Sixth-round rookie JaCorey Shepherd has enough self-belief that he didn't need a vote of confidence heading into his first NFL Training Camp. But last night, he got one anyway.
In trading Brandon Boykin to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 2016 draft pick, Chip Kelly and the Eagles put their faith in a revamped secondary that includes seven players who were not on the Eagles roster in 2014, four of them rookies. Throughout the spring, Shepherd spent much of practice mirroring Boykin as the rookie transitioned not only to the NFL but to a new position. On Sunday, Shepherd was the one who got the first crack at replacing Boykin with the first-team defense.
"I look at it as a blessing for both (Boykin) and me," Shepherd said of the trade following Sunday's practice. "For his situation, as far as being able to go somewhere and do what he wants to do, get an opportunity to play outside corner. And then for me, the opportunity to get early playing time. It did kind of suck as far as not having someone there that I could go to for questions, but we do have some older guys who have played some nickel too, so I still can use them for help when I don't understand something."
Upon hearing news of the deal last night, Shepherd exchanged text messages with Boykin as they both wished each other well. Originally a wide receiver at Kansas, Shepherd has only been playing cornerback for a few years, though he spent no time in the slot in college. In order to make the leap from college to the NFL, all while learning a new scheme and a new position, self-confidence becomes an important attribute.
"You can't be (intimidated)," Shepherd said. "You can't be, as far as playing corner or defense period. With me, I feel like since I haven't been playing on this side of the ball as long, I can't show any sign of intimidation or weakness because I look at it like I'm still learning. Guys are still ahead of me. So if I'm going to mess up, I better mess up at full speed. But, like I said, I learn real fast so I would rather mess up early so that by the time game time comes around, I know my mistakes and I've prepared for it.
"I know what I can do. I believe in myself. So now it's just for me to take what they give me and use it and learn from that and continue to grow and show everybody else that what coach is seeing and what I believe, it's real."
The Eagles took to the NovaCare Complex practice fields for Day One of Training Camp. Check out these photos from their first practice...
What is it, then, that the coaches see in the 5-11, 199-pound Shepherd?
"He's explosive," Kelly said Sunday. "He's got great ball skills. He's really quick in and out of cuts. He seems like he has a real knack for being around the ball all the time. … He shows up a lot when you turn the tape on."
Shepherd's imprint has been felt not just by the coaches, but by his teammates as well.
"Very physical guy, works hard, great attitude," said wide receiver Jordan Matthews, Shepherd's primary cover on Sunday afternoon. "You can't ask for anything more than that. You know he's going to get better as time goes on."
"The biggest thing with him is he's been hungry," said safety Malcolm Jenkins. "He's pulled me aside. He's pulled coaches aside to do extra stuff, meeting in the film room to learn. He's not afraid to be out there. He's very, very confident. He has the physical attributes to really be successful in the slot and he's smart enough to learn it. We're looking forward to seeing that development over the next few weeks. If not, we've got veterans behind him in E.J. Biggers and Jaylen Watkins playing a little bit of the nickel and you also have me, Walter Thurmond, also, who can jump down into the nickel as well. We've got a little bit of depth, but we definitely want to see how these young guys develop."
Despite the presence of those other nickel options, Shepherd has now become the man to beat inside for the Eagles secondary – an impressive rise for a player who was a round-and-a-half away from going completely undrafted just a few months ago.
"Regardless of where I got drafted or what people were saying, I was saying I'm fitting to compete for a starting spot, whether it's nickel or outside," Shepherd said. "I knew my abilities. I knew what I was capable of. I knew my speed was not a problem, so I was going into it already trying to earn a starting spot and early playing time. So (the trade) wasn't a shocker. How it went down was a shocker, but I mean if the coaches believe in me then I'm going to believe in myself. But nothing is standstill. Just because I was out there today doesn't mean that I'm a starter, a nickel starter. We're going to be rotating. Nothing written in stone yet."
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