Peaking at the right time. It’s usually a really lame narrative about teams heading into the NFL playoffs but in terms of draft stock, it absolutely applies to the former Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Sterling Shepard.
Shepard drew many eyeballs at the Senior Bowl, where he earned Practice Player of the Week and made some highlight reel catches.
Labeled primarily as a slot receiver, the fit for Shepard in the Packers offense is arguable, given the presence of Randall Cobb. But there are elements to Shepard’s game that are still incredibly intriguing, regardless of the current makeup of the Packers roster, where you almost wonder if another slot weapon, and arguably a receiver who can play at any position, would be worth the investment of a second to third round draft pick, as Shepard’s current projections indicate.
At 5’10 191 lbs., he’s already been labeled a slot receiver and the greatest knock on him is size, strength, and ability to win in contested ball situations. These are legitimate concerns, to some degree. But there are also some “little things” that Shepard does that make you feel that he can get away with playing at a less than ideal height and weight for a receiver, regardless of slot or perimeter.
There are numbers other than his standard stats to prove that his production is right up there with some of the top receivers in the 2016 class as well.
Matt Harmon, fantasy football writer for NFL.com and creator of #ReceptionPerception, joined the 2-Pack Podcast during the season to shed some light on the metrics that he has created to help quantify skills of a wide receiver. In addition to NFL receivers, he studies college players and how they will project to the NFL.
In an early study of four of the top receivers in the 2016 class, Shepard grades out extremely well, as Harmon exemplifies in his latest post on his personal blog thebackyardbanter.com.
Among Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell, TCU’s Josh Doctson, and Baylor’s Corey Coleman, Shepard had the highest success rate against man coverage (82.8 %), nearly eight percentage points higher than any of the other three. In addition, his success rate against press coverage (91.1%) was also nearly eight percentage points better than the next best Doctson.
This is why Shepard intrigues me most. For an offense that lacked receivers gaining separation, and that includes Cobb’s work in the slot, Shepard seems to be someone who wins one-on-one matchups skillfully.
Combine that with precise route running, great feet, shiftiness that is well above average, and it’s easy to see why Shepard is starting to gain momentum as a value pick that could contribute to an offense right off the bat.
Freshman: 45 rec, 621 yds, 13.8 ypc, 3 TD
Sophomore: 51 rec, 603 yds, 11.8 ypc, 7 TD
Junior: 51 rec, 970 yds, 19 ypc, 5 TD
Senior: 86 rec, 1288 yds, 15 ypc, 11 TD
For starters, like most NFL receivers, Shepard can do some serious damage against linebackers when given a free release. Again, another reason why Harmon’s measure of success rate against press coverage is useful here. Shepard can obviously win in situations against off coverage too.
Above = bread and butter. Lined up in the slot to the right and given a free release, Shepard easily crosses the face of the defender on the slant route. An easy short-to-intermediate completion that Shepard’s elusiveness can sometimes turn into an even bigger gain, when not already in the end zone.
Shepard, slot right (at the TV down and distance indicator) drives off of the line hard, even on three step slants, and breaks off his route with electric feet, often a low pad level like above, and gets his head around quickly to make timing routes look easy. A pretty vicious cut, while displaying good technique. I also like that as the inside linebacker drops in to coverage, the quarterback presses the line of scrimmage and forces the defender to come up, opening the second window for Shepard, who recognizes it and angles upfield to get open and make a grab for a first down.
Much of the Packers offense is elementary west coast route concepts such as three-step slant routes and quick out routes. So, with a few examples of slants against off coverage, let’s break down a flat route against press.
Shepard takes an outside release, immediately gaining favorable position to run an out-breaking route on the press defender. Due to height and pad level, Shepard engaging the defender here is favorable, as his left arm is under the chest plate and at the top of his break, he swiftly uses that arm positioning to push the defender off balance and to the ground. Wide open, the rest is all his elusiveness, feet and skill.
Even more impressive from this angle, where you can see he is well aware of the sideline and maximizes the space he has on the field to work with. It’s probably not all that surprising that Shepard was used sparingly as a kick returner.
Shepard definitely isn’t a Doctson or Coleman when it comes to the deep ball, but there are things that he does that still bode well for some success in the deep passing game.
In the right slot again, Shepard runs a go route and does a really nice job separating. Driving off of the ball hard, at the point where he gets even with the defender, Shepard makes it look seamless when swimming over the arm bar and right away, the defender is beat. Again, for a smaller receiver, Shepard possesses skills in hand combat that when paired with his feet and overall sound technique, allow him to gain separation.
The finish is nice, with him looking the ball in over his outside shoulder and then extending the ball at the pylon for a touchdown.
On one of the three-step slants pictured above, Shepard finding the second window in the defense was discussed. The following play is somewhat similar, with good “feel” displayed.
Lined up in the right slot, Shepard is running another quick in-breaking route. The linebacker lined up eight yards off the ball and splitting the hash marks is dropping into a zone where Shepard’s route is designed to break. You can see that as the linebacker comes forward biting on the play action fake, Shepard then angles further up-field, climbing to the second throwing window behind the linebacker and in front of the safety (originally lined up right at the SEC logo on the field). It’s just an off target throw, but the play is there to be made.
To be quite honest, I just wanted to include the below strong-handed sideline grab on a broken play because his sideline awareness as he plants his feet in bounds before making the catch is pretty damn cool.
I don’t know that Shepard is going to wow anybody with straight line speed, which isn’t as much a concern as it is just him being less likely to be used on the perimeter. The corner is with him step for step on this go route, and he’s eventually washed to the sideline despite a swim move in stride, with no real opportunity to win positioning on the deep ball.
Doesn’t mean he can’t win on the outside ever. How about a 5’10 receiver winning the fade route in the red zone?
Will defenders be able to wrestle possession away from him when it’s a 50/50 ball? That’s definitely possible.
While Shepard can’t help his size, he does enough things really well to warrant being picked within the first three rounds of the draft. The reason he was fun to profile, aside from him being a hot name coming out of the Senior Bowl, was because a lot of his success came in situations that look familiar to someone who watches a lot of Packers football. Quick slants. Quick outs. Fade routes from the slot, which the Packers occasionally sprinkle in with Cobb.
Ty Montgomery, a third-round pick in the 2015 Draft, is a weapon I’m still curious about. But when Montgomery started to get more looks in the offense in the first few weeks of the season before missing the remainder of the year due to injury, he started to line up on the perimeter due to his strength and size (6’2, 215 lbs).
So, at least on paper, Montgomery doesn’t necessarily project to play much in the slot. In fact, if he does end up panning out, he could instead be the perimeter guy to win Davante Adams’ job, should he not have a big turnaround in year three.
Sure, the Packers have needs to address that may be more pressing than receiver, a slot receiver in particular. But when the Packers drafted Cobb in the second round in 2011, it came when they had Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and James Jones in their prime, Jermichael Finley at tight end and Donald Driver on his way out. There wasn’t a significant need for a slot weapon (who also returned kicks, much like Shepard), but the value was too good to pass up.
At the end of the day, there is no such thing as too many weapons for a team that is at its best when the passing game is among the league’s best.