One of the most endearing memories from this past April’s draft was seeing Cleveland Browns special teams coach Chris Tabor loudly celebrate upon hearing the team selected safety Jabrill Peppers.
The excitement, it seemed, came from the fact the former Michigan standout was seen as an incredibly versatile player, someone who could make an impact no matter where you put him on the field. Many pre-draft write-ups referred to Peppers as the football version of a Swiss Army Knife, and it sure seemed like he was lined up to be a key player for Cleveland’s defense.
He may end up turning into such a thing, eventually. Of course, this is under the assumption the Browns stop blatantly misusing him.
Peppers hasn’t made any impact whatsoever this season, and it’s due mostly to the fact Cleveland is showing the world the best possible ways to waste his talent.
If you feel such an accusation sounds harsh, you haven’t been watching the Browns this year. If you did, you would see a familiar sight every time the team’s defense lines up for a play.
The first thing you’d notice is ten Cleveland defenders on-screen. Provided the camera can zoom out far enough, you’ll eventually see Peppers, lined up a good 20-30 yards away from the line of scrimmage.
The rookie safety has been put in this position for nearly all of his time on the field this year. I say “nearly” only because the Browns are unable to back him up that deep when in the red zone.
The reasoning defensive coordinator Gregg Williams gives for this confusing set-up is his using Peppers to prevent a big play. Right off the bat, this seems strange, due mostly to the fact we’re talking about a player who thrived in college when being utilized all over the field.
Said call is even dumber when you realize two things. First, Cleveland has already given up big plays a handful of times this season despite having Peppers as some sort of safety net. Secondly, having him play a mile away from the line of scrimmage has allowed opposing quarterbacks to pick the Browns apart with short-to-medium yardage passes.
Since they’re only having to face ten defenders, QBs have had no trouble finding openings. Andy Dalton, who had been enduring a rocky start to the year, finished last Sunday missing only five of his 30 pass attempts, methodically beating Cleveland with short routes and helping the Cincinnati Bengals roll to a 31-7 victory.
When Peppers is called upon to stop a big play, he’s either taking poor angles or getting blown up by a downfield blocker. Four weeks into his rookie year, not only has he not made an impact play, he’s also been made completely irrelevant.
This has carried over into special teams, as well. Peppers serves as Cleveland’s primary punt returner, only his confidence seems so shot he’s been frequently signaling fair catches deep within the red zone.
All in all, the Browns have taken an incredibly multifaceted player and refused to use him in any way he could be effective. It certainly makes you feel bad for Peppers. At the same time, it should also make you feel frustrated with Cleveland’s coaching staff.
What is Williams proving by making Peppers a non-factor every week? Not only is it a blatant waste of talent, it’s also leaving the rest of the defense hanging out to dry. Cleveland is continually giving up long, methodical drives, and it’s due mostly to the fact there’s always a hole to be found. Even worse is the fact this is the case because the Browns are choosing to leave a hole on the field.
Williams is being given a player known as a hard-nosed, gritty wrecking ball and has purposefully removed him from the equation on every play. He’s treating a first-round pick the same way you’d treat a practice squad call-up, leaving him as far away from the ball as possible to prevent him from making any blunders.
I wish I could explain why this keeps happening with Peppers, but I truly have no idea. It’s not working, despite Williams’ continued insistence it is.
Actually, that’s not entirely true.
When looking at this treatment from a perspective of ensuring Peppers is making an impact, no, it’s not working. However, if Williams’ plan is to completely waste a first-round pick by preventing his development and ensuring he can’t make a single significant play, then he’s doing a bang-up job.
Casey Drottar is an independent sports writer. Subscribe to his podcast, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook