It’s been close to 20 months since JaCorey Shepherd last played in a football game. Yet the former Kansas defensive back feels more prepared than ever as he embarks on the first true season of his professional career.
Poised to start as a rookie nickel corner for Philadelphia last year, Shepherd tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in preseason camp and, instead, spent all of 2015 as an observer.
A 2015 sixth-round draft pick still awaiting to make his NFL debut, Shepherd at least sensed the next portion of his football life inching closer Monday, when the 23-year-old corner reported early to Philadelphia’s training camp.
“I never had to miss a season,” Shepherd told CSNPhilly.com upon arriving with rookies, quarterbacks and other returning players who finished last season on injured reserve. “I never had to really miss a game. Missed two games in college but other than that, I never missed anything.
“Game days were the toughest — sitting on the sideline and I couldn’t do anything,” Shepherd recalled. “Practice was tough, but I got used to it. But games? That was the hardest.”
Still, according to one Eagles veteran, Shepherd found a way to grow as a player while injured. Nolan Carroll told CSNPhilly former head coach Chip Kelly allowed wounded players to watch games on the sidelines and even travel with the team for away games. Carroll said he would leave the field after a series and always notice Shepherd listening closely as the secondary reviewed its performance and made necessary adjustments.
“You could see that he wanted to make the best of his situation,” Carroll shared, “and learn as much as possible, even though he couldn’t play. That’s not always easy for a young guy to do, but JaCorey, you could tell he just wanted to learn as much as possible.”
Although Kelly and Philadelphia parted ways following a 7-9 season, new Eagles head coach Doug Pederson retained defensive backs coach Cory Undlin, who kept Shepherd engaged as an inactive participant on game days.
“The older guys would always question me to make sure I was on my P’s and Q’s,” Shepherd said of Undlin’s approach, which allowed the rookie corner to absorb NFL-level defensive knowledge, “so that way when I got back, I had the mental part down and it was really just a matter of getting my feet down under me, and I’d be ready to go.”
The 5-foot-11 corner, as planned, arrived at preseason training camp knee-brace free. Shepherd told NJ.com he kept training in the brace back home up until the last couple of weeks. Now he feels like he’s back at 100 percent, just in time to fully prepare for the upcoming season.
"I'm just getting my groove back, getting my feet back under me,” Shepherd said. “It's really just learning the playbook. It's kind of different getting out there, making the calls and trying to be consistent.”
Of course, the competitor in Shepherd has him gunning for a No. 1 spot on the depth chart, too. He told The Inquirer he doesn’t want the Eagles to relegate him to a role within specific packages. He aims to win one of the starting spots as an outside cornerback.
"Hell, yeah. It's open, baby," Shepherd told The Inquirer of the competition. "No job is taken yet, and that's the way I'm going to attack it. Regardless of how many [defensive backs] we have in the room, I know I'm going for a starting spot."
Surely the Eagles’ other corners will take the same approach. Along with Carroll, Philadelphia has Leodis McKelvin, Eric Rowe, Ron Brooks, rookie Jalen Mills, Randall Evans, Jaylen Walker and Denzel Rice to consider at corner.
"I pretty much think I can get out there and cover whoever," Shepherd said. "I'm big enough, fast enough. It's just getting thrown out there and playing."
A draft pick from the previous regime, Shepherd told CSNPhilly he can’t afford to worry about Pederson or new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz perhaps holding a different opinion of him than Kelly and other former staff members.
“All I can do is continue to do what I do, and control what I can control,” he said. “You know? That’s the way the game is. There’s always going to be competition. Frankly, I love competition, so that doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve never been worried about competition, and I’m not going to start now…
“If there’s not a job here, there’s a job somewhere else,” Shepherd added. “All I can control is give it my all on every play.”
If nothing else, Shepherd enters his second season in the NFL as a more patient player, thanks to his injury-forced apprenticeship.
