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Is a Nathan Shepherd breakout coming? | New York Jets 2020 primer

Nathan Shepherd
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New York Jets defensive lineman Nathan Shepherd‘s career strengths and weaknesses as told by the advanced analytics and film.

New York Jets training camp/2020 primers:

Here’s everything you need to know about Nathan Shepherd as he enters 2020 with one of the highest pass-rush ceilings on the Jets defense.

Three positive stats to maintain

Pressure-producing prowess

Shepherd’s rookie season was extremely quiet. Already 25 years old in just his first season, it did not seem like he was the type of player who would steadily trend upwards throughout his early career. He was selected to make an instant impact, and he failed to do that. His outlook was not promising.

Yet, despite already being 26 years old in just his second season, Shepherd looked like a brand new player over his nine appearances in 2019. From Weeks 9-17, Shepherd ranked 30th among interior defensive linemen in total pressures (14) despite playing the 60th-most pass-rush snaps (134).

On the season, Shepherd’s pressure rate of 10.4% ranked at the 83rd percentile among qualified IDL.

PFF pass-rush grade

Pro Football Focus’ grading system is a solid tool for weeding out the noise in raw statistics. In the case of pass-rushers, some players rack up a bunch of unearned pressures that make them look better than they really are, whether those pressures be unblocked, the result of stunts, due to coverage, due to bad quarterbacking, or another reason.

If a player’s pressure total is illegitimate because of a combination of those reasons, PFF’s grade should account for it, whereas if their pressure total is legitimate, the grade should back it up.

PFF backs up Shepherd’s production. The man affectionately known to Jets Twitter as “Canadian Thanos” earned a PFF pass-rush grade of 70.6 in 2019, good enough for the 85th percentile among IDL.

Drawing penalties

Shepherd drew three holding penalties in 2019, tied with Neville Hewitt for the lead among Jets defenders.

Three negative stats to improve

Missed tackles against the run

As we will get into plenty throughout this piece, the run game has been an issue for Shepherd. A small part of that has been his susceptibility to a few too many whiffs.

By the nature of their responsibilities, defensive linemen are rarely in a position to “miss” tackles, and thus rarely get credited with them. So, this facet of the game is not a key trait for the position, but it still matters to an extent.

Shepherd made eight tackles against the run in 2019 and was credited with four misses in that phase, giving him a miss rate of 33.3% that ranked second-worst among IDL.

For reference, there were 43 qualified IDL that made at least eight tackles against the run while being credited with one or zero misses (including Foley Fatukasi‘s 21-0 record and Steve McLendon‘s 29-1). Whiffs from interior linemen are plainly not common at all, so Shepherd’s total of four misses in a limited sample stands out as something that needs to be cleaned up.

Run stop rate and run defense grade

Shepherd’s overall numbers against the run are uninspiring. In 2019, he picked up five run stops (tackles against the run that constitute a negative value result for the offense) over 75 snaps against the run, a rate of 6.7% that ranked at the 40th percentile among IDL.

Shepherd’s PFF run defense grade of 62.5 placed down at the 30th percentile.

If a defender is to be far better in one phase than the other, you would obviously prefer for it to be pass-rushing, but Shepherd can elevate his ceiling from “good situational rusher” to “good all-around player” with some improvement in this phase.

Six plays that showcase Shepherd’s ceiling

Shepherd has the toolbox to become a very good pass-rushing DT out of any position on the interior, ranging from the nose to the 4i-tech spot. He consistently times the snap well, possesses a versatile array of finesse weapons, and plays with a violent mentality that pops off the tape.

Lined up at the nose, Shepherd feels out the slide protection and shoots vertically through the A-gap rather than allowing himself to be sucked up by the line’s lateral momentum. Shepherd uses a hump move to toss the center aside and then powers through the late help of the left guard to get a hit on Ryan Fitzpatrick, forcing an incompletion.

Once again at the nose, Shepherd simply bulls the center into Lamar Jackson‘s lap off the snap, forcing a rushed and errant throw by the MVP on third down. Shepherd tops it off with a hard hit on Jackson.

Lined up at the 4i-tech position (over the tackle’s inside shoulder), Shepherd shows off his ability to chain moves together. He stabs the left guard’s shoulder with his inside arm, converts to an inside rip with his outside arm, and then swiftly transitions to a hump move – utilizing his outside arm to use the guard’s momentum against him and toss him out of the way. Shepherd forces a back-foot throw by Andy Dalton that is placed slightly behind Tyler Eifert, costing Cincinnati a touchdown. Shepherd puts a cherry on top with a takedown of Dalton.

