The Jets, with their third-round pick in the NFL Draft tonight, selected relatively unknown but highly intriguing defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd of Fort Hays State in Kansas and added him to their D-line room.
"It took me by surprise," Shepherd told newyorkjets.com of being chosen by the Jets. "I was just thinking back to everything I had done during my visit and how I made an impression on that team. I'm just so grateful they're giving me the opportunity to prove to them what I can do for their organization."
Shepherd (6'4", 315), now 24 years old, grew up in Ontario, Canada, and began his college football career at Simon Fraser in British Columbia, the only NCAA-affiliated school north of the border, in 2011. Financial issues reportedly forced him to leave school two years later and pursue factory and construction work for two years.
But he never lost his love for football or his dream. He kept training and saved his money and walked on to the Tigers' Division II football team.
In the next three seasons, Shepherd showed great progress. His tackles for loss went from 5.0 to 9.5 to 12.5 and he totaled 10 sacks. His level of honors also kept improving — from All-Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association third-team honors in '15 to second-team in '16 to MIAA Defensive Player of the Year and some All-America recognition last season.
"We felt he showed quite well at the Senior Bowl and that put him on our radar," general manager Mike Maccagnan said. "The Indianapolis Combine was another chance to perform and he did exceptionally well. We attended his pro day. These are the guys you get excited about. ... That's quite a story."
Meet the Jets Third-Round Pick from the 2018 NFL Draft
"I definitely believe Nathan is a lot more pro-ready than a lot of people think," head coach Todd Bowles said. "He has heavy hands, he plays low, he's got great drive. He'll be ready once he goes through training camp."
While football fans might not have heard much about Shepherd, the NFL scouts did and he was pegged by many to be a second-to-third-round selection.
"I like him, man," NFL.com draft analyst Mike Mayock has said. "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."
The Jets plucked him at No. 72 overall. He is the first Fort Hays player to be drafted by the Jets, the sixth to be taken by any team, and the first Tiger to hear his name called in the last 31 drafts.
After dealing two second-round picks this year plus another No. 2 next year to the Colts to move up from 6 to 3 and take Sam Darnold on Thursday night, the Jets had a long wait before exercising their third-rounder, No. 72 overall. With that pick coming 69 slots after the Darnold pick, it represented the longest wait between top two picks in Green & White history, topping the previous long of 64 picks from Muhammad Wilkerson at No. 30 to Kenrick Ellis at No. 94 in 2011.
The Jets currently have four more picks, one in each of Saturday's four rounds.