“I feel like I’m a lot smarter than last year after sitting on the sideline for a year, having to pay attention and learn,” Shepherd said. “I feel like I’m a better player this year than last year, even though I didn’t play a snap.”
A sixth-round draft pick in 2015, former Kansas defensive back JaCorey Shepherd had worked his way up the Philadelphia Eagles’ depth chart heading into his rookie NFL season.
But after putting himself in position to play as the Eagles’ nickel corner, a training camp collision with Darren Sproles tore the ACL in Shepherd’s right knee, forcing him to miss the entire 2015 schedule.
Still, putting his professional career on hold in order to rehab his knee hasn’t changed the 23-year-old’s outlook too drastically.
Shepherd told PhillyMag.com’s Birds 24/7 site he hasn’t left The City of Brotherly Love much since the injury, and described his path toward recovery as “hard.”
“It’s been crazy, but I learned a lot about myself and a lot about the game and how to be patient,” Shepherd said in the report, “and a lot about how to take care of my body.”
The young Eagles defensive back told Birds 24/7 his knee rehabilitation is ahead of schedule, and because he has never spent so much time away from football the rest has done his body a favor.
Shepherd hopes to be knee brace-free by training camp this summer.
“I have no doubt. As of right now the way everything’s going, I’ll be ready for sure,” Shepherd said, “and maybe I’ll be able to do something in the mandatory minicamp.”
Shepherd understands that once he is cleared to play, he’ll likely have to prove himself a worthy option in the secondary all over again, and he is eager for the challenge.
“I know the expectations were kinda high,” Shepherd told Birds 24/7 of his potential entering last season. “I’m going to keep ’em high, regardless of how they view it or how anyone else views it. I still look at myself to [pick up] where I left off, and I’m not going to settle for anything else… I’m not going to use this as an excuse.”
When JaCorey Shepherd arrived at Kansas four years ago as a wide receiver, his transition to college football included plenty of teaching moments.
Now that the All-Big 12 cornerback is with the Philadelphia Eagles, who drafted him in the sixth round and this past week signed him to a four-year contract, Shepherd said his initial introduction to the NFL has been less based in instruction. After all, the players are all professionals now, as the 5-foot-11 defensive back pointed out in a video interview for Philadelphia’s website.
But that’s not to say Shepherd's experience thus far has been devoid of learning. At the Eagles’ rookie mini-camp, the corner said, he found himself picking up new techniques at a fast pace. While playing press coverage — something he did at KU, too — he got too “handsy” on a few plays by doing things that were fine in college. He discovered he’ll have to get rid of some of those habits he picked up in his first three seasons of playing defensive back.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Shepherd said, “but I’m good at learning and going with the flow as I get more reps.”
Eagles defensive backs coach Cory Undlin, who just joined the staff this offseason after working for Denver in the same role, wants his corners playing assertive press coverage at the line of scrimmage.
“To actually learn the proper way to press is actually gonna benefit me,” Shepherd said.
Plus, Shepherd knows some guys who just played for Undlin last season, with the Broncos. He brought up their names when asked if he had anybody he could lean on for guidance while finding his way in the NFL.
“Previous corners from the University of Kansas, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, they kind of helped me,” Shepherd said, “and they told me they’ll be there for me if I’ve got a question about the process going forward.”
Excited that he could graduate from KU and embark on his NFL career this spring, the newly minted Eagle, who can be seen practicing in his No. 36 jersey in the video, said it felt good going “full out” at mini-camp for the first time since suffering a tear in his left hamstring prior to KU’s pro day.
Now Shepherd can just enjoy himself on the field while playing the game he loves.
“It’s a great relief off your shoulders,” he said. “You don’t have to think about that stuff, as far as where you’re gonna be, where you’re gonna end up. You can just go out there and do what you do.”
Shepherd said he can tell Chip Kelly’s staff is comprised of player-friendly coaches, which he likes. Now that he is in the league, the rookie corner wants to make sure he enjoys every moment, because he realizes not everybody gets the opportunity that is in front of him right now.