Berea, Ohio — Every day is another interview.
That’s what Jabrill Peppers, the former Heisman Trophy finalist from Michigan, keeps hearing from his new coaches — particularly Gregg Williams, the Cleveland Browns’ in-your-face defensive coordinator — now that he’s an NFL rookie.
“That’s something we live by here,” Peppers said.
But for Peppers, one of the Browns’ three first-round picks prepping for next week’s mandatory minicamp, all these interviews keep coming back to the same questions Peppers has heard for months now, about where he fits and just what he can do now that he’s finally where he dreamed he’d be. And this week was no different, as Peppers stood surrounded by reporters after practice on a breezy afternoon at the Browns’ training complex in Berea.
An All-America defensive standout for the Wolverines, Peppers looked like the presumptive starter at strong safety for the Browns following the NFL draft in April. But last week, Cleveland made a trade for another young veteran at the position, acquiring Calvin Pryor (a 2014 first-round pick) from the New York Jets, who’d used their first two draft selections on safeties this spring.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” said Peppers, whom the Browns grabbed with the 25th overall pick. “You can’t be surprised by anything in this league. You’ve just got to be the best player and person you can be. … We just added another guy to the mix, making it all about competition. Calvin’s a hell of a player, so we’re gonna see how things go.”
No Pryor assumptions
And so it goes in the NFL, especially in Cleveland, where the Browns — coming off a 1-15 season — are in full rebuilding mode, stockpiling draft picks and young talent at every turn.
Pryor, for his part, wasn’t making any assumptions as he joined his new team on the practice field.
“I know we both can play football,” he said of Peppers. “He’s very intelligent, that’s one thing I do know. He knows his stuff. I know he goes hard, he’s a competitor, and he wants to win football games. So I can live with that.”
Likewise, head coach Hue Jackson didn’t sound too concerned about cohabitation in the Cleveland secondary.
Peppers, one of a dozen rookie first-rounders still unsigned around the league, was one of the two players Williams coveted in this draft, along with Myles Garrett, who looked every bit of the No. 1 overall pick in Tuesday’s OTA practice. (“If I was a quarterback, (I’d be) really scared,” head coach Hue Jackson laughed.) So the arrival of Pryor, who says he also can play free safety, might just give Williams more alignment and personnel options for his nickel defense.
“One thing about Gregg, he has a lot of flexibility in his system to be able to play guys wherever we need to play them,” Jackson said.
And that’s what makes Peppers, who played nearly 950 snaps at more than a dozen positions for the Wolverines last season, such an intriguing player.
He’ll be expected to make an immediate impact this fall returning punts and kicks. And Jackson insists he'll find a way to use him on offense eventually. But Peppers says he’s enjoying the chance to return to his “natural habitat” in the secondary in the NFL. He also laughs when asked to compare Williams to Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown. (“Both great coaches, both kind of noisy,” he said, “but they’re different in their own way.”)
But mostly what he has found in his first six weeks as a professional is that all that cross-training at Michigan, where he shuttled between linebacker and safety, was a dynamic special-teams weapon, and spent time in the backfield on offense, is paying dividends now as he dives into Williams’ playbook. It’s a complex, blitz-heavy scheme that puts a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as well as on the linebackers and safeties.
“I had to memorize a lot of things last year — different positions, different schemes — and I came in with the assumption that it would probably be about the same,” said Peppers, who figured Cleveland was a likely landing spot heading into the draft, along with Pittsburgh and Miami. “But it’s been easier than I expected.
“What I did at Michigan, it definitely broadened my knowledge — my football wits, I guess. And the game is still 80-percent mental, so once you have a good grasp of the playbook, you can play faster. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, learning what I’m supposed to do and the branching out to learn what other guys are supposed to do to get the full concept.”
As for the preconceived notions others might have, he figures there’s not much he can do about that. Peppers tested positive for a diluted urine sample at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, which automatically entered him into Stage One of the league’s substance abuse program. Peppers blamed the failed test on over-hydration due to a history of cramping and a combine schedule that had him competing with two position groups.
“I never failed a drug test in my life, never been arrested, so people want to speculate on that for other reasons,” he said, “so be it.”
And they did, of course, including one ESPN Radio personality here in Cleveland, Sabrina Parr, who leveled a variety of unfounded accusations about Peppers and alleged drug use on the air last month that ultimately led to her being fired from the Browns’ flagship station.
Peppers addressed those comments at his first media session a month ago, and he says he’s done talking about all that now, ready to focus solely on football. But ask him about the incessant criticism he has faced — from high school through college and now to the pros — and he throws his head back, smiles and sighs.
”I mean, I feel like everyone has to say what gets them clicks,” he said. “But I don’t really pay that no mind. I’m where I’m at, they’re where they’re at. I’ll take my life over theirs any day. They get paid to talk about me. I get paid to do what I love.
“I’m pretty driven. My ‘whys’ are deeper than anything that anyone can say to me to motivate me. But all that noise, I’ve learned that’s just how it’s gonna be. So you take it for what it is.”