SI 50, Nos. 35–33: Sterling Shepard, Kenny Clark, Darron Lee
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With free agency winding down, and the 2016 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to finish the process of getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar has assembled his own Big Board, with his top 50 players.
The SI 50 uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class, and why they’re slotted as such. The next trio of players includes a multi-position receiver who could dominate at the next level, a defensive tackle with superior power and potential, and a new-age linebacker who could blow people away in the right scheme.
35. Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
Height: 5' 10" Weight: 194
Bio: Playing football at a high level comes naturally to the Shepard family—Sterling’s father Derrick was a top-flight receiver for the Sooners from 1983 through ’86, amassing 75 catches for 1221 yards and eight touchdowns back when Oklahoma football was played mostly on the ground. The elder Shepard played for the Redskins, Saints and Cowboys, and later became a graduate assistant at Oklahoma and Wyoming, before he died of a sudden heart attack in August ’99. Sterling Shepard followed his father’s path and became one of the most productive receivers in school history with 233 receptions for 3,482 yards and 26 touchdowns in four seasons. He then went on to the Senior Bowl, where he was named Practice Player of the Week.
Now, he’s ready to take the family name forward, and as he said at the combine, that means a lot.
“I think he’d be pretty proud,” Shepard said of his father. “My dad was really hard on me as a little kid, so I don’t imagine it being any other way. I have a long ways to go but as of where I am right now, I think he’d be pretty good.”
Strengths: Shepard has tremendous gliding speed out of his breaks—he’s fast on the field from the first step on. He is practiced at creating separation from the line of scrimmage with an estimable array of head- and foot-fakes. Understands how to sit in zones and move through coverage to create openings. Aggressive, wiling blocker. Really nice timing and footwork to slip past cornerbacks who play bail and off coverage against him; you always have to have your eye on Shepard through those first few steps. A potential nightmare for slot corners as an inside man with his quickness and feel for two-way goes and option routes. Undersized but physical receiver who will come back to grab contested catches and make grabs over the middle in traffic. Maintains concentration when tracking the ball and through the catch. Can juke defenders right out of their socks on short and intermediate route concepts. Quick and agile to get open on comebacks, digs and slants. Brings some return ability to the table. High-volume, every-down player.
Weaknesses: Shepard doesn’t have an over-the-top fifth gear, limiting his last-second separation downfield. As an outside receiver, can be stumped and redirected by cornerbacks with route awareness and aggressiveness. Struggles at times against pattern-read cornerbacks, when zone concepts turn to man reads. More of a dancer than an upper-body battler against aggressive press coverage—physical outside corners may give him fits for a while as a pro. Could use work in extending the route beyond the play structure when things break down, though this may have been a schematic issue. Not really a YAC monster.
Conclusion: It’s entirely possible that the only thing keeping Shepard from being a sure-fire first-round pick is his relative lack of a top gear in deeper routes, but it’s also possible that this one liability may not matter. In today’s NFL, where three-wide sets can be a base offense, teams are in desperate need of receivers who don't necessarily project as number-one targets right away, but ascend to that level through route awareness, toughness, and schematic advantage. For teams in need of a legitimate outside receiver who can also dominate in the slot, there are few better prospects in this draft class.
Pro Comparison: Kendall Wright, Titans (First round, 2012, Baylor)
34. Kenny Clark, DT, UCLA
Height: 6' 3" Weight: 314
Bio: Clark had to grow up a lot faster than most kids. His father went to prison when he was nine years old, but he excelled through high school with the help of his mother and other relatives and became one of the linchpins on a Bruins defense that has made its presence known over the last few years after a series of unimpressive seasons. He totaled 29 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack in his freshman season of 2013, then became a full-time starter and second-team Pac-12 selection in 2014, with 57 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. Last season, he took another step with a career-high 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 quarterback takedowns and five pass breakups. Add in the fact that he’s done all this in one of the college game’s more NFL-ready defenses, and it’s easy to see why Clark decided to go pro after his junior season.
“I give credit to Coach [Jim] Mora and the staff,” Clark said at the combine. “They really pushed us to be mentally tough, and that’s what got us over the hump. We had good players and we were as athletic as anybody in the country. We needed to do things the right way. Guys grabbed on to that and took off. There were a lot of young guys who played early in my career. I think 20-something freshmen played that year, and that experience helped us play together and play better heading into our junior year. The class that Coach Mora brings in made it a crazy experience for all of us. I feel like we put our school back on the map.”
Strengths: Leverage monster who can win against blockers from multiple positions: one-tech, three-tech, occasional end and off the line in a flex position. Comes off the snap aggressively with a low center of gravity and bad intentions. Very tough to deal with early in the down. Has the aggressive instincts to sift through trash and get to the ballcarrier, and he’s very good at slipping off blocks to make tackles in short spaces. Will occasionally just wreck inside protection with a fearsome bull rush. Quick and violent wrap tackler. A student of the game with an excellent sense for advanced blocking concepts. Soaks up double teams through consistent engagement. Athletic enough to flare out and help deal with sweeps and screens. NFL-ready player with tons of advanced schematic experience.
