The Eagles are scrambling for a starting receiver to pair with DeSean Jackson just over a week after they thought they were set at the position. In a perfect storm of events, Jeremy Maclin tore his ACL and Riley Cooper got caught using a racial slur on camera, but Eagles fans don’t need to be reminded of the story.
What they do need to be reminded of, however, is that undrafted rookie Russell Shepard is shaping up as a serious contender for that starting job.
The LSU product played a little quarterback, running back, receiver, and even defensive back for the Tigers, but never produced consistently for whatever reason. He was one of the most sought after high school prospects in the country as a dual threat quarterback, so the Eagles saw potential in him and invited him to camp.
Shepard has certainly made the most of his opportunity so far. He drew praise for his sharp routes, consistent hands, and work ethic. He and Jason Avant were consistently the last two receivers at practice, staying late to catch balls from the jugs machine. He, like Avant, worked mostly out of the slot and hoped to make the team as an inside receiver with added return value.
Since Maclin’s injury, Shepard has practiced exclusively as an outside receiver. He lined up there occasionally at LSU and has enough size for the job at 6’1″, 195. He certainly isn’t going to physically overwhelm NFL corners, but his best skill – his run-after-catch ability – fits nicely into Chip Kelly’s offense. In order to hang on to the job, he must continue to show strong hands and explosive route running ability. To endear himself to Kelly, Shepard will also have to block effectively on the perimeter and prove that he can get behind defenses.
While it’s great to see an undrafted player exceeding expectations, in no way is Shepard an ideal week 1 starter. That Shepard can be considered the front-runner for a starting job is as much an indictment of the Eagles’ receiving corps as it is an indication of how well Shepard is playing.
Though Shepard is looking polished in camp, he is even more inexperienced at the receiver position than a typical rookie. He tallied a paltry 565 receiving yards for his college career and was not used as a traditional receiver at LSU. In college, Shepard caught quick screens, took handoffs as a running back and jet sweeps as a receiver, and ran the speed option as the pitch man. Chip Kelly will likely find similar ways to take advantage of his quick feet and burst in the open field, but he will also count on Shepard to develop into a complete receiver.
Versatility was Shepard’s calling card at LSU, and his ability to play multiple receiver spots could be the key to earning a roster spot in the NFL. While he was stuck behind Jason Avant and Damaris Johnson on the slot receiver depth chart, he walks into a very favorable numbers game on the outside receiver chart. Shepard won’t overtake DeSean Jackson, but the only other players he is competing with at the moment are Riley Cooper and Arrelious Benn, who both must answer serious questions in order to stay on the team. Cooper, who has been excused from practice, could still be released because of his inflammatory comments and Benn has not proven that he can stay healthy for an extended period of time.
Eagles fans should all keep a close eye on Shepard throughout the preseason. He is the team’s starting receiver almost by default, but it’s also possible that the Eagles unearthed a real gem. I’m sure fans remember another college underachiever who worked out pretty well for the Eagles: Bryce Brown. Both graduated high school in 2009. Shepard was listed as the nation’s 3rd-best prospect according to ESPN. Brown ranked 8th. Neither panned out in college, and neither player was highly rated in the draft. Despite uninspiring production at the college level, both players brought a lot of talent to the Eagles and proceeded to blow up training camp. This time next year, will the Eagles be talking about Russell Shepard as the type of player that people expect Bryce Brown to be? Only time will tell.
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