Off to the Big Apple: Canadian DL Nathan Shepherd cultivates NFL dream

Nathan Shepherd is off to the Big Apple.

The New York Jets selected the Fort Hays State University defensive tackle in the third round, No. 72 overall, in the NFL draft Friday night. It marks the eighth straight year at least one Canadian has been selected.

The six-foot-five, 315-pound native of Ajax, Ont., was the highest-projected Canadian in the draft. Shepherd also became the first player selected from Fort Hays State in 31 years.

Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys executive and current senior analyst at, ranked Shepherd at No. 50 among his top-150 draft prospects. NFL draft guru Mike Mayock had the 24-year-old Shepherd at No. 43 on his top-100 list.

On the surface that would’ve suggested a second-round grade for Shepherd. However, before the draft Mayock said because Shepherd was raw, he could slide to the third because teams would have to wait to get production from him.

“He’s one of my favourite people in the draft,” Mayock said on NFL Network. “He reminds me a little bit of Akiem Hicks (the former Regina Rams defensive lineman now with the Chicago Bears).

“He’s a raw piece of clay and he’s got this NFL-ready body and explosion. He’s got some inside-out versatility and I love his upside.”

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 Fort Hays State (11-0) win its first MIAA title.

Being taken in the third round will give Shepherd some financial stability. Last year, receiver Taywan Taylor signed a four-year, US$3.68 million contract with the Tennessee Titans after being taken in the third round, No. 72 overall, that also included a $916,012 signing bonus.

Shepherd has taken a long path to the NFL draft.

He began his collegiate career at Simon Fraser in 2012 as a six-foot-one, 205-pound linebacker. But 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’d 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 registered 168 tackles and 10 sacks in 36 games at Fort Hays State.

“This guy got double-teamed almost every snap at Fort Hays State by way of Simon Fraser up in Canada,” Mayock said. “When he got a chance to come to the Senior Bowl and not get double-teamed, you could see some of that quickness and explosion.”

Shepherd wasn’t available for comment Friday night. But prior to the draft, he told The Canadian Press in an interview the adversity he faced en route to the NFL has only strengthened his resolve.

“Any team (drafting Shepherd) will get someone who’s had to bet on himself since Day 1,” Shepherd said. “I’m someone who’s not easily swayed by whatever is happening, be it in a game or off the field . . . the moment isn’t too big for me.

“There’s plenty of determination because if you look at my story I wasn’t offered a scholarship to a Division 1 program. Many people could’ve just given up . . . but I still had that dream and was able to cultivate it.”

Shepherd raised eyebrows at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., before suffering a fractured left hand. Shepherd still attended the NFL combine _ he was the lone Canadian there _and participated in the 40-yard dash (5.09 seconds), shuttle (4.53 seconds), broad jump (nine feet, three inches) and vertical jump (31 inches) but skipped the bench press as a precaution.

Last month, Shepherd performed at Fort Hays State’s pro day before 16 NFL teams.

Shepherd also visited 10 teams and conducted nine private workouts, doing both for the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals. Dallas and Arizona also attended Fort Hays State’s pro day.

Drafting Shepherd certainly filled a need for the Jets after releasing defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson earlier this year. New York has posted consecutive 5-11 records and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010.

The expectation is the Jets will play Shepherd at defensive end in their 3-4 defensive alignment.