Weaknesses: Average-sized athlete for the position. Short arms limit his ability to punch and strike, and he doesn’t have the hand moves to make up for that yet. Balance tends to slip through extended blocks, reducing his extended power. Doesn’t do enough against double teams and in goal-line situations to allay fears about his functional strength as a nose tackle. Gets stopped and set back too easily against blockers who have the leverage advantage. Needs that first-step head start to win power battles. Most of his sacks came against inferior offensive lines (Washington State, Cal), and he gets most of his pressure through power and leverage—any pass-rush moves are negligible. Needs to be more decisive when making his move off his blockers; he wrestles too much and doesn’t disengage enough.
Conclusion: The team taking a chance on Clark, most likely in the early second or late first round, will have to accept that he may be limited to a 4–3 base defense, and that he has a ton of work to do as a pass rusher. On the plus side, he’s already shown elite strength from multiple positions in a defense that projects very well to the pros. The 20-year-old prospect may be limited to run downs early in his NFL career, but he's got the potential to become an every-down monster in the right situation.
Pro Comparison: Anthony “Booger” McFarland, Buccaneers (retired) (first round, 1999, LSU)
33. Darron Lee, LB, Ohio State
Height: 6' 1" Weight: 232
Bio: Lee came to Ohio State as a 195-pound high school quarterback without a defined position, but he had the kind of athletic talent that forced his coaches to find a spot for him. He played safety and linebacker on the scout team during his redshirt season of 2013, then was tabbed to replace Ryan Shazier as the Buckeyes’ “walkout” linebacker in 2014. Basically, Lee was tasked to do everything from hitting run fits to blitzing to dealing with tight ends and slot receivers in intermediate and deep coverage. He did so with aplomb right away, amassing 80 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, two interceptions and three passes defensed in his first season as a starter. Lee turned heads with two sacks, three tackles for loss and seven total tackles in Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, earning him the game’s Defensive MVP award. Last season he picked up where he left off, finishing with 66 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, an interception and two passes defensed.
“I know a lot of teams are looking for speed,” Lee said at the scouting combine of the linebacker position in general. “I feel that’s something I’ll be able to do, tuning up my technique and becoming more of a linebacker over these next couple of years, that will help me out. I feel linebackers are changing in the league, to be honest—a lot smaller. There aren’t really too many bigger guys. The game is getting faster and you need guys to cover. You’re starting to see that change a lot in the league.”
Lee's a very confident player, and he should be. Given the NFL's need for leaner and more versatile players at the linebacker positions, he's hitting the pros at exactly the right time.
Strengths: Fits the prototype of the modern three-down linebacker with his ability to play at a high level at everywhere from strongside linebacker to slot defender. Covers a whole lot of ground in a very short time; a sudden player who makes his presence felt. Has the 360-degree speed, hip-turn and agility to flare out into coverages ranging from screen and curl/flat to deep seam. Tremendous quickness and persistence as an edge blitzer; he’ll move to find openings and has a special level of quickness to the pocket with an unreal second gear to bend the edge. In coverage, he reads mobile quarterbacks especially well and can either close to the quarterback or a receiver with unusual speed. Pesky open-field shoulder tackler. Hyper-smart player on the field with a dynamic competitive mindset.
Weaknesses: Lee isn’t a line-of-scrimmage banger; he gets too easily erased by blockers and he’ll usually only shoot gaps when unopposed. Looks and plays like a safety, which may leave him in a specialized role. Teams looking for an inside linebacker in the traditional sense may look elsewhere. Doesn’t really sift through the trash at the second level—in place of that skill he’s developed the ability to read and react to openings, but that’s a big shortcoming for a linebacker prospect to have in some systems. Not a wrap tackler per se; needs to work on the form of open-field tackling, especially at his size. Weight may be limited—bulking up could take away too much of his speed and make him ordinary. Overaggressive play can lead to balance issues at times where he’ll take himself out of the play. Still learning the nuances of the linebacker position.
Conclusion: Over the last half-decade, the 250-pound thumping run-defending linebacker has become a thing of the past, like the fullbacks so many of those linebackers used to take on. Now, the need is for linebackers who can essentially morph into safeties at a moment’s notice, with the coverage and field-reading skills that switch entails. Lee is a limited player in one regard—his ability to take on blockers and exert power on a consistent basis—but in a league that runs nickel as its base coverage, that’s not going to matter as much as in the past. Lee will flirt with the first round because of these changes, and as soon as he puts a few things together from a technique perspective, he could very well be among the best of this new breed.
Pro Comparison: Ryan Shazier, Steelers (1st round, 2014, Ohio State)