Since the two-platoon system overhauled college football with specialized offensive and defensive units in the 1960s, only 14 defensive players have finished in the top five of the Heisman Trophy vote. Jabrill Peppers is the latest to join the exclusive club of defensive contenders for an award that overwhelmingly favors quarterbacks and running backs.
Like the only defender to actually win the award, fellow Michigan Wolverine Charles Woodson, Peppers got the invitation to New York as a finalist not purely based on defensive ability. He got it because of his versatility.
It feels strange to question the usage of a versatile defensive player who became a Heisman finalist, and yet it's hard not to wonder where Peppers would be right now had he followed a different positional path. Watch his high school highlights from three years ago, and it's even easy to imagine Peppers thriving purely as a running back.
Mostly, it's hard not to wonder where Peppers would be in the NFL Draft conversation had he actually spent the majority of his time in 2016 at safety, the position where he's projected to play as a professional.
One of the nation's top recruits in the class of 2014, Peppers saw his freshman season cut short after just three games because of an injury. While he's been a nationally known star the past two years, he still enters the draft in a somewhat strange position. In doing a bit of everything, he's one of the draft's most inexperienced players in terms of projecting what kind of player he'll actually be when he settles into, for the most part, a clearer role.
Peppers moved around in 2015 but was listed as a safety and primarily played in the secondary, dabbling at cornerback and in the slot. He broke up 10 passes and recorded 5 ½ tackles for loss, and he showed potential as a weapon in the other phases of the game. In 2016, new defensive coordinator Don Brown moved Peppers to a hybrid outside linebacker position designed to put him on the attack in space, utilizing his excellent athleticism, his closing speed and his agility.
After a tremendous start, Peppers finished with only 5 ½ tackles for loss in nine Big Ten games. He had one Big Ten sack and one Big Ten interception, and while he was used on offense, it was mostly sporadic: He had one game with more than 24 yards from scrimmage. The stats didn't tell the whole story of Peppers' value to the Michigan defense. Still, the defining numbers related to Peppers became merely the number of positions he played and not actually the production at those positions.
Peppers played everywhere in 2016. His snaps by position:- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 10, 2017
*31 returns (21 punt, 10 kickoff) https://t.co/p42wxQHOaZ
By the time Peppers got the invitation to New York, he had become overhyped, seen as almost a defense-first Christian McCaffrey-like all-purpose star, without any of the statistics to back it up. His national stature was built more on name recognition and novelty than actual performance. In a weak Heisman race in which challenges to Lamar Jackson struggled to emerge, Peppers was the recipient of constant attention. He was the non-Harbaugh face of Michigan's resurgence; the fun, multi-talented weapon who drew attention for his ability to do anything coaches asked of him.
Peppers' invitation to New York was met with some backlash, as it seemed to be a case of the performance not matching the hype. Had Peppers played at a school with lesser name recognition that Michigan, it's hard to imagine him being anywhere close to the Heisman conversation. That's not to say that he wasn't an excellent player; it's just that he wasn't the nation's best defender, or one of the 11 best to warrant first-team All-America accolades.
Peppers may have become overrated as a college player, but in part because of the close scrutiny after he became a Heisman finalist, he's now become underrated as an NFL Draft prospect, still possessing the potential to be a top-10 talent in this class.
The same reason that Peppers received enough Heisman votes to be invited to New York is the same reason that Peppers' NFL Draft projections have slipped. It's still more likely than not that he'll be a first-round pick -- someone is going to buy into the potential -- but while early 2017 draft talk pegged Peppers as a potential top-10 pick, he's hardly a sure thing to be a first-rounder. NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah ranks him 31st overall. ESPN's Scouts, Inc., ranks him 46th. Mel Kiper does not include Peppers on his top 25 big board (he was initially ninth last May).
It would be a big mistake for NFL teams to let Peppers fall that far.
What has hurt Peppers' stock the most is the uncertainty surrounding his position. At 5-foot-11, 213 pounds, it's clear that Peppers is not an outside linebacker. Most agree that his natural position is in the defensive backfield, likely as a strong safety with the versatility to play in the slot. The problem is that, while an evaluation of any NFL Draft prospect is a projection, Peppers' evaluation involves more projecting than most. His 12 games of 2016 film show how dangerous of a return man Peppers is, talent that can translate to the NFL. They also show how impressive of an athlete he is, how he tackles (improved at his new position) and, in some respects, how he plays in coverage (more than capable of blanketing receivers but sometimes out of position and unable to make plays on the ball). The tape didn't show much of Peppers at his best pro position.
His biggest weakness was size and getting pushed around traffic. That becomes less of a weakness if he's moved further away from the line of scrimmage into more of a traditional safety role, where he'd become an asset in run support instead of an occasional liability. He's known for his high football IQ, which is a reason why his coaches trusted him to play so many roles. Whichever team drafts Peppers will be doing so because it trusts that Peppers will unlock his full potential when moved around less frequently. And when he does settle into a clearer position, that versatility will go back to being an asset.
Widely praised at the start of the 2016 college season, Peppers gradually become a divisive player, and that divisiveness hasn't let up over the past few months. In a draft process filled with uncertainty, it can be difficult to fully buy into, with a highly valuable asset like a first-round pick, a player that comes with even more uncertainty attached to him than usual. But remember why Michigan trusted Peppers to perform so many roles in the first place. Remember the enormous potential he showed as a redshirt freshman in 2015, primarily as a defensive back. Remember the jaw-dropping athleticism that made it essential for Michigan to find ways to get the ball in his hands. Remember the competitiveness that made Peppers want to take on so much responsibility. Remember that he was still an integral part of one of the nation's best defenses.
The Heisman votes for Peppers were more of a projection of what he was hoped to be as a player at Michigan, but there was still plenty of truth in the hope. An NFL team won't need Peppers to be a star at every position. In turn, Peppers is likely to reward his new employer with stardom.