NFL draft guru Mike Mayock impressed with Canadian DL Nathan Shepherd

NFL draft guru Mike Mayock sees Canadian defensive lineman Nathan Shepherd as a diamond in the rough.

On Friday, Mayock listed Shepherd fourth on his list of the top-five interior defensive lineman prospects for next week’s NFL draft. That’s noteworthy, considering Shepherd’s name was absent from Mayock’s previous two lists.

“I like him, man,” Mayock said during a conference call Friday. “He’s raw as can be . . . . but I’m telling you, I think the league is really intrigued by him and thinks he has a lot of upside.

“He’s kind of a rare guy from a height, weight, speed perspective. I think, a worst-case scenario, a second-round talent but he might drop to the third round just because it might take a little while to get something out of him because he’s so raw.”

There’s been plenty of NFL interest in the six-foot-five, 315-pound Shepherd. The native of Ajax, Ont., visited 10 teams at their facility and conducted nine private workouts this off-season, doing both for the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals.

Dallas and Arizona were also among the 16 NFL teams that watched Shepherd perform at Fort Hays State University’s pro day in March in Hays, Kansas.

Shepherd registered 38 tackles (12.5 for loss) and four sacks to earn Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association defensive player of the year and NCAA Division II All-American honours last season. Shepherd also helped the Tigers (11-0) win their first MIAA title.

Shepherd impressed in January at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., before suffering a fractured left hand. The following month Shepherd attended the NFL combine – he was the lone Canadian there – participating in the 40-yard dash (5.09 seconds), shuttle (4.53 seconds), broad jump (nine feet, three inches) and vertical jump (31 inches), but he skipped the bench press as a precaution.

“Even though he played a day and a half at the Senior Bowl I think it really helped him,” Mayock said. “He’s a big dude with an NFL body.

“He’s got kind of rare movement skills. I think the 3-4 teams (three defensive linemen, four linebackers) would look at him and say, ‘Wow.’ He could be a five-technique (defensive end in a 3-4 alignment) but he also might have the movement skills down the road to develop into a sub rusher inside.”

The NFL draft kicks off Thursday night in Arlington, Texas, with teams making their first-round picks. They’ll follow up with their second- and third-round selections Friday before completing the remaining four rounds Saturday.

Shepherd hasn’t exactly taken a direct path to the NFL draft.

He began his collegiate career at Simon Fraser University in 2012 as a six-foot-one, 205-pound linebacker. He appeared in nine games as a freshman, registering 20 tackles, 2.5 sacks, seven tackles for a loss and an interception before financial challenges forced him to leave school after just one year.

After returning to Toronto in 2014, Shepherd worked at a factory that printed boxes. Once he saved up enough money, he enrolled at Fort Hays State for the 2015 season, paying for his first semester while playing football as a walk-on.

Shepherd’s CFL rights reside with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

For the last seven years, at least one Canadian has been taken in the NFL draft. Montreal’s Justin Senior, an offensive lineman out of Mississippi State, was a sixth-round selection last year by the Seattle Seahawks but is currently a free agent.

Since 2014, three Canadian defensive linemen have been drafted. Brent Urban, of Mississauga, Ont., was a ’14 fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens, Vancouver’s Christian Covington went in the sixth round to Houston in 2015 and two years ago the New Orleans Saints took Manitoba Bison David Onyemata in the fourth round.

All three remain with their respective teams.

Shepherd has drawn comparisons to the six-foot-four, 300-pound Onyemata, a 25-year-old Nigerian who was Canadian university’s top down lineman in 2015. Following his college career, Onyemata was also considered a project because he hadn’t played football before attending Manitoba.

But Mayock feels Akiem Hicks, a defensive lineman with the Chicago Bears, is a better comparison. The six-foot-five, 332-pound Hicks, an American, played collegiately at Regina before being taken in the third round by the Saints in the 2012 draft.

Hicks is entering his seventh NFL season and third with Chicago.

“Hicks is the better comparison because I think Hicks is a thickly muscled, big kid that has some explosion,” Mayock said. “A little bit more quickness and explosion than Onyemata and I think Shepherd has some of that also.”