Every draft season, there are players that make us say, “if Bill Belichick gets his hands on [insert name here], he’ll be an All-Pro.”
During his decorated career at the University of Michigan, former Heisman finalist and 2017 first-rounder Jabrill Peppers was one of those prospects that felt like he would thrive in Belichick’s defense.
According to multiple reports on Tuesday, following a visit with the Patriots earlier in the week, Peppers is signing a one-year deal worth up to $5 million with New England.
Although the 25th overall selection in the 2017 draft didn’t reach his potential in his first five NFL seasons, the 26-year-old hybrid safety and core special teamer is a perfect fit in Foxboro.
In the 2017 draft process, Peppers tested with a relative athletic score (RAS) of 9.14 out of ten. In all, a 213-pound safety who ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, a sub-7 second three-cone drill (6.99), and a 35.5-inch vertical.
However, Peppers fell in the draft due to the positional value of box safeties and a tweener role at Michigan, which wasn’t for every defensive system. But Belichick’s success with hybrid safeties such as Patrick Chung, Adrian Phillips, and Kyle Dugger gives this move some juice.
With the Giants and Joe Judge last season, Peppers appeared in six games before tearing his ACL in October and was a swiss-army knife in Patrick Graham’s Patriot-like defensive scheme.
Peppers lined up at every level for Graham, a former Belichick assistant, playing predominantly as a nickel safety over the slot and at a linebacker alignment in the box. Peppers also found his way to free safety, on-the-ball linebacker, and wide corner.
Plus, the former Michigan star could factor in as a punt returner and appeared on five different special teams units for the Giants last season.
Expecting a full recovery by training camp this summer from the ACL injury, Peppers’s positional versatility and athletic profile suggest that Belichick could bring out his first-round talent.
Assuming he’s still the same athlete after recovering from last season’s injury, Peppers’s tape in New York had some intriguing elements.
First, he had good awareness playing as a zone defender, sifting through motions and multiple threats to stay on his assignment, and physicality for man coverage against tight ends and running backs.
Here, the Commanders motion a receiver from right to left and send rookie Dyami Brown on a wheel route off ghost/jet action. Peppers bumps over when he sees Brown go in motion and matches him vertically. With Peppers staying over the top on Brown, Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke is forced to attempt a throw between two defenders that is nearly intercepted.
The Commanders run a mesh crossing variation over the middle here. Peppers cut off Terry McLaurin’s short crosser from the other side of the formation, which causes Heinicke to hold the football, and eventually, the pass rush gets home, forcing a throw away.
Peppers isn’t quick enough to match up against slot receivers in man coverage, but he can hang with bigger tight ends who want to run the seams. Above, Peppers throws a heavy jam on Commanders’ tight end Logan Thomas and cancels Thomas out as an option for the QB.
Peppers can also match running backs coming out of the backfield, as he does above when he stays on the wheel route from JD McKissic and forces an incompletion along the sideline.
Along with his flexibility as a coverage player, Peppers’s patented play speed as a collegiate star flashed with the Giants in the 2021 season.
The Giants send Peppers on a nickel-backer blitz from over the slot, a role where he generated seven quarterback pressures a year ago. This time, the Commanders have a screen called to throw at the blitz, but when the play side defenders hold up their blocks, Peppers retraces his steps and brings down the ball carrier for a short gain.
Lastly, Peppers’s role playing in the box at the linebacker level puts him in situations where he’ll need to take on blockers in the trenches, and he wasn’t afraid to lower his shoulder.
Above, the Commanders are running a counter concept, and Peppers helps plug the hole at the point of attack by stepping into the tight end’s lead block (with a little help from the EDGE).
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick loves safeties who wear multiple hats and contribute on special teams, with Peppers joining a deep position group already in New England.
If we want to look deep into a one-year signing, the addition of Peppers could signal that the Patriots plan to deploy three and four-safety packages next season as they rebuild at corner.
With the veteran corner market skyrocketing and top prospects going early every April, Belichick could zig to a positionless secondary with do-it-all safeties rather than pay through the nose or draft a first-round cornerback next month.
New England is also prioritizing veteran depth in the secondary this offseason adding Peppers to Terrance Mitchell and Malcolm Butler as new signings. Last season, the play of Myles Bryant and Joejuan Williams when presented with larger roles left something to be desired.
Ultimately, we’ll have to wait and see if Jabrill Peppers still has the same pre-ACL juice that will allow him to reach his pro potential under Bill Belichick in training camp this summer.
But out of the low-risk, high reward signings this offseason, Peppers arguably has the most upside.