Jabrill Peppers is coming to a TV screen near you this fall.
After spending his rookie season at free safety — Peppers routinely lined up 25 yards off the line off scrimmage at coordinator Gregg Williams’ “angel” position — he will shift to his more natural position of strong safety following the trade for Damarious Randall. The move will put Peppers closer to the ball, in the heart of the action and within camera shot.
Maybe the ridicule will stop.
“Yeah, the fans gave me a little bit of heck about it, but those wouldn’t be jokes if I was making the plays I was supposed to make, so that’s all it comes down to,” Peppers said Wednesday during organized team activities.
A mention of Peppers on Twitter, in any form, doesn’t pass without a wiseacre making a snide comment about how far from the line he was last season. He refuses to fall into the trap. He won’t blame Williams for the role or alignment, instead pointing the criticism at himself for failing to produce.
“If I make those plays I’m supposed to make, it’s not even a conversation,” Peppers said. “Just being hesitant and not trusting myself, second guesses, things like that, taking bad angles, just things you’ve got to adjust to. Nothing too out of the ordinary, just things I’ve got to go back and correct and I will correct.”
He made 13 starts — he missed two games with a toe injury and one with a knee injury — and totaled 57 tackles, an interception in the finale, three passes defensed and a fumble recovery. The impact wasn’t what it should be for the No. 25 pick in the draft and a guy with the athleticism of Peppers (5-foot-11, 213 pounds).
He had issues getting the backend of the defense aligned, reading the quarterback and missing tackles, usually when he took the wrong angle rushing in from deep center field.
The failure to meet his own high standards and the season-long losing wore on Peppers. He had been used in a variety of roles and was a Heisman Trophy finalist at Michigan but took longer than hoped to find his footing in the NFL.
He’s ready to put the struggles in the past.
“It’s already been proven by how well I know the playbook now, how well I know the defensive schemes and I’m just looking forward to go out there, learn from my mistakes, playing that much faster, being in better shape now that I’ve got a year of conditioning with the guys under my belt, just going out there doing what I love to do and what I know how to do best,” he said.
Peppers played out of position out of necessity. While free safety wasn’t the perfect fit, he was the best choice provided by former head of football operations Sashi Brown.
One of general manager John Dorsey’s first moves in the offseason was trading quarterback DeShone Kizer to the Packers for Randall.
“I have always said the greatest impact that young men make is from that first to that second year when they have had that chance to decompress a little bit and then refocus their energies on the craft at hand,” Dorsey said in March. “I foresee Jabrill, who I love his energy and his athleticism, I would like to see him grab that position and just keep working at his craft and get better. I can see him developing and getting better.”
The position switch for Peppers will be a story line at least until the start of the season. Peppers said it doesn’t need to be.
“Football comes natural,” he said. “Just a little bit added responsibility. Same kind of thing, just being around the box a little bit more, still going to be back deep.”
Randall played mostly corner in three seasons with the Packers but was eager to return to free safety, where he played at Arizona State. Peppers watched highlights of Randall after the trade and came away impressed with his new partner.
“He’s a ballhawk,” Peppers said. “I didn’t know he had 10 picks, so that’s one of the things that stood out, especially a safety playing corner. He usually followed their No. 1 receiver as well, so having a guy back there who’s not only a ballhawk but can also play man-to-man against some of the best receivers in this league is definitely something we can use to our benefit.”
Peppers had plenty of introductions to make this spring, as he’s the only returning starter in the secondary. No. 4 pick Denzel Ward will likely start at one cornerback spot, with free agent additions T.J. Carrie, EJ Gaines and Terrance Mitchell filling the other corner roles.
“It gives us a different dynamic, have a lot of DBs on the field who can do different things, play different positions and different disguises and make the quarterback’s job a little bit harder,” Peppers said. “Definitely great acquisitions, guys who fit our defensive scheme extremely well and we can’t wait.”
All the acquisitions showed Peppers how fast life can change in the NFL.
“It’s definitely a culture shock but, at the end of the day, those guys are all guys who made plays, earned the right to be starters, to be in this league,” he said. “I’m just fortunate I get to learn from them every day, these are guys who have played in this league multiple years and have been pretty efficient in this league, so it’s only going to help.”