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Peppers The Right Spice For Steelers D

Matt Steel has watched every college game played by Jabrill Peppers and details why he should be the Steelers' first pick.

Jabrill Peppers is arguably the most polarizing player in this year's draft. Between scouts, media analysts, fans, there seems to be as many haters as there are people who get excited about what he can bring.

I don't get the vitriol, but I have a feeling most of that vitriol springs from one form of bias or another. 

Peppers was a consensus top-3 recruit who scorned Ohio State and began the mass New Jersey exodus of top recruits to Michigan. Peppers also received a Heisman ceremony invite after recording pedestrian stats. He had only one interception the entire season -- the only one of his career, in fact. Combine that with playing for a polarizing head coach in Jim Harbaugh, who's hated by every SEC school, and there are several sources of potential bias.

I have watched every college game in which Peppers has played. In only two games did I come away with a negative opinion. In the season opener in 2015 at Utah, he gave up a couple of receptions out of the slot that made me question his coverage skills. Also in 2015, in a game at Penn State, I thought he did a poor job defending a couple of deep fade routes, one resulted in the only TD pass he would allow in his two-year starting career. The rest of the time, you could see he was a star on the field. He’s electric. Some players just trigger those adjectives: explosive, electric, powerful, etc. As with Antonio Brown, “electric”  is the the word that repeatedly comes to my mind as I watch Peppers play. He always brings great energy to the field, and that energy becomes infectious to teammates.

After studying more tape, I come away thinking he was even a better player than I thought he was while watching him live.

Watching the tape, it’s easy to see why he only had one interception in his career. Peppers was often attacking the line of scrimmage either blitzing or setting the edge for the defense. When he was asked to cover he did a very good job sticking to slot receivers and tight ends without many passes coming his way. There weren't many opportunities in either scenario.

In said study, I saw a playmaker. The video is out there for all to watch. Watch Peppers explode to the line of scrimmage on a couple of bubble screens to drop receivers for no gain or a loss against Colorado. Those plays are Troy Polamalu-esque. Watch him against Hawaii make a couple of people miss, and then leap over a tackler on a punt return. Watch him against Ohio State make a couple of jump cuts to defenders inside his own 20 on a kickoff he returned to midfield. Watch him leap over and around a Minnesota tight end to knock down a pass, a game in 2015 in which he played primarily safety and blanketed their tight end all game. In 2015, except for one rub route, he blanketed Michigan State slot receiver L.J. Shelton. Watch him run stride for stride in coverage with Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel in 2016. And in every game, watch his sure and physical tackling. Peppers' physicality and his tackling are the strengths of his game.

My knocks on Peppers: I don’t like that he carries the football in his right arm only. It prevents him from using a stiff arm against pursuit when he’s running to his left. I also question his ability to play man on the outside and track the ball on deep routes. Young players tend to struggle with locating the deep ball. It’s often the most difficult part of coverage for them. Tracking the deep ball is something that comes with repetition. And Peppers might be a bit too big for his frame. At 5-11, I think he’d be a little faster and more fluid if he dropped his weight from 213 to 206. But I kind of chuckle at the knock on Peppers struggling to get off blocks, as if a corner/safety is supposed to stack and shed like a true linebacker.

I think his tape is good enough to be considered a first-round talent. But to me, it’s his intangibles that set Peppers part. There will not be a player in this draft that loves the game more and loves to compete more than he does. He is all energy all the time. Always talking. Always leading. He is a Type A alpha male. He grabs the attention of the team and the room. And it’s not something that is fake or done to seek attention. It’s just the charisma and energy that he brings. 

In my opinion, I think those are the most important aspects in a prospect. You can’t get enough natural leaders or guys who love the game.

Teammates are in awe of him. Cornerback Channing Stribbling said he’s never seen someone close on the ball as fast as Peppers. Tight end Jake Butt talked about how he's seen Peppers do so many incredible athletic things either in games or practice that he doesn’t think about it anymore. He just got used to it. That description reminded me of Ben Roethlisberger describing Polamalu in the 2008 America’s Game.

For the UM spring game, coaches draft a certain amount of players for their squads. With a team full of 2017 NFL draft prospects, the coaches took Peppers with the first pick.

You want players who are coachable. Said UM linebacker coach Chris Partridge about Peppers, “Jabrill doesn’t make the same mistake twice. If he does something wrong on the field, a play in practice or something, and you correct him, that thing is corrected. You don’t have to worry about it again. As a coach, that's like a dream.”

You want players who are smart. Harbaugh said this about Peppers' football intelligence: 

“I have seen very few athletes that when you show it to them on the white board or show him a clip, he will go right out to the practice field and do it better than anyone on the team. He’s one of those rare guys.

“Andrew Luck was an athlete that had that kind of mind. You just had to tell him and he could do it. We told Jabrill in practice and he goes from defense to tailback without even a walk-through rep or a study in practice to execute it better than you thought. Those guys are the only two I can think of who have the sharpness of mind and athletic ability, because it takes real supreme athletic ability to take something somebody just gives you and do it. That’s off the charts.”

