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Jabrill Peppers: Is what you see what you get, or is there more to unwrap with Giants safety?

Peppers still a player some haven’t quite figured out

Chicago Bears v New York Giants
Jabrill Peppers
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

When Jabrill Peppers came out of Michigan in 2017 NFL talent evaluators weren’t quite sure what to make of him. Sure, he was an incredible athlete, but what would an NFL team do with him?

Was he a safety? If so, was that at free or strong safety? Was he a linebacker? A cornerback? Was he a return man who just played somewhere on defense? Should he really be an offensive player, maybe a wide receiver?

He was, at times, all of those things at Michigan. Thus, the confusion.

The scouting report from Dan Shonka of Ourlads, a veteran of more than four decades of NFL personnel work, was par for the course. It read, in part:

“As explosive and as fast a player you will find. Functional speed all over the field. Tracks the backside of a play exceptionally well and will often cut a running back off before he reaches the line of scrimmage. More than willing to take on pulling guards. Versatile threat that can play a physical pursuit role up front as well as drop into deep safety coverage. Has the movement ability to stick with wide receivers. Possesses elite ability with the ball in his hands. One of the most dangerous return men in the league from day one. Has the ability and potential to get a look at running back. Was moved around so much at Michigan that he can be considered one the unknowns of this class. Was not a productive or dominant defensive back to say the least. Plays tough and physical but his frame can’t hold up at linebacker. Lacks awareness and instincts. Doesn’t flow to the action naturally. Too hands-on in coverage, doesn’t play with proper technique. Overly dependent on talent. Was jostled around position-wise but spent the majority of his snaps at linebacker in 2016. Peppers is a jack-of-all trades prospect, almost to a fault. There is no denying that his ability with the ball in his hands is elite. However, as a defensive prospect, there are several holes in his game. There may not be enough skills and instincts for the defensive backfield, and there aren’t any linebackers at his size. Drafting Peppers will be a risk for a few reasons, the main one being trying to choose what he is best at and let him develop from there.”

Peppers is now three seasons into his NFL career, two with the Cleveland Browns after being the 25th selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, and one with the Giants. Three seasons is generally how long scouts say it takes to determine more or less what a player is going to be.

With that in mind, I checked in with Shonka the other day about Peppers. His response was short, simple, and telling:

“Things haven’t changed much.”

Meaning evaluators still see the same athletic, but not necessarily instinctive or easily definable player.

Let’s take a closer look at Peppers as he prepares for his fourth NFL season.

The basics

Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 212
Age: 24
Position: Safety
Experience: 3
Contract: Final year of four-year, $10.341 million rookie contract | Fifth-year option: Exercised

How he got here

Peppers, of course, came to the Giants from the Cleveland Browns in the March of 2019 Odell Beckham Jr. trade. Getting Peppers, along with the 17th overall pick from the Browns (used for Dexter Lawrence) gave GM Dave Gettleman the two first-round picks he said was his asking price when teams inquired about Beckham.

The Giants had, of course, moved on from Landon Collins. Peppers, with a similar skill set and body type but two years younger and immensely cheaper, was a natural replacement.

“For us to get Jabrill Peppers, who we think is going to be a very good safety in this league. He’s young, we’ve got him under contract for three years at very reasonable value. To get another one (first-round pick), this year is number 17, I think, and to get that kind of a value in this type of a draft, and to get a third-round pick completing our dance card for April, it was just too much to pass up. It was too much value for us,” Gettleman said at the time of the trade.

“I believe in his ability.”

Peppers gave the Giants a good season in 2019 before a back injury suffered returning his only kickoff of the season cost him the final five games. He averaged a career-best 6.9 tackles per game in 2019, and saw his passer rating against drop from 110.4 in 2018 with Cleveland to a respectable 84.4 with the Giants.

Pro Football Focus wasn’t really a fan. Using the PFF grading system, Peppers was tied for 71st in defense, 132nd in run defense, 107th in tackling, and 40th in coverage.

2020 outlook

One of the other things Gettleman said when the Giants made the Beckham trade is “We have to see how Jabrill develops.”

The question now becomes whether or not Peppers is what he is going to be after three seasons in the league. Or if, at age 24, he still has the ability to get better.

Peppers, though we don’t know exactly what Patrick’s Graham’s Giants defense will look like, should resume his role as primarily a box safety in 2020.

One area that the Giants would like to see improvement in from Peppers is in terms of forcing turnovers. Peppers has only 3 interceptions in his career, one in each season, and just 13 passes defensed in his career.

Does that speak to the lack of instincts Shonka referenced before the 2017 draft? Perhaps.

Peppers is a good, and important, player for the Giants. We’ll find out if he still has the upside to become a true game-changing defensive player.