As we ease into the last weekend before the draft, our journey across the college football landscape makes its second stop in Baton Rouge, LA, where we have already taken a gander at LSU running back Stevan Ridley. Now, we look to the defensive side of the ball and the Tigers' linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. Sheppard was a three-year starter who led the Tigers in tackles for second straight year, with 116, enough to earn him First Team All-conference honors in the super-competitive SEC. Sheppard was a team captain (renown for his fiery pre-game speeches) at the heart of an LSU defense that ranked among the top 12 in the nation in pass and total defense, as well as scoring defense.
Sheppard was a track star in high school, and his speed was on display early in his collegiate career when he was a standout on special teams before taking over the starting weak-side linebacker spot in 2008. He was moved inside for his final two seasons. In addition to his speed, he is a savvy, heady defender, who made all the defensive calls, shows the ability to diagnose and run to the ball. You can see him in action in this highlight video or here in a tribute video. A pre-draft profile video can be found here.
As might be expected, Sheppard acquitted himself very well in interviews at the Combine, where he benched 225 pounds 22 times, and registered a 33.5-inch vertical. (If you'd like to see a video of his workout, go here). He didn't run in Indy due to a hamstring injury; at LSU's pro day, however, he was healthy enough to add a 4.7 forty to his repertoire of measurables. Scouts were reportedly disappointed with his time, given that it probably relegates him to playing the "mike" position (or either ILB in a "30" front). Given the fact that he was touted for his wheels earlier in his career, I wonder to what degree his time was compromised by his injured hammy.
Sheppard has drawn interest from the Bills, whose coaching staff worked with Sheppard at the Senior Bowl (at which Buffalo head man Chan Gailey praised Sheppard's instincts) and Saints in addition to the Cowboys. After the jump, we'll take a look at what about Sheppard's game might intrigue these teams.National Football Post (Wes Bunting) top-rated ILB; 74th overall
A thickly put together linebacker who does exhibit an explosive element to his game. Possesses a good first step when asked to attack the line of scrimmage, gets up to speed quickly and knows how to make his way into the backfield once he locates the football. Displays a good thrust from his hips as well when asked to wrap up on contact. Can be a physical striker in a phone booth who loves to bring his legs and wrap up inside. However, isn't the most impressive key and diagnose guy. Fails to consistently read his run keys, fill the proper lanes and make his way toward the action. Takes himself out of a lot of plays and isn't overly physical when asked to take on blocks inside. Can be easily engulfed and sealed from the football and doesn't breakdown real well in space either. Plays out of control at times and too often will whiff in the open field.
Now, does display some natural fluidity and range in the pass game. Gets a deep drop in coverage, can be physical off the line and isn't afraid to play over the slot. Again, seems to play a bit out of control at times, taking a false step trying to jump a route. But, he has the ability to quickly accelerate out of his breaks once he locates the football and isn't afraid to throw his body around. One of the leaders of the LSU defense and has a real fire and passion for the game.
Impression: Displays some range and natural power, but his lack of great instincts scare me. Has the physical ability to start, but I do question his mental makeup. Nevertheless, should still be able to work his way onto the field as a potential starter at just about any of the linebacker spots.
The Sporting News (Russ Lande) 14th-rated ILB; overall unknown (not in top 99)
Strengths: Is an athletic linebacker who has consistently shown the quickness, athleticism and playing speed to make plays against the run from sideline to sideline. Gets started toward the ball quickly and has the playing speed to chase down the play in pursuit. Has good size and strength and uses his hands well against blockers. Is a willing hitter who seems to enjoy trying to make the violent tackle.
Weaknesses: Is not an instinctive football player and often seems a beat late reading and reacting to the play. Doesn't make as many plays as a linebacker with his quickness, athleticism and playing speed should. Is not an aggressive blitzer and lacks the explosiveness and pass-rush moves to consistently pressure the quarterback.
Bottom line: Sheppard is the typical player who will likely be drafted higher than warranted because his highlight tape will be excellent and he'll work out well at the NFL Combine. However, he's not the football player he has the talent to be, due to a lack of instincts. That could lead to him struggling to be anything more than a backup at the next level.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki) 4th-rated ILB; 97th overall
Positives: Thickly built. Good eyes and instincts. Keys quickly and beats blockers to the spot. Plays on his feet. Good zone awareness. Secure tackler. Versatile—played all three LB spots. Tough, intense and competitive. Is tough and will play hurt. Vocal on-field leader with good football intelligence.
Negatives: Average speed, acceleration and body control. Does not use his hands violently to stack and shed larger blockers. Tight in the hips—struggles to break down in one-on-one tackling situations. Lacks twitch to match up with backs and tight ends in man coverage. Too much clear-view production. Poor hands. Could stand to improve lower-body strength and play with more physiciality.
Summary: Lean, high-cut, two-down "Mike" linebacker with intriguing size to handle the grunt work inside in a "30" front or back up a couple positions in a 4-3. Similar to former LSU LB and Cowboys ’03 fourth-rounder Bradie James and lacks exceptional athletic traits but could be functional for a long time inside in an odd front.
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton) 2nd-rated ILB; 77th overall
Instincts/Recognition: Good communication skills. Quickly reads keys and reacts. Do not see many false steps from him. Has improved his discipline and rarely got fooled by misdirection or play-action in 2010. Flashes ability to sniff out draws and screens. Shows awareness to go for the strip when wrapping up ball carriers.
Strength/Toughness: Generally does a very good job with hand placement and helmet level. Is technically sound with his hands and will almost always take on blocks properly. He is tough and fearless, but he does not have explosive upper body power. He rarely shocks the blocker with initial pop and he has some trouble disengaging from bigger blockers.
Range vs. Run: Has adequate-to-good playing speed and plays faster than 40-time indicates. Shows good initial quickness. Very good motor and will not give up on plays. Changes directions well for his size. Could clean up his angles in pursuit at times. Closing burst is good but not elite.
Tackling: A reliable tackler in confined areas. Flashes ability to uncoil upon contact and deliver violent hit. A bit less consistent in the open field. Is somewhat high cut and can struggle to break down in one-on-one situations in space.
3rd Down Capabilities: Has good awareness in zone coverage and does a nice job of looking up crossers in his area. Feels routes in coverage. Shows adequate-to-good ball skills for a LB. Has average speed and tightness in his hips. Will have one-on-one matchup limitations in the NFL. Only decent instincts as an inside blitzer. Has experience lining up at DE with his hand down in passing situations. Displays a quick first step but is lacking power and ability to counter as a pass rusher at this point.
Intangibles: Brings added value as a contributor on several units in the special teams department. Is a natural leader. Had a curfew violation prior to 2009 Sugar Bowl. No off the field issues to our knowledge.
Sheppard has drawn numerous comparisons from scouting types to former LSU--and current Dallas--linebacker Bradie James. Indeed, they seem cut very much from the same cloth: both run about 6-2, 250; both use intelligence and instincts to compensate for athletic limitations. The fourth-rounder Dallas used to select James in 2003 was a pick well-spent: they got a guy who hasn't missed a game in the middle since he took over a starting role in 2005. I for one would welcome a repeat.
Most draftniks have Sheppard coming off the board in the late third or early fourth round. To my mind, picking up a Bradie James clone with another fourth rounder has a symmetry to it that's too good to pass up. As a result, I'm going to slot Sheppard at the top of the fourth round, where the Cowboys currently have pick # 110. And I'll go one further: I'm predicting that they trade up to pick # 103--the pick where James was chosen--to select him.
Next up: UConn ILB Greg Lloyd