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Sterling Shepard primed for early NFL, fantasy success

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Leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, each day NFL Fantasy will profile a prospect who could make a splash in fantasy next season. Today's subject is former Oklahoma wide receiver Sterling Shepard.

Two years ago, a rookie receiver out of LSU shocked the world by coming in and dominating right away after missing all of his first NFL training camp, preseason and first four weeks of regular action. Today we know that Odell Beckham is one of the best wide receivers in the league, but in his first game he was as green as could be and with questions about size limitations. However, Beckham was able to immediately earn a role with the Giants and tear through secondaries despite not seeing a lick of practice time because he was the best route runner in the 2014 NFL Draft class. A ready-made polished professional in the nuanced craftsmen portions of the position before even entering the league. While he's not the prospect Beckham is from an athletic standpoint, that player in the 2016 receiver class is Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard.

Full 2016 "Prospect a Day" list

Shepard's NFL.com draft profile

Strengths

2016 NFL DRAFT

Draft coverage:


     » Bar-none the best route runner in the 2016 class
     » Advanced release moves at the line of scrimmage to dislodge press attempts
     » Underrated athlete with a strong vertical jump, suddenness and on-field agility
     » Tough and aggressive player who has no fear going over the middle or fighting through traffic

When you watch Sterling Shepard, you have to remind yourself he's just a college player, as he mixes in multiple NFL veteran-level techniques in his route running. Shepard can sell vertical patterns before chopping back to the quarterback or slicing in-field on a slant. He doesn't tip off the intentions of his routes with his eyes, a common mistake for collegiate pass catchers. Mixing in subtle head-fakes, foot frequency and spatial awareness, Shepard consistently works open from defenders with pristine technique.

For as polished as Shepard is in-route, he's just as strong working free from press attempts at the line of scrimmage. He has the strength and mentality to work through tight coverage, dislodging a defender's oncoming jam. His hand placement is great, whether striking first at the defender's shoulder or in swatting their arms away. Shepard works the inside and outside, varying up his release moves to get into his patterns.

Shepard tested better at the NFL Scouting Combine than many expected him to. He popped off a 4.48 40-yard dash, a solid 123" broad jump and a 41" vertical jump that tested out in the 95th percentile since 1999. He's far from a poor athlete, who mixes in solid speed with nuanced route running to threaten a defense vertically.

Despite playing over 68 percent of his snaps from the slot in 2015, per Pro Football Focus, Shepard has the suddenness, and mentality to function outside in the NFL. Shepard carried the top scores in the 2016 draft class in terms of success rate versus man (82.8) and press coverage (91.1) in his Reception Perception results. Both results are unprecedented, and far above the typical scores of NFL slot receivers.

Weaknesses


     » Undersized with a traditional slot receiver build
     » Only average after the catch, struggling to set defenders up to make them miss
     » Improved in this regard late, but did not consistently win contested catches in his college career

Size is an asset for NFL receivers, provided they know how to use it. While a lack of elite physical dimensions can be overcome, and Sterling Shepard certainly has the tangible traits to negate it, this is still an important footnote in his scouting report. Longer limbed and more technically disciplined cornerbacks in the NFL will prove tougher tests than Big-12 defenders. While already a noticeably polished route runner for a college prospect, the work won't stop there.

Shepard improved down the stretch in his final season at winning contested catches and winning the ball in traffic. However, it was not a constant strength in his game. Shepard showed in his tremendous vertical leap at the combine that he has the tangible athleticism to complete the task, and plays the game with an edge. The evidence is there to hope we're still waiting to see the best out of Shepard in this regard. Yet, he measures in at just 5-foot-10 with an arm length in the 10th percentile among those tested since 1999. There's a chance that will always limit him to being just an average performer at contested catches.

In order to go farther along the small receiver archetype Shepard must improve on winning balls in traffic and after the catch. While he cuts with suddenness in and out of breaks in routes, he doesn't elude defenders as well in the open field. He's not a dynamic player with the ball in his hands, which teams would likely prefer from a player his size.

Ideal NFL fantasy fits


     » Atlanta Falcons
     » Tampa Bay Buccaneers
     » Cincinnati Bengals
     » Carolina Panthers
     » New York Giants
     » Dallas Cowboys

Sterling Shepard can be more than a slot receiver, but at least initially and likely for the long-term, he would benefit from playing in a passing game alongside a dominant X-receiver. Luckily, there are plenty of openings across the league for that job, especially in the late first and early second round range. The Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals often find their way on this list. Both have dominant No. 1 receivers, and need to add more complementary bodies. The Panthers are not a high volume passing attack, but a consistent route runner and technician would fill a need on a team stocked with big receivers.

If Shepard comes off the board in Round 2, several teams should be interested. He could instantly garner over 100 targets as a rookie if he lands with the Cowboys or Giants. Both receiving corps are bereft of talent, and Shepard's ability to run clean routes would get him instant favor in a camp battle. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers provide a picture perfect dynasty landing spot. Shepard would be the long-term slot/flanker hybrid complement to Mike Evans and paired with a growing quarterback. As a rookie, he would man the interior, and help Jameis Winston better show off his anticipation underneath.

Truth be told, if you're a Shepard fan or dynasty buyer, you just want him attached to a strong quarterback with any hint of opportunity. For as good of a prospect as he his, his brand of receiver typically only excels with strong timing-based quarterback play. Think of how Emmanuel Sanders' career took off after leaving a playground style Pittsburgh attack to play with Peyton Manning's precision based unit.

Early fantasy draft projection

As a nuanced technician with a veteran's ability to run routes, expect Sterling Shepard to put up a strong case to play right away in his NFL career. He won't take over the league like Odell Beckham Jr., but it was those same abilities that got the LSU product on the field early despite having no preparation time previously.

Should Shepard land in one of those aforementioned spots with strong quarterback play and a hole on the depth chart, he could rise to prominence quickly as a contributor in his rookie year. Don't rule out that he has some usable weeks in redraft leagues.

While Shepard shouldn't be limited to just a slot receiver role, he might not have the highest long-term upside from a fantasy perspective unless all ingredients come into place. Passing volume, offensive environment and quarterback play will need to infuse together with his own pristine play to create a fantasy monster in the Antonio Brown mold. Those situations don't happen often. However, Shepard is a clean prospect who brings a ton of positive attributes with him to the NFL level. He might just be the quintessential "better for real life football than fantasy" brand of player. Of course, Shepard scored too well in Reception Perception and is just too good on a route-to-route basis for us to put too many limitations on his ability to impact an offense.

With all that in mind, Shepard won't go in the same tier of dynasty rookie drafts as players like Laquon Treadwell, Josh Doctson and Corey Coleman. He should be a mid-to-late first round rookie pick, with landing spot and draft capital spent being a big deciding factor. Either way, Sterling Shepard is bound for NFL success and the team that drafts him will be quite pleased with the product.

Why wait? CLICK HERE to get your 2016 NFL Fantasy season started.

-- Follow Matt on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB

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