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Draft profile: Jabrill Peppers is the model Seahawk hybrid

Teams and scouts can’t agree on the usefulness of his in-between talent. But a four-down player who could down the road fill the shoes of Kam Chancellor? Yes please

Northwestern v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

This might sound foolish because he’s one of two players* I’m highlighting from this year’s NFL draft talent on a Seattle Seahawks blog, but I both think the Seahawks aren’t likely to choose Jabrill Peppers from Michigan and think they may not be wise to choose him. However, if they do pick Peppers, I will be irrationally excited.

Although any player is “unlikely” to be drafted by any particular team without a very high pick given the mechanics of probability and the draft, Peppers’ specific projections tend to fork away from the area where Seattle is drafting. Last Thursday, in Mel Kiper’s and Todd McShay’s head to head mock draft, Kiper selected Peppers 15th leading McShay to tease Kiper: “Any time you can take the sixth-ranked safety off the board in the top 15 you’ve got to do it.” Kiper countered that some team is going to become enamored with Peppers’s versatile talents and seize its opportunity to take him, claiming the move as realistic. Not that I care what either of those stooges think about the draft, but it’s illustrative of the divide of perspective concerning Peppers (plus there were about 20 minutes left on my flight after I finished watching Doctor Strange, and the live mock was being aired before the NFL schedule release show on the airline ESPN feed). Likewise, when Tony Pauline compared two NFL teams’ first-round draft boards a week before the draft, Peppers was one of a handful of players the anonymous executives couldn’t agree were top-32 projections.

It seems like Peppers is destined to go in the top 20 or midway through the second round with no in-between. A diluted drug test announced Monday might lower those placements somewhat, but should still generate a similar split around teams that have faith in Peppers and those that do not. Although that could create the opening necessary for Peppers to remain available for the Seahawks at the 26th selection, I don’t think safety is a great enough need that they will scoop him there unless a crazy pattern of picks takes all their other targets away early (in which case they will trade).

The other reasons it may be irrational to celebrate such a pick are the same reasons Peppers could fall—the evidence that the greatly-hyped college player could be a professional bust. Peppers was a Heisman Trophy finalist in December thanks mostly to a 20-year nostalgia for another Wolverines defensive back who also played on offense and returned punts. As someone who cheers for Michigan and lived through both eras, I appreciated the narrative. I even met Charles Woodson a few times back then: once at a football camp after his sophomore season and again in March 1998 at 3 a.m. in a gas station store.

Me (approaching the reigning Heisman winner and national champion at the counter): Yo Charles! Who’s gonna draft you, dogg?

Woodson (buying condoms): Uh, I don’t really know yet.

Me: Oh, ok. Good luck!

But while Jabrill Peppers is indeed somewhat more versatile as a defensive player than Woodson, who really just stuck to corner in college before transitioning to safety in the pros much later, after he turned 30, Peppers’s performance in his last college season was nowhere near as sparkling and his athleticism doesn’t translate so exceptionally as a pure defensive back. When the Ringer’s Kevin Clark highlighted the “positionless” stars of this year’s draft, he pointed out Peppers “delivered one the two best broad jumps among players classified as linebackers and won the 40-yard dash among the position group.” Clark went on to claim that meant Peppers possessed “the athleticism to play anywhere on the field”—ignoring how Peppers’s marks don’t stand out as elite compared to lighter, quicker safeties, five of whom ran faster.

Indeed Peppers’s critics say he is classed as positionless because he doesn’t have the qualities to play either position: With only one interception and 10 passes defensed in his career, they say he can’t possibly have the ball skills to work in coverage; and as Matty Brown breaks down at Inside the Pylon Peppers lacks both the strength and technique to shed blockers and succeed at linebacker, plus he had his worst games against top competition with a trip to the playoffs at stake. “Peppers would have to be kept clean at all times to function as a linebacker, and that is not feasible,” Brown writes.

However, Rob Staton argues that such evaluations are miscast because of the schematic way Peppers was used at Michigan and is much more comfortable with how Peppers’s abilities translate to the NFL, but worries, “If you’re the Seahawks, how do you get him on the field while ever you have Kam Chancellor?” Yet we know that within a year or two Chancellor will either no longer be on Seattle’s roster or will be starting to erode to the point that his replacement better be. So why not grab that guy now? The other legit strong safety on the club, Bradley McDougald who may be most fit for the nickel spot where Staton doesn’t like Peppers, is also only on a one-year deal (Kelcie McCray remains unsigned).

Chancellor himself, after all, hardly played his rookie season and didn’t become an impact starter until 2011. Of course, Chancellor was a fifth round pick, not a first or a second like Peppers will be. But aside from a top investment in cornerback or left tackle, it’s hard to see any Seahawks draft pick stepping in and starting immediately. Those positions should be the priority, obviously, but the vagaries of the draft occasionally require more elastic thinking.

But football as a whole is growing more creative with its use of talents. As Diante Lee wrote earlier in April, “A defense now has four spots in which they are free to mold their own identity, or to match and neutralize the offense’s.” Few organizations have shown as much willingness to think elastically as the Seattle Seahawks. Most observers ridiculed Seattle for drafting Bruce Irvin with the 15th pick in 2012 because he too was a “tweener” supposedly lacking the size and techniques to play on the line of scrimmage and without the polish to play at the edge—another man without a position. Instead the Seahawks effectively turned Irvin into a hybrid player, utilizing all his strengths and molding him into somebody who was good for three downs on defense by playing different facets of multiple positions.

Seattle didn’t discard Irvin after his rookie deal because they couldn’t find a way to use him. They used him so differently from the way he was classed as a “pass rusher” that (as one of their rare first rounders seeking that second contract) they could no longer afford him.

As Clark said of the puzzle facing this year’s teams analyzing the draft, “If you’re a defensive coordinator who doesn’t know what to do with Peppers, perhaps the problem is yours, not his.” I don’t bring up the Irvin example to say I expect Seattle to make Peppers another heavy SAM hybrid, but what excites me about Peppers is the same opportunity for the Seahawks to again make their defense into a shifting, amorphous matchup problem based around another multitool talent. And beyond that, because of his ability to return punts Peppers is, like Christian McCaffrey, rather a four-down player, which is something Seattle may be aiming for given the uncertainty around Tyler Lockett’s availability to start the year and the due care they will afford him on his return.

Monday John Schneider was asked how teams dealt with the challenge of defining these exceptional athletes. Schneider admitted it was a risk to take a guy who might not fit a classic position group. “Both of them are really talented,” Schneider said, and then added coyly, “If you figure out a role for them, it’ll happen.”

*It was supposed to be more but I got terribly sick over the weekend. I’m sure you’re not too broken hearted. That’s why you have Rob Staton! For what it’s worth I also really like Akhello Witherspoon.