From where he stood at free safety last season, Jabrill Peppers saw the “big picture” of the Browns’ defense.
The position coach who has lauded how Peppers performed in a relatively unfamiliar spot believes the experience, which threw plenty of adversity at the first-round rookie, will benefit him greatly as he transitions into a comfort zone of sorts at strong safety.
“I think big picture he would tell you that he is better now for having that experience and seeing it from top-down and the big picture of it all,” assistant defensive backs coach Jerod Kruse said. “It helps him understand going on when he is playing closer to the box now with what everyone thinks behind him. It will help him going forward.”
Before his first season with the Browns, Peppers thrived with the ball in his hands or as a defender lined up close to the ball. On top of his various offensive duties, Peppers played as an athletic, hybrid linebacker and safety at the University of Michigan. His position versatility made him a hot commodity in the draft, leaving many to wonder just how many spots he’d play once he landed on an NFL roster.
In 2017, it was primarily just one, free safety, where he experienced the understandable ups and downs of a rookie at a new, largely thankless position. Described by coordinator Gregg Williams as the “angel” in the back end of Cleveland’s defense, Peppers finished with 57 tackles in 13 games. He had an interception in the season finale, a game in which he started and played mostly at strong safety.
Where skeptics saw disappointment, Kruse came away encouraged. A couple of statistics validated how Peppers was up for the challenge.
“If you put him up against other free safeties in the league on as many space tackles he played, he was actually a high producer as a tackler,” Kruse said. “In college, he was a playmaker, punt returner, he did everything. He got here and was doing some different things and not being as close to the ball as he’s been in the past. People were looking at him from a different lens and saying, ‘Hey, you’re not being productive.’ He was doing everything we asked him to do.
“We were the No. 1 team in the league for not allowing deep balls last year. A huge part of that was him and how we played him and how he responded at that position. We’re all gonna have that when people look at us that way and put us in that lens and don’t live up to that lens from their perspective. I don’t think from his perspective he thought it was a step back at all last year.”
The arrival of Damarious Randall, the former Green Bay cornerback who was acquired in a March trade, and the emergence of Briean Boddy-Calhoun as a viable option at free safety allowed Peppers to focus almost exclusively at strong safety during the offseason workout program. He locked into a battle with Derrick Kindred, a third-year player who has played most of his snaps at the position since he was drafted at 2016, that is expected to continue at training camp.
Browns coaches described it as a great problem to have while assuring Peppers was in prime position to take a big next step in his development.
“Jabrill, I think, is going to have a sensational season. I really do. He is working hard. He has been very vocal back there,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “But Derrick Kindred is not going to just give it away, so it is going to be fun to see.”