Wolverines’ NFL outlook: Peppers becoming ‘elite’

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jabrill Peppers

Ann Arbor – Multi-talented Jabrill Peppers has turned a lot of heads through four games this season.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh does not hold back when describing his star player and frequently quotes something his players came up with as a way to pay homage to the redshirt sophomore.

“He’s good at football,” Harbaugh frequently says, crediting quarterback John O’Korn, who first coined the phrase.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, preparing his eight-ranked Badgers to play at No. 4 Michigan on Saturday, this week spoke about how Peppers is one of those rare players who can impact the game in all three phases.

“He’s gotta be the best player in college football right now,” Chryst told reporters this week.

Todd McShay, an ESPN NFL draft expert, who will work as field analyst during the Michigan-Wisconsin game for ABC, has seen the Wolverines in person a few times already this season. He believes Peppers’ NFL draft stock has skyrocketed.

“I thought he was kind of a fringe first-rounder coming into the season,” McShay said. “Now, I’ll be surprised, if he keeps this up, if he’s not a top-20 pick when it’s all said and done.”

Peppers, who will be eligible for the draft after this season, has moved around on defense but is considered a hybrid linebacker and is second nationally in tackles for loss, averaging 2.4 a game. He is active in the return game – he scored on a 54-yard punt return against Colorado and is No. 2 nationally in punt returns (22.7-yard average) – and has made appearances on offense the last two games.

“I don’t know how anyone who’s watched what Peppers has done is not impressed or thinks he’s not added value,” McShay said, referring to all the positions Peppers plays. “First of all, just for this team, what he’s done is just remarkable with his stamina and his ability pick things up quickly enough to go out and contribute in all these different roles.

“On offense to a certain degree, in the return game, covering kicks and special teams, and then on defense he can be an inside linebacker one down, outside linebacker the next, he could be covering as a wide cornerback one play and be covering as the overhang in the nickel coming off the edge, or covering a receiver and then also playing that single I free safety position.

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“I’m really, really impressed. I thought he was a good player last year on tape, and you could see the natural ability. I think he’s developing into an elite football player. Part of it is the versatility. But it’s also, if you break it down, just the ability to stay off blocks, and support the run, to cover, to be physical, the instincts he shows. Every phase of the game he’s grading out extremely high.”

All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis, a senior, played in his first game of the season last week against Penn State. He was coming off a back strain, and the staff did not want him returning prematurely and reinjuring himself.

McShay does not think missing those games will hurt Lewis’ NFL future, providing he stays healthy.

“He looked great in his opener against Penn State,” McShay said. “He’s probably not going to be the first cornerback drafted, because he doesn’t have ideal size at that position. He has good but not exceptional top-10 speed, but I think he’s the best man-to-man pure cover corner in college football, and I think he’s going to be a good starter, whether it’s on the outside or in the slot, at the next level.

Chris Wormley

“He just has really good instincts, very fluid. He’s constantly in a receiver’s hip pocket. He does a great job shadowing receivers and frustrating them and avoiding any separation. I think he has a chance to be a really good pro. Maybe it’s the second round, maybe it’s the third round. But I just think that guy can cover, and the league is looking for a lot more players like him.”

After several lean years in the NFL draft, the Wolverines have a number of players destined for a pro football future.

Chris Wormley, among the Wolverines’ more versatile defensive linemen, has impressed McShay.

“He’s really starting to come into his own,” McShay said. “I thought he had a lot of flashes last year. This year, he’s getting better every game. As a guy who’s carrying 300 pounds, you can’t tell. He carries it extremely well. He moves well, light on his feet and is improving his hand use and ability to convert quickness to power as a pass rusher.

“He’s just more consistently disruptive and dominant. I’m interested to see as the competition continues to gets better: Does he continue to play at this level? … I think he’s solidly a Day 2 prospect right now.”

Tight end Jake Butt, the Big Ten Tight End of the Year in 2015, toyed with the idea of jumping to the NFL after last season but quickly decided to return for another year to play with his teammates while continuing to learn his craft.

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Through the first third of the regular season, McShay said the decision to stay is paying off.

“He is improving as a blocker,” McShay said. “He had a couple drops against UCF, which is unlike him. Typically, he has excellent hands. He’s very good route runner, a savvy route runner. Finds holes in defenses. Does a good job separating from man-to-man coverage. Has some run-after-catch abilities. Not a burner, but he’s good speed, and enough athleticism to create a little bit after the catch.

“I thought coming into the year the area he needed to improve on was his blocking. While he’s far from dominant, I do see improvement. He told me it started at the bowl game last year. Just really focused a lot in the time leading up to the bowl game on improving as a blocker.

“I have him as the No. 2 tight end behind O.J. Howard from Alabama, and I’ll be surprised if he’s not one of the first two tight ends selected.”