Again at the 4i-tech, Shepherd swipes away the left guard’s punch, engages the left tackle, and swims over top to get home. This should be a sack on Fitzpatrick, but the tackle grabs Shepherd to prevent it, giving Shepherd his first of three penalties drawn on the year.

As a loose 3-tech on this play, Shepherd takes on the left tackle and initiates with a bull-rush that plows the tackle inside, giving Shepherd plenty of room to work. Shepherd works his hands up to the tackle’s shoulder pads, yanks him down, and swims over top for a sack on Daniel Jones.

Shepherd occasionally shows flashes of dominant potential in the run game with his anticipation and athleticism. Expecting the center to block down on him for a combo with the left guard, Shepherd slices inside off the snap – showing remarkable athleticism – and rips through the center’s outstretched arm to penetrate the backside A-gap before Saquon Barkley even touches the ball. Shepherd squares up Barkley and makes a pristine finish for a three-yard loss.

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Three plays that showcase Shepherd’s floor

Shepherd struggles far more against the run than he does against the pass. His lack of recognition on this play led to a missed tackle.

Shepherd creates strong penetration against the center from the 3-tech position, but he is initially convinced that Dwayne Haskins kept the ball and takes a very long time to realize that he handed it off. By the time Shepherd does realize that Adrian Peterson has the ball, he still has a chance to make the tackle (thanks to a great play by James Burgess and also Shepherd’s own penetration impeding the pulling tight end). However, having taken so long to diagnose the action, Shepherd overcompensates in his pursuit and misses the tackle. Bless Austin saves the day.

As the 4i-tech on this play, Shepherd has the advantage of lining up towards the play side against his matchup, but he allows the left tackle to remove him from the play with a cut block. Shepherd is very late off the ball (the LT already has his second foot off the ground before Shepherd’s 1st foot comes down) and did not anticipate the lateral movement. That creates plenty of room for Joe Mixon to record a solid five-yard pickup on first down.

Shepherd made a similar mistake two plays later in the same game. At the 4i-tech towards the play side, Shepherd is again late off the ball and loses his advantage. Had he anticipated the outside zone and timed the snap well, a lane was there for him to immediately stuff the run for a loss. Instead, the left tackle is able to work his way inside and seal off Shepherd just long enough to create a lane for Joe Mixon, but Shepherd does shed the block in time to give himself a chance at stopping the run for two or three yards. Shepherd dives but misses, and Mixon churns forward for a six-yard gain on first down.

Defensive usage

Shepherd played 232 defensive snaps over his nine appearances, participating in 39% of the team’s defensive snaps on average. From Weeks 9-17, he ranked fifth on the Jets defensive line in snaps per game with 25.8, but not by a wide margin, trailing Steve McLendon (26.7), Foley Fatukasi (26.9), Henry Anderson (34.0), and Quinnen Williams (37.6).

Shepherd’s role expanded over the final four games of the season as he averaged 32.3 snaps, third-most on the DL over that span behind Anderson’s 32.5 and Williams’ 33.7.

In December games against Miami (57% of defensive snaps), Baltimore (54%), and Buffalo (52%), Shepherd played over half of the team’s defensive snaps for the first three times of the season, and he made the most of the increased playing time. Across those three games, Shepherd posted a fantastic pressure rate of 14.8% (9 pressures on 61 pass-rush snaps), equal to Aaron Donald‘s top-ranked mark among IDL in 2019.

Gregg Williams emphasized getting Shepherd on the field in passing situations. Shepherd rushed the passer on 63.4% of his defensive snaps, third-highest on the entire Jets defense behind Jordan Willis (64.8%) and Quinnen Williams (68.2%).

That was a drastic change from Shepherd’s 2018 usage, in which the Jets had him rushing the quarterback on less than half of his snaps. With more rush opportunities under Williams, Shepherd’s productivity improved.

Nathan Shepherd

Shepherd was deployed slightly more often on the right side of the line. When pass-rushing, Shepherd rushed from the right on 55.2% of his opportunities, from the left on 38.8%, and from the nose on 6.0%.


