"Don’t blame [Jabrill] Peppers,” wrote Alex Kirschner of SB Nation last December. “He didn’t do anything other than play great football. Blame everyone who just wanted to be reminded of Charles Woodson.”
Three years earlier Jabrill Peppers warned us. No one listened.
“I don't really buy into the whole, 'He's the next Charles Woodson' and all that stuff,” he said in May 2013 after committing to Michigan in a rap video on ESPN. "That's nice to be compared to him, but I'm more of a guy who wants to make my own legacy, start my own thing."
Peppers, the No. 3 prospect in the 2014 class, was the highest-rated recruit to pick the Wolverines since Rivals began ranking players in 2002. He was a big-bodied, aggressive cornerback (5-foot-11, 210 pounds) and regarded as one of the most college-ready defensive backs of the last decade. Everyone wanted him. Everyone loved him.
That didn't last long.
"Peppers chose Michigan and never seriously considered Ohio State despite making a visit to Columbus in 2013," says Jeremy Birmingham, an Ohio State reporter for Land of 10. "So there was a sense of 'slight' from Buckeyes fans from the get go.
"Michigan hiring his high school head coach [Chris Partridge from Paramus Catholic in New Jersey] a year later to help reel in Rashan Gary added another layer to the hate onion. But that is the foundation, not the real meat of the problem."
Following an injury-riddled three-game 2014 season that resulted in a redshirt, the polarization of Peppers began.
He was Big Ten Freshman of the Year, First-Team All-Big Ten and a Second-Team All-American cornerback (CBS Sports) and safety (Sports Illustrated) in 2015 after helping Michigan and first-year coach Jim Harbaugh reach 10 wins for just the second time since 2006.
Despite universal praise for Peppers' versatility — he played offense, defense and special teams — his stats, or lack thereof, became bigger than the versatility or individual accolades. He ranked sixth in tackles (45), eighth in tackles for loss (5.5), second in passes defended (10) … on Michigan, not in the Big Ten or FBS.
The most robust ammunition for his critics came after Michigan's home blowout loss to Ohio State in the season finale. He finished the season with zero interceptions. The All-Big Ten and All-American defensive back had fewer interceptions than 50 other players in the conference and 591 others in the FBS.
“Peppers does have a certain level of braggadocio, but he knew exactly what he was doing at Michigan when he said something or did something,” says Rachel Lenzi, Michigan reporter for Land of 10. “Peppers didn't play [in the 2016 Citrus Bowl], but he was on the sideline taunting Florida with the Gator Chomp in a game in which Michigan beat down Florida. Or when he called the Buckeyes the ‘Suckeyes’ in a tweet.”
The offseason hype train began immediately after the Gator Bowl. The positionless Peppers was dubbed a top-10 2017 NFL prospect, preseason All-American and threat to become the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy since Woodson in 1997.
"I think professional football players are the greatest athletes in the world, and Jabrill is that kind of athlete," Harbaugh said at Big Ten Media Day last June. "He has the 'greatest in the world type of athleticism.' He can play just about anywhere on the football field and be effective.”
Comments like that sped up the train.
“In this society of knocking down perceptions, there were plenty of people willing to pile on negativity regarding Peppers,” said Kyle Rowland, Michigan reporter for the Toledo Blade. “Michigan will never be a beloved program and Harbaugh will never win any popularity contests, so Peppers playing for Michigan gave haters even more ammo.”
Those haters will have a field day when Peppers is drafted. Not only because their “overrated” obsession is getting an NFL shot; because Harbaugh and Michigan football will be practicing in Rome over draft weekend.
“Such in the way that people envy Harbaugh for his out-of-the-box thinking in going to Europe, in taking part in satellite camps,” Lenzi says of the Harbaugh factor, “Harbaugh and his staff were resourceful with a prodigious football talent which . . . drew some ire from the outside.”
The Wolverines won 10 more games in 2016 and Peppers’ résumé swelled. He was First-Team All-Big Ten, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, consensus First-Team All-American (AP), Heisman finalist and winner of the Lott Trophy and Paul Hornung Award. Those might as well have been couple Participation Awards if you asked the increasingly loud mob of critics.
He did he have one interception in 2016 — on a tipped pass — which came during another loss to Ohio State, their fifth straight and 12th in 13 years.
“He wasn’t great at any position for Michigan,” said Birmingham. “I’ll concede that he’s a special return man and athlete, but the attention he drew despite rarely (if ever) being a game-changing player (especially when it mattered) rubbed people the wrong way.
“He won awards he shouldn’t have won by any objective measure — and won them over Ohio State players that were probably more deserving. To most, he won those honors because of preseason hype that was . . . not really based on results.”
Four months after the final game of what Birmingham calls a never "winning-anything-important career,” the Peppers’ polarization is still firing, especially as he tumbles down draft boards. Once a potential top-five pick, the cornerback/safety/linebacker/returner is projected to the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 27 in HERO Sports’ three-round mock draft.
He was the 17th-overall pick in ESPN’s Todd McShay’s mock draft on Feb. 8 but not included in the first round of McShay's next three mocks. In fact, in his most recent mock, a three-round “general manager” projection, Peppers falls to the Arizona Cardinals at No. 45.
“I feel like he'll continue to be a polarizing figure [in the NFL],” says Rowland. “This is different than Tim Tebow, but it isn't totally dissimilar. Peppers will probably start as a rookie, which will keep his name in the news and his stats will be deciphered multiple ways.”
Tebow took the criticism in stride, smiling and reiterating his appreciation for the opportunity to play and do "good deeds". Don’t expect the same from Peppers, who fired back at Bleacher Report NFL analyst Chris Simms after the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback called him the “most overrated” prospect in the draft.
“I hate to say it about a good kid from Jersey but it’s crazy to give him a round-one grade,” said Simms, a New Jersey native. “Peppers is a liability in coverage and doesn’t play as fast as his 40 time. He can’t stick with NFL-caliber players.”
Peppers responded on Twitter, referencing his switch from defensive back in 2015 to linebacker in 2016.
“I played out of position (LB @ 200lbs) pounds, and still became an All American. How many players can/ARE WILLING to do that for their team?” he tweeted, referring to his move from safety as a redshirt freshman to strong-side linebacker as a redshirt sophomore.”
“Call me what you want, but I will EAT regardless no matter the situation or circumstance,” he added. “That's just how I'm CUT! That's on BIG BRO.”
Peppers’ supporters praised his passionate reaction and valid points. Detractors used Simms’ criticism and Peppers’ defensive reaction to further justify skepticism.
“He did everything he could do at the college level,” says Lenzi. “And some would argue that he was spread too thin, playing at so many spots on the field, everywhere from linebacker to safety to punt returner, and that may have diluted his efforts instead of maximizing them.”
At this point, it will take Hall of Fame numbers or a complete destruction at the next level for anyone to change their mind on Jabrill Peppers. Charles Woodson had 65 interceptions, 33 forced fumbles and 20 sacks in 18 NFL seasons. He was also a nine-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro and Super Bowl XLV champion.
Those numbers would do the trick.