The traits that make Nathan Shepherd an effective pass rusher

The traits that make Nathan Shepherd an effective pass rusher

Every year during the NFL Draft process, there is a prospect that reigns from the FCS or Division II ranks that captured the eyes of scouts and analysts at some point.

This year is no different.

There have been a few who have certainly made them a topic of discussion during the All-Star games that were played just last month, but none who have captivated the discussion like Fort Hays State defensive lineman Nathan Shepherd.

After spending a year at Simon Fraser University as well as moving from linebacker to the defensive line, Shepherd had a standout career for the Tigers. A three-time MIAA All-Conference selection, the native of Ontario, Canada finished his career as a Tiger with 168 tackles, 27 of those for a loss and 10 sacks. His 38 tackles, 12.5 TFL’s and four sacks were enough to earn him the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year award as well as a Second-Team All-American from the AP.

After a strong performance at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, the 6-foot-3, 310-pound defensive tackle was invited to Mobile, Alabama to compete in the 2018 Reese’s Senior Bowl. While he was only able to participate in one practice due to a broken hand, there was enough time for Shepherd to flash the NFL-caliber traits that warranted an invite.

What did he exactly show scouts and analysts in attendance in Mobile?

The ability to be a fundamentally sound pass rusher.

Shepherd is advanced. There are few holes in his technique. He displays a good understanding of the nuances of the position (hand placement/positioning, hand usage, hip position) with an array of set ups from just about anywhere in a given scheme. There are a few traits that elevate those who can be a consistent threat as a pass rusher. Active and/or violent hands, versatility and a motor. After diving into his tape as a senior, there are plenty of quality snaps that display his ability to develop into a dynamic pass rusher for one lucky NFL Defensive Coordinator.

In terms of usage, Shepherd might be the best defensive lineman in the class as a pass rusher when he is utilizing his hands as a weapon. It’s a rarity to see a snap he takes as a pass rusher that doesn’t display just how refined his hand usage is. They are always moving, whether its a chop-rip combination, a powerful pull-rip or just simply fighting to regain inside position, it’s the key reason that he saw success as a pass rusher in college and why many believe he could have an impact at the next level.

On this snap against Washburn, Shepherd is a “shade” toward the field. On the snap, he ends up rushing head up just due to the offensive line’s protection call. With a pair of quick stutter steps, he freezes the center long enough to drive off his inside leg while throwing one of his 33-inch arms as a club, creating separation. A subtle karaoke step allows for him to bring that inside leg through the newly-created space to clear the center, instantly aligning his hips on his target. A quick rip provides the final nail in the coffin before recording one of his four sacks on the season.

While he has a wide variety in his repertoire, sometimes he is able to win solely off of sound fundamentals and pure power.

Against Central Missouri, Shepherd was simply a man amongst boys in terms of pure strength and this snap is about the best example of that from that game. Lined up as a three-technique to the boundary, After having his angle cut off by the guard initial set, he changes up his rush, providing a strong strike that pops the guard out of his stance. What makes his rush work, however, is the timing. The moment Shepherd feels he hits complete extension with his hands, he immediately jerks the guard-forward, causing him to lean forward and attempt to reestablish his base. As he pulls, he brings his outside leg through the space created and again, uses his rip as a lever to come clean and force the hurry.

Versatility comes in a multitude of fashions for a pass rushers. Some of the ways to diagnose whether a prospect is versatile as a pass rusher is to look not just at how he rushes, but from where and if he’s effective. For Shepherd, he checks both boxes, displaying the ability to be widened out to a five-technique or stay inside and rush from within the interior. Moreover, he has displayed the ability to be versatile in his rush whether is hitting counter moves, transitioning from speed to power or simply changing up his attack.

In two separate snaps against Pitt State, Shepherd was able to display his scheme versatility.

On one drive, he lined up primarily as an interior defensive lineman and on the following drive outside of the half, took snaps as a defensive end in their 3-4 scheme. Both snaps displayed his ability to be a constant presence.

Here as a three-technique, Shepherd doesn’t do anything special but does it with great technique. Off the snap, he is going to slant across the left guard’s face into the A-gap for his rush. What sets this rush up to be a win right from the start is his first step. While pad level is something that will continually need to be improved at the next level, his first step is so quick, he’s able to beat the guard’s second step – the one that will solidify his base. By the time the guard second step has touched the ground, Shepherd has already dug his rip deep into the armpit of the guard while also bringing his second step. By using his rip as a lever, he’s able to completely disengage, reestablish his hip position and make the quarterback flow toward the pressure.

As a five-technique later in the game, Shepherd attempts to beat the left tackle with a blend of speed and active hands. After initially making contact, he continues his rush upfield in hopes of getting the tackle to completely open his hips. However, rather than attempting to work past the quarterback, he sticks his foot in the ground and comes underneath to get into the face of the quarterback and force a bad throw.

It seems to be the cliché every year, but more often than not, high motor guys are good ones to have even if that means they may need some development. Just as it’s a rarity to not see his hands always moving, the same can be said for him as a whole. Even if he doesn’t generate a pressure or record the sack, he still manages to be disruptive.

Against Central Missouri, Shepherd puts that motor on display. In fact, it’s the one play out of everything that I like about his game the most. At the snap, the Mules keep their three interior linemen in while the two tackles try to wheel the defensive ends. Working to an edge on the center, he gets knocked by the left guard. Seeing the right guard start to flare, rather than stopping his feet after the chip, he uses it – along with the center – as a slingshot. to corral the running back almost immediately after he catches the ball for a loss. If there was to be a guide on how to properly play screens, this play would be one of the first examples.

It has been reported that his broken hand should be healed by the time he’s to compete at the NFL Scouting Combine at the end of the month and it couldn’t be better. A freak injury that sidelined him the remainder of the Senior Bowl week after having a great first day should create a lot of buzz leading up to his tests. I think he is going to have a strong showing and put his athleticism and movement ability on display for all the NFL personnel in attendance which would only strengthen the buzz.

There are some areas he will need to continue to improve on both as a pass rusher and as a run defender with the key being his pad level. At the Division II level, he was able to get by with high pad level at times strictly due to being just flat out better than his competition. He will also need to continue his growth as a run defender in terms of reading his keys and diagnosing the array of blocking schemes he’ll see in the NFL. With that said, his immediate value should be higher due to his ability to be a quality piece in pressure or sub packages as a pass rusher. He is one of the top defensive tackles in the class and will be an absolute steal for anyone after Day 2, but has a very good chance to be taken late in the first round.

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Joshua Zimmer
Josh Zimmer is the Lead NFL Draft analyst for NGSC Sports as well as serving as a contributor for NHL coverage.

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