Shepherd played all 16 games in his 2018 rookie season and never appeared on the injury report, but spent the 2019 offseason rehabbing a shoulder injury. During that process, he underwent an MRI that revealed he needed sports hernia surgery on his groin. In the weeks following his groin procedure, Shepherd suffered a herniated disc in his back.

With all of that going on, Shepherd used a banned substance in an effort to ease the pain prior to training camp, recording two positive tests. That resulted in a six-game suspension, which only began after Shepherd was inactive for the season-opener against Buffalo, so Shepherd wound up missing seven games before returning for the final nine.

Following his return, Shepherd appeared on the injury report only one time. He was listed as questionable with an ankle injury prior to the Jets’ Thursday night game at Baltimore in Week 15, but was unhindered, playing 34 snaps in the game (3rd-most in his career to that point) and picking up three pressures against Baltimore’s top-ranked offensive line.

Battle for depth chart positioning

As the same exact five-man group of interior linemen returns for the Jets, there likely will not be drastic changes in how Gregg Williams divides snaps among the group. All five players – Shepherd, Fatukasi, McLendon, Anderson, and Quinnen Williams – should get at least 20 snaps per game.

However, there are a few factors that could change the snap deployment here. As mentioned earlier, Shepherd’s snap count down the stretch was right on par with Anderson and Williams for the team lead while Fatukasi and McLendon sat behind. Perhaps Shepherd will pick up where he left off and assume a role that has him on the field for around half of the defensive snaps? If so, the potential will be there for him to take off from a good situational player to a strong starter.

Quinnen Williams has gotten plenty of hype for his apparent improvement in training camp. If he elevates to the level that the Jets drafted him to reach, he will probably demand a snap portion of somewhere from 70-80%. Someone would have to take a back seat if Williams makes that jump, but it probably would not be Shepherd. Smart money says that one of the vets – Anderson or McLendon – would see a dip if Williams becomes a more regular presence.

Expect Shepherd to play no less than 25 snaps per game and a portion of around 35-40%, but do not rule out an elevation to starter status considering his pass-rush upside and snap increase in December of last year.


Shepherd will have a cap hit of about $1.0 million in the third year of his rookie deal, which is set to rank 90th among interior defensive linemen. That mark will rise to about $1.2 million in 2021 before he hits unrestricted free agency in 2022.

It appears that the Jets should at least have themselves a very good situational pass-rushing tackle in Shepherd, making him one of Mike Maccagnan’s best value finds over a half-decade tenure that did not have nearly enough of them. Over about 15 snaps against the pass per game, Shepherd is capable of making a profound impact thanks to his versatility, athleticism, raw power, and ability to chain moves together.

However, Shepherd could still become a lot more than just a good part-time player. To do that, he would have to prove he can produce over a larger volume and against better competition.

Shepherd showed he may be capable of his extrapolating his production over more playing time with his final four games, but he still has major questions to answer regarding competition. While he did a nice job against Baltimore, it’s worth noting that six of Shepherd’s nine games were against bottom-12 offensive lines in my ranking, including three games against 32nd-ranked Miami and 30th-ranked Cincinnati.

In addition, Shepherd needs to take big steps forward with his play against the run to become a complete player. Improving in that phase is what needs to happen for him to earn enough confidence from the coaching staff to be handed a full-time role. On an optimistic note, Shepherd finished strong in this area, ranking at the 70th percentile among IDL in PFF’s run defense grade with a 69.3 score from Weeks 15-17 (major improvement over his 17th-percentile 57.1 grade from Weeks 9-14).

Already 27 years old on September 10, Shepherd may not have much untapped potential left in his tank, but most of us thought the same thing a year ago. Progression arcs in sports are not static. They do not shape up the same for every player. It’s possible that Shepherd will indeed be the type of player who steadily progresses year-over-year and takes a couple of seasons to hit his prime, even though his age suggests his arc would be more lateral.

The Jets are going into another season with no solid edge rushers on the roster. The interior group will have to dominate in the passing game if the defense’s overall pass-rush production is going to be respectable. Two men hold the keys to making that happen – Quinnen Williams and Nathan Shepherd. If both can hit their ceilings, the Jets could tread water with a surprisingly decent pass-rush in 2020 while setting the foundation of a unit that would become dominant with the addition of a stud edge rusher.

I am cautiously optimistic about a big-time Shepherd breakout, but even if he does not ascend any further, he will continue to be a valuable piece for this defense if he can maintain the efficient pressure production he showcased in 2019.

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