Finding the Fits: Don't forget Jets' sleepers on DL

Nathan Shepherd took an unusual path to the NFL Draft.Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

By Rob Rang,

This is part of a series -- Finding the Fits -- in which will review the more intriguing picks made during the 2018 NFL Draft. The goal is to identify one relatively unheralded player per team who appears to be a good schematic fit and, therefore, more likely to be a surprise contributor early in his pro career.

New York Jets' best fit: Nathan Shepherd, DL, Fort Hays State, selected No. 72 overall (third round)

It was not long ago that the New York Jets boasted one of the NFL's most gifted defensive lines, featuring a three-headed monster of former first-round picks in Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams that served as the team's greatest strength.

Inconsistent play pushed Wilkerson and Richardson out the door, however, creating needs along the defensive line that were very nearly as disconcerting entering the 2018 NFL draft as at quarterback, especially given head coach Todd Bowles' defensive background.

General manager Mike Maccagnan needed to replace the talent lost. He also was looking for leaders.

He may have found both in third-round pick Nathan Shepherd, a 6-foot-4, 315-pound strongman who dominated Senior Bowl practices and whose circuitous route to the NFL offers the kind of inspiration that can help a young team come together.

A native Canadian, Shepherd did not have the same opportunities growing up to play football that most players in the NFL enjoyed. Colleges and universities there do not provide full athletic scholarships, and Shepherd spent nearly three years out of football working odds jobs to support his dreams of playing before ultimately transferring from Simon Fraser University outside of Vancouver to tiny Fort Hays State, a D-II school in Kansas.

Shepherd's focus and commitment to the weight room certainly paid off at Fort Hays, where, not surprisingly, he dominated, registering 168 tackles, including 27 for loss and 10 sacks. Shepherd's exploits earned him an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where he wowed scouts with his raw strength.

Shepherd's frame, power and blue-collar work ethic make him an ideal fit in Bowles' two-gap scheme, especially at defensive end. Shepherd does have the girth and toughness to handle inside duties, as does sixth-rounder Foley Fatukasi.

Bowles sounded excited about the potential of his new dynamic duo.

"Same size, different players," he said.

"Fatukasi can go across and play nose (tackle), as I think the other one can as well, Shepherd, but the way we're going to use them in different schemes, the way they fit differently in our defense, we have plans for both of them.

"They can play on the same side. The can also play opposite each other. ... We have them both slotted for certain things."

As long as those certain things include playing up to their natural ability, Bowles and Maccagnan may have just re-secured a first-class defensive front at a bargain basement price.

Other thoughts on the Jets' 2018 draft class:

After three years and no playoff berths, one does not have to remind Maccagnan and Bowles that it may not matter much what Shepherd, Fatukasi or the rest of the club's 2018 draft picks accomplish as rookies if top pick Sam Darnold fails to live up to expectations.

Fortunately (at least for Jets fans), I expect him to do so -- and not just because Darnold is well-suited to new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates' scheme (though that helps).

Darnold,'s top-rated passer and my personal No. 1 overall prospect regardless of position, possesses all of the traits necessary to become a franchise quarterback, including the requisite physical attributes like size, arm strength and athleticism, as well as the more rare intangibles like toughness, poise and anticipation.

During the pre-draft build-up, Darnold was unfairly criticized by some who pointed to his dramatic increase in turnovers in 2017 without recognizing the fact that USC suffered massive losses along the offensive line and at receiver.

Consider that Darnold was sacked just six times in his breakout redshirt freshman season. That number jumped to 27 last year. Further, Darnold's top receiver in 2016 was JuJu Smith-Schuster, a second-round pick by Pittsburgh who led all NFL rookies last season in receiving yards (917) and touchdowns (seven). Darnold's top target in 2017, on the other hand, was the slightly-built Deontay Burnett, who went undrafted after leaving early for the NFL.

Darnold would have been justified in pointing out the inexperience of his teammates when he failed to live up to the massive expectations created by his flashy first season. The fact that he did not is a sign that Darnold has the composure to excel amid the bright lights of Broadway.

An offense geared around what he does best -- short to intermediate passing with plenty of bootlegs to take advantage of his accuracy on the move -- an underrated receiving corps and a manageable depth chart consisting of journeymen quarterbacks Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater are other reasons why Jets fans should be excited about the future.

Darnold and the defensive linemen will get most of the attention, but New York made another interesting selection in tight end Christopher Herndon, who has good hands and better straight-line speed than most of the others already on the roster. The commitment to tight ends (they currently have six on the roster) speaks to Bowles' strategy of finding reliable pass-catchers to aid in Darnold's development, as well as an overall conservative offensive philosophy based on short to intermediate passing and the running game.

New York's 2018 draft class:

1st Round, No. 3 overall: QB Sam Darnold, Southern California

3rd Round, No. 72 overall: DL Nathan Shepherd, Fort Hays State

4th Round, No. 107 overall: TE Christopher Herndon, Miami

5th Round, No. 179 overall: CB Parry Nickerson, Tulane

6th Round, No. 1780 overall: DL Foley Fatukasi, Connecticut

6th Round, No. 204 overall: RB Trenton Cannon, Virginia State

Key Undrafted Free Agents Signed:

Dmitri Flowers, FB, Oklahoma

Frankie Luvu, ILB, Washington State

Dakoda Shepley, OG, University of British Columbia