Ask the cornerbacks on the South Team with the Senior Bowl and one of the first names they mention for tough receivers is Sterling Shepard.
The Oklahoma Sooners prospect is only 5-foot-10 and 191 pounds, more of a slot receiver build at the NFL level, and that’s essentially where Shepard lived with the Sooners. According to Pro Football Focus, only Ohio State’s Braxton Miller spent more time in the slot (78 percent) than Shepard’s 69 percent among the receivers at the Senior Bowl.
“I wanted to show I could get off of press coverage and play on the outside and I feel like some people think I can’t go outside in the NFL,” Shepard said. “I think I can as well as playing on the inside. “
Shepard had more yards and catches in 2015 than any other receiver at the Senior Bowl, racking up 1,286 yards on 87 catches, and he appeared to be one of the most productive this week during practices in Mobile, Ala.
“The main thing is getting off the line,” he said. “I think that’s what the majority of corners do in the NFL, is get up in your face for pressure. As a receiver, you have to be able to get off the ball and that’s what a lot of the scouts are looking for.”
And if consistency is one of them, few were as good as he was last year. Shepard dropped only 4 percent of the targets he received, according to PFF, tying him with Miller in that category, too.
He also tied for the lead among Senior Bowl receivers with 53 percent of his catches going for either a first down or a touchdown.
“Just having a knack for making big plays, that’s the main thing for me,” he said. “I try to find a way to get it done every time.”
That’s why Shepard embraced the one-on-one opportunities to go against some of the better cornerbacks in the 2016 draft class, and his performance in that setting helped him get called out by the defensive backs as one of the top receivers on the South Team.
But for all the production he showed last year with the Sooners and at Senior Bowl practices this week, there is a weakness he sees in his game: deep speed.
“I feel like that’s probably the worst thing,” he said. “I feel like that’s what I have to work on. Separation at the top is what I need to work on and what I have been working on.”
He said the feedback from coaches and scouts at the Senior Bowl was “all good,” but the knock on his deep speed is his own critical self-evaluation.
“It’s been fun. It’s been hectic at times when I first got in having to deal with all the scouts and trying to learn the playbook on top of that, but it comes pretty natural to me,” he said. “Football is football and I got the plays down pretty smooth since the beginning.”
With four quarterbacks on the South roster, trying to find a rhythm with them and learning the playbook over three days of practice – as well as dealing with the media and team interviews – makes it far from a sure thing that Shepard’s college production will translate in the college all-star game on Saturday.
South coach Gus Bradley said the plan is to give each of the quarterbacks about one quarter of work, and if they are smart they will be looking Shepard’s way plenty.
“Getting in sync with a quarterback usually takes months, maybe even a year, but trying to jam all that in one week is hard,” Shepard said. “I feel like we got enough reps in with those guys to make it look smooth enough for the game.”