in the mold of an Earl Thomas, he said.
Their exact fits may be different, but Peppers should count the comparisons as compliments. Being lumped in with a group of players whose versatility is sought after isn’t a bad thing.
“We drafted [Cravens] cause we knew that that’s where football is going,” Gruden said. “A lot of spread offenses nowadays, so you have to have more athletic linebacker, safety-type guys on your team that are more hybrid-type guys.”
As long as that’s the case, players like Cravens and Peppers will see their value rise. As for Peppers, he agrees with Gruden that it will.
“I definitely think the trend will continue, I definitely think there is a lot more guys, and then it’s just about the coaching staffs letting them do things,” Peppers said.