I do this every year. If you don't know by now, I have a type. I gravitate to certain receivers. It started in 2014 when I thought he was the 3rd best WR in the class with Brandin Cooks. All Cooks did last year was catch 84 passes for 1,138 yards and 9 TDs. It continued last year with my obsession of Tyler Lockett. As a rookie Lockett was 15th in DYAR and DVOA. He also finished with 8 total TDs. My type is pretty simple. It's usually an undersized receiver that has all the athleticism in the world but is so nuanced in his route running that you'd have no idea. This is why the 2 aforementioned receivers have had success early in their NFL careers and this is why that trend will continue with Sterling Shepard.
I understand some have a height requirement. Picture a marshall at the end of a runway jumping up and down viciously waving their illuminating beacons. That's me, right now, as you're reading this, screaming: "get over it." At the Senior Bowl Shepard came in at 5'10 3/8" and 193 so this should be moot anyways. Let's get into what separates Shepard from the pack.
The Art of Storytelling
Watching Shepard run routes and setup defenders is like watching Steve Jobs give a passionate presentation on how to market a product or like listening to Andre 3000 embarrass your favorite rapper with one of his guest verses. Being able to sell numerous routes in 1 without any wasted movement is a skill that plenty of NFL receivers are without. That's why when you see a collegiate receiver that possesses this trait, it's hard not to think that said receiver won't excel at the next level. Even on throws that aren't targets to him, Shepard's routes look advanced. Here's an example against arguably the best corner in the draft, Clemson's Mackensie Alexander:
This is a simple jerk/pivot/snag route, whatever terminology you use route. We know it as the Antonio Gates route. The route starts with a quick jab step and head fake to the outside. Shepard then takes 3 hard steps to sell that he's going across the middle. Because Alexander was beat just enough at the line of scrimmage he had to overcompensate and sell out to make sure he would be in phase with Shepard. Then on the 3rd and final step Shepard plants hard and breaks back towards the sideline. If it had been a target, considering the space, it's likely a big play for Shepard.
Here's an example underneath against a linebacker. Again, no target. Similar storytelling going on throughout the route:
He presses the linebacker then almost comes to a complete stop. With an over exaggerated head fake and plant to the outside he leaves the linebacker grabbing air with space to work with underneath. This might not look like much but watching a receiver win in different ways in the manner Shepard has shown capable is refreshing. It would probably be more gratifying if you see him catch a pass then turn upfield, which is exactly what he did against Tennessee in that same situation as above.
Shepard's intuitiveness as a route runner is what sets him apart and what makes him the best route runner in the draft. A couple days ago I wrote about TCU's Josh Doctson and used an example where he stayed engaged with the corner too long downfield and how that might come back to bite him with more experienced defenders next year. In a mirrored example against Baylor, Shepard shows how to keep yourself clean with no wasted movements.
Before the DB is even raising his arm to try to jam or throw off Shepard he knows it's coming and is already starting to protect himself. As you can see in the 2nd frame the jam has no affect on the route. This means there's no wasted movement and Shepard isn't rerouted toward the sideline which leaves more margin for error for the QB on the throw. You can see the separation he earns by the 3rd frame. The pass was under thrown but because Shepard took care of business earlier in the route he had enough separation it didn't matter. Touchdown. These are the little things that can go unnoticed that Shepard brings to the table.
Process over results
I credited Shepard with 5 drops on 50 targets in the games I watched. Some of them were harsh drops. They are passes that I'd expect a high caliber receiver to haul in and since I view Shepard in that regard he gets docked for it. Again, drops aren't deal breakers for me. I'm going to show you why referencing 2 of his "drops." The first comes against press coverage as an outside receiver.
Because I wanted to show you the result we missed another one of Shepard's fine releases. To create that much separation from press coverage is enough for me to ignore the drop. If Shepard would let the ball into his body here then I'd probably be more concerned. But he attacks the pass and the defender gets his hands on it and breaks it up. It's unfortuante that Shepard couldn't haul in the pass but he's consistent in his process and I'm fine with that.
Drop number 2 is arguably a touchdown. Shepard is lined up as the split end to the top of the screen. Facing press coverage with a safety on the hash with eyes on him, too.
Not a big fan of the initial hop but Shepard used it to sell the outside release and that little jab step was enough to turn the CB around. He was even able to fool the safety into thinking he was running vertical, as you can see the safety stumbles as he's redirecting back toward the middle of the field. If he's able to catch it in stride it's a tough play for the safety and has a chance to score. Instead, drop.
The drops can't be ignored but at the same time they shouldn't be magnified to the extent where you're completely going to ignore the multiple other traits Shepard is doing well in these routes. Both of these examples come with Shepard winning outside against press coverage which is another area he's being sold short in.
Ironcially enough, that play above was 1 opportunity Shepard didn't convert when it came to contested catches. In the 4 games he went 10/12 in contested catch situations, which is pretty remarkable. There were some instances before the catch where Shepard had problems and I'd question his strength. Then there were exposures of Shepard finishing underneath or making plays downfield in contested situations. Here are 2 that stood out that out to me. The first coming on a post route over the middle where Shepard knows he's going to take a big lick.
Love how he went up and got the ball there even thought he knew the safety was going to try to decapitate him. He hangs on for a big play. These are the kind of plays he'll need to make at the next level. The next play is the ultimate gamer play. You're on the road down 7 and it's 3rd and goal with :43 seconds left in the 4th quarter. You're team needs a play. What do they draw up? A fade route. Shepard wins before the ball is even thrown. He takes 2 steps and throws a head fake in to make it seem like he's going to the inside, then:
He was lined up abnormally wide considering the ball was on the other hash but those couple steps were what it took to give the QB room to put the ball where it needs to be. He does a good job of high pointing the pass and tucking it quickly so the DB can't make a play. That's a big boy play in a big boy moment.
When you tell great stories, you get rewarded. When you're constantly keeping defenders guessing and wondering which direction you are going to break they have to over compensate. When they guess, they look foolish:
Shepard is the best receiver in the class. When I say that I mean the best route runner, the best at understanding where to sit down in zones, the best at winning 1-on-1 match ups. The best at winning in a variety of ways. Because he can do all of this, there's no reason for me to believe he won't succeed at the next level. His strength is at question before the catch and I mentioned how the drops will be concerning to some. I don't think he'll run a blazing 40 yard dash at the combine. There are far too many notable traits when you watch Shepard for any of this to push him down the rankings for me. He's better than Lockett by a good bit and the only thing holding him back from being better than Cooks is that home run speed.
Shepard is likely going to go in the late 2nd early 3rd round range and I pray every night he's there at the top of the third for San Diego. I'm extraordinary high on Shepard and think he is 1 of the 8 best players in the draft. He's not going to go there but when we look back in a couple years we'll ask ourselves why he didn't. He's going to reward some team with his story telling ability. Just hope it's yours.