You want to bring in leaders who are going to be good mentors. Rashan Gary was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2016. His relationship with Peppers extends beyond college. They both went to Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey. Gary is already being looked at as a leader going into his sophomore season because of his maturity and work ethic. 

“I watched how Jabrill handled things, talked to the media, how he held himself," Gary explained. "He’s such a high character guy, a good guy to be around. You feed off his energy when you are at low points. He keeps your juice going.”

Here’s what I’ve noticed about Peppers as well: He’s always thinking the game. While he tackles aggressively, I’ve seen him on a couple of occasions pull up and pull his hands back at the sideline in a split second. That’s football awareness. He's a guy who on a third-and-30, or a fourth down, will knock down the pass if he doesn’t see an opportunity for a return.

Peppers is a team player. He recently tweeted how he played out of position for the sake of the team. I agree with him. I don’t think every player would be willing to do that. He had to know when he did it that it could hurt his draft stock. He did it anyway because it was best for the team.

Another knock in the scouting community is that he’s more athlete that he is skilled player at this point. Well, he played for three different defensive coordinators in his three years at UM, and he bought in to all three coordinators. He played 13 different positions (UM considered slot corner a separate position), so to say he was spread a little thin is an understatement. Give him a more focused role in a system that will be there year after year, as it would with the Steelers, and he’d grow as a player and maximize his talents.

Deion Sanders recently referred to Peppers as a five-down player. Special teams has always been considered a phase of the game that’s just as important as offense and defense. The Steelers have struggled with their kick return game for years. When the weather gets cold, kick-return opportunities increase. Peppers could significantly upgrade two of those phases. As a punt returner, Peppers rarely lets the ball hit the ground. He’ll race up to catch short punts in traffic. He had big returns catching short punts at nearly full speed. That shows fearlessness and ball skills. Catching a punt on the move is more difficult than tracking a deep ball in coverage. His ability to track and catch punts is one of the reasons I believe he'll correct his coverage weakness with repetition.

You want guys who are self-aware. Peppers has said he knows what his weaknesses are and what he needs to work on, that every day is an opportunity to get better. He’s not going to be someone who rests on his laurels.

You also want guys who want to compete. How many players would elect to workout two days at the NFL Combine? Peppers was the first I’ve ever seen do so. More often than not, players are trying to dodge the Combine. Not Peppers. He wanted to showcase his skills. He knows he’s a safety and not a linebacker, but he used the opportunity to work with linebackers to further showcase his talents.

Mike Tomlin likes guys who have been through a life adversity and used it to fuel their success. Peppers' father was incarcerated when he was seven. His brother was shot and killed when he was 14. Peppers has experienced difficulty in life and come through it. For guys who have been through what he’s been through, football is easy. The stage won’t ever be too big for him.

Fans and media have concerns about why Peppers was used in his linebacker role rather than in the secondary. Two reasons why he switched positions: 1.) UM was woefully thin at the linebacker position last year; and 2.) Defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense has a key chess piece called the “viper” position, which is basically a $backer. It's a critical position that allows teams to better defend spread offenses. The position requires someone who can man-cover slot receivers and tight ends and also be physical and tackle well near the line of scrimmage.

Brown is an innovator against today’s spread offenses. Much of his defensive philosophy is predicated on playing man-to-man coverage with progressive zone principles. Brown’s defense allows UM to play man while not getting exposed to man beaters. Players in the back end of the defense have specific assignments that allow them to pass off crossers and mesh routes that can expose man coverages. Over the last three college seasons, Brown has fielded two top-5 defenses at Boston College and the No. 1 overall defense at UM last season. His schemes are something I believe many NFL teams will begin incorporating against spread formations more frequently. But athletic safeties are needed for the defense to be successful. It’s essentially a three-safety defense. The safeties have to be able to run with receivers. The defense needs a safety that can cover the slot and yet be physical tacklers near the line of scrimmage.

That’s where Peppers comes in. There's a big hole in the Steelers nickel defense nobody in the local or national media seems to be talking about. Re-watching the AFC championship game, Julian Edelman easily converted a third-and-10 and a third-and-7 in front of Lawrence Timmons, who was dropping deep in his zone, likely fearful of Edelman running past him. In that game, the Steelers were consistently picked apart across the middle. And while they still could use an upgrade at outside corner, I’m not sure how they would be able to play the man coverage they need to play if Vince Williams or even Robert Golden, has to line up across from Edelman.

The passing game is so different in today’s NFL. Very rarely are there seven-step drops. Offenses are running and passing the ball out of the shotgun more than ever. The ball is out so quickly, outside pass-rushers don’t have much of a chance if the coverage doesn’t allow them to get home. Man coverage with zone principles combined with blitz packages that create free rushers to the quarterback is the way to stop modern-day passing games. You need chess pieces like Peppers in order to be successful at it. 

That's why I believe the Steelers are looking at so many first-round safeties. And that's why Jabrill Peppers would be a great pick for the Steelers in the first round.

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