Michigan football player Jabrill Peppers makes a tackle during the 2016 game vs. rival Ohio State. BLADE PHOTO
ANN ARBOR — Jabrill Peppers perhaps played out of position at Michigan last season, lining up as a linebacker even though he seemed most suited to play safety in the NFL.
He made enough plays to become a Heisman Trophy finalist as a junior and to determine he was ready to play in the league.
Timing might work against Peppers, however, because he’s projected to be taken after LSU’s Jamal Davis and Ohio State’s Malik Hooker. Those two safeties are expected to be among the top selections next week, and no one appears to be sure when Peppers will be taken.
“It’s unfortunate that he’s coming out in a year where there are so many good safeties,” NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt said. “Under normal conditions, he’d probably be the No. 1 safety, but the Ohio State and the LSU guys are so good.
“He’s a tremendous football player. He finds a way to makes things happen. Even though he only had one interception at Michigan, he finds a way to make a big play, whether it’s a sack off a blitz or on a punt return.”
Brandt thinks Peppers is talented enough to potentially be drafted in the middle of the first round, but won’t be surprised if he’s available early in the second round. Although Peppers was pushed out of his comfort zone last season, Brandt does not think it affected his value to NFL teams.
“The only thing that hurts him a little bit is he doesn’t have very good hands,” Brandt said. “At pro day, he dropped about three passes.”
Bleacher Report NFL analyst Chris Simms said Peppers was the “most overrated,” prospect in the draft last week and the proud player fired back the next day on Twitter.
“I played out of position (LB @ 200lbs) pounds, and still became an All American,” Peppers tweeted. “How many players can/ARE WILLING to do that for their team?”
The 5-foot-11, 213-pound Peppers declined an interview Saturday while walking up the tunnel out of Michigan Stadium after the school’s spring game. But he acknowledged in March it is fair to question where he will play in the league because there isn’t a lot of tape of him at safety. Peppers was primarily used as a nickel cornerback as a sophomore in 2015.
Coach Jim Harbaugh had him return punts and kickoffs and play on offense, putting him in as a wildcat quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
“I’ve had one team tell me they want me to play linebacker,” Peppers said in March at Michigan’s pro day. “One team told me they thought I should play offense. Other than that it’s, ‘you’re a safety.’ ... No one’s come into a room and said, ‘Jabrill, we don’t know what to do with you.’ ”
Speed, it seems, will be an asset for Peppers.
He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, showing off the form that helped him in high school become a New Jersey state champion in track.
In games, whether returning a punt for a touchdown or a fumble on a 2-point conversion, he simply looked like a blur at times.
Peppers didn’t play in Michigan’s 33-32 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl because of an injured left hamstring, but has proven he’s healthy during a string of visits with NFL teams.
He led a team stacked with NFL-caliber players with 16 tackles for losses last season and ranked third with 72 tackles. He also had four sacks, one interception and forced a fumble. On offense, Peppers had 27 carries for 167 yards, caught two passes and scored three touchdowns.
He returned a punt for a score in a win against Colorado, averaged a Big Ten-best 14.8 yards on punt returns, and gained 26 yards per kickoff return.