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The Jets selected defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd with their lone Day 2 pick in the 2018 draft. Shepherd, who attended Fort Hays State University, raised his stock throughout the offseason and was selected by the Jets 72nd overall. Let's consider his strengths and weaknesses and how the Jets might use him in 2018.
Shepherd is expected to be raw, having only played college football at Division II schools. That's a concern for a player who took a circuitous path to the NFL and will turn 25 during his rookie season.
If it's going to take Shepherd a few years to get up to speed, then he's going to be in his mid-to-late 20s before he contributes fully. Having already traded two other second-round picks and spent their first-rounder on a quarterback who might ride the bench in his rookie year, there's a risk the Jets won't get many contributions from their draft class this season.
However, the good news is that the assumption Shepherd is raw might be misguided. A closer review of his film indicates that Shepherd actually has excellent technique, perhaps benefiting from the fact that he played five years in college, albeit at a lower level and with a two-year gap. He's clearly used that time to hone his abilities in preparation for being able to have success at the highest levels.
When reviewing top prospects from Division II schools, they are expected to be physically dominant over their opponents, and that's certainly the case for Shepherd. His excellent workout numbers at the combine prove he will bring quickness, explosiveness and strength to the position at the pro level, while also boasting excellent size and a long wingspan. However, unlike many prospects at this level, Shepherd doesn't rely on those strength and quickness advantages.
As a pass rusher, Shepherd excels at using his hands to get off blocks, creating separation with his initial punch and winning by getting his hands inside to get his blocker off him. He uses a violent club move to beat his man outside and gets low to drive his man back to set up a rip-jerk move to allow him to create interior pressure. He'll also use an effective spin move when his man overcompensates to the outside. Shepherd only had 10 sacks over the past three years, including four in 2017, but he regularly collapsed the pocket so that his teammates could generate production.
That toolbox of moves served Shepherd well at the Senior Bowl, where he was expected to struggle due to the jump in competition level. Surprisingly, he was dominant, even giving 34th overall pick Will Hernandez trouble in on-field drills. Unfortunately, a broken hand prevented him from playing in the game, but he had already done enough to have some experts projecting him as a high second round pick.
Defenders of the Shepherd pick will claim he had to deal with constant double teams in college, which could be based on another assumption. However, in his case, it's absolutely true, as offenses would account for him with two and sometimes even three blockers most of the time, while also running away from him to mitigate his impact.
Shepherd showed he can hold his ground against double teams, while often penetrating to still influence the play. Again, he does an excellent job of keeping his outside hand free so that he can shed blocks and get in on the tackle. If he can do that with the Jets, it will benefit the defense, but the more likely scenario is that he'll be single-blocked more than he has been in the past, which could enable him to have some success making plays himself.
While Shepherd's physical presence and impressively seasoned technical play stand out on film, two other things that stand out are his vision and motor. Defensive tackle is a position where even raw players can contribute to a rotation simply by being focused on penetrating and relying on the back seven to clean up behind them. Shepherd goes beyond that by keeping his head up to stay in front of ball carriers and react to fakes and misdirection. His consistency of effort is also impressive.
Head coach Todd Bowles has already said the Jets aim to have a deep rotation on the defensive line this year in order to keep everyone fresh, and Shepherd has a good chance of contributing sooner than some experts expected and immediately holding down a spot with that group. While the jump in competition will make his rookie year challenging, Shepherd's attitude, understanding of leverage and burgeoning skill set could make this a pick that pays early dividends.