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Peppers, Pats D look to "take that next step"

Jabrill Peppers earned praise from Bill Belichick for his development into an important piece for the Patriots secondary.

Patriots defensive back Jabrill Peppers (5)
Patriots defensive back Jabrill Peppers (5)

Jabrill Peppers arrived in New England during the 2022 offseason joining one of the deepest and most talented position groups on the roster. It wasn't exactly clear how Peppers would get on the field for the defense at that time behind so many established starters, but his fit as a safety/linebacker hybrid was obvious.

That mix of a strong safety and weakside linebacker has become a key component of the 2020's Patriots defense, so even without an obvious spot to stuff Peppers into the lineup, it seemed likely he'd find a way to contribute.

Peppers eased his way into things as he continued to recover from a 2021 knee injury, then started to make an impact, including a breakout game against the Jets in which he led the team in defensive stops, delivered a key block on a punt return and then capped the day off by recovering the final onsides kick.

In the season's penultimate contest vs. Miami, Peppers had his most productive game (eight tackles) while playing a season-high in snaps (63 percent). The Michigan man re-signed with the Patriots this offseason on a two-year deal coming on the heels of Devin McCourty's retirement in what was one of the spring's biggest no-brainers.

In 2023, the logjam has dissipated at the positon and with departed snaps to be filled, Peppers appears poised to be a significant contributor on defense and easily surpass the 35 percent of defensive plays he logged in 2022.

"He's a much different player now than he was last year at this time or even in training camp," said head coach Bill Belichick prior to Tuesday's OTA practice. "A full year after the injury, a lot of confidence in the communication, the system, his assignments. He's playing fast, aggressive, helping out his teammates. Last year he was trying to learn things, now he's helping out his teammates, anticipating, making calls or adjustments that maybe help him or possibly help his teammate be in a better position to defend a certain play or type of play. Yeah, he's been great. He's way ahead of where he was last year."

Peppers has been fully involved in an extensive safety rotation during OTAs with top returning veterans Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips, with Jalen Mills working in as well. It's an experienced and incredibly versatile group that hasn't started from scratch this spring. Already the defensive coaches are spinning the dial with this group leading the way.

"It's my second year but the guys, they've been together even longer than that," said Peppers on Tuesday. "So we're just building off last year. We kind of brushed off the cobwebs a little bit just to get guys back in the swing of things, but for the most part we're trying to build... now we're just trying to look for ways where we can get ahead, how can we disguise, awareness things, things that we might not have necessarily put our best foot forward with last year, trying to take that next step."

But even with all that depth and talent the question remains of how does this defense replace McCourty in centerfield? So far it's been a group effort and one that Peppers thinks could actually help the defense be even better at disguising their intentions without a pure free safety over the top.

"So we all understand that we lost great leadership and communication at Devin, but it's on all of us to pick it up," said Peppers. "I think personally that now, you know, you kind of knew where Devin was gonna be most of the time. Yeah, he inserted, he rotated down, but for the most part, you knew 80 to 90 percent of the time he was gonna be in the post. And it's like, now you don't know where anybody's gonna be. Nothing is set in stone yet right now."

One interesting element of the group has been the occasional appearance by rookie third-rounder Marte Mapu with them, as he has split his time between the linebackers and the safeties. Peppers has thus far been impressed with the rookie as he takes on multiple roles on defense and helps further complicate the defensive dissection by offensive coordinators around the league.

"We can all play in a deep part of the field, we can cover man to man, whether it's a tight end running back or if we gotta replace on the blitz from the corners, and we feel comfortable in the box knowing how to read the triangle," listed Peppers. "So then you add in a guy like Marte, who you don't know if he's back at safety now, and we're talking pre-snap, it might look one way to the offense. We run the same play, but we just flipped two guys, now it looks like a completely different defense. So, you know, we just kind of keep spinning the dial."

Poised for a possible big season, Peppers is back to the player that was a first-round pick in 2017 and made an immediate impact for first the Browns and then Giants in the early years of his career. Still just 27 years old, he was always an intriguing fit for the Patriots and now things appear to be all coming together.

"I feel explosive again, I feel fast again, but you know, I'm still a long way, a long ways away," said Peppers. "My second year in the system, I'm just more comfortable, I know the guys now. I know what makes them tick, what their best qualities are and we just all play off of each other.

"So it's a lot of different things that we can do. It's just up to us to execute."

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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