Carolina Panthers

Could best available for Carolina Panthers be a 5-10, 194-pound wide receiver?

Sterling Shepard of the Oklahoma Sooners has the skills and the speed to excel as a slot receiver in the NFL. He’s among the top wide receivers available in the NFL draft.
Sterling Shepard of the Oklahoma Sooners has the skills and the speed to excel as a slot receiver in the NFL. He’s among the top wide receivers available in the NFL draft. Getty Images

For NFL teams in the market for a solid route-running slot receiver, there are few better than Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard.

The 5-foot-10, 194-pound receiver is one of the best in this year’s draft, and it’s possible that he’s scooped up by a team in the first round of Thursday’s event.

The Carolina Panthers have had interest in Shepard since the NFL scouting combine in February and even had a private workout with him earlier this month. More than anything, the team likes his competitiveness and ability to make big plays.

“That’s a team with a lot of energy and definitely a team that anybody would love to be a part of,” Shepard told the Observer at the combine. “It seems like a pretty close knit group and that’s exactly what I came out of in college this past season. It’d be a good deal with them.”

He’s strong. He’s fast. He’s great with his hands. He’s tough. He has all the qualities to be an explosive player at that level.

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, on receiver Sterling Shepard

Whether the Panthers would spend a first- or second-round pick on Shepard is in doubt, though. Carolina used its first-rounder on Kelvin Benjamin in 2014 and traded up in the second round last year for Devin Funchess.

The Panthers view Benjamin’s return from an ACL tear that kept him out of 2015 like getting a receiver in the draft. Carolina also wants to see what it has in Stephen Hill and Kevin Norwood.

To spend a pick in the first two rounds for a third straight year on a receiver is unlike Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who has repeatedly said he will take the best player available while aware his team has greater needs along the offensive and defensive lines.

But Shepard certainly has value and should make whichever team that drafts him very happy. His understanding of routes helps him compensate for his stature.

“That’s what separates you from the DBs, so you have to take pride in your craft,” Shepard said at the combine. “That’s something that’s been an ongoing process for me, working on that. I still have things I need to clean up. It’s pretty smooth but it could definitely be a little bit smoother.”

Championship family

Shepard comes from great stock. His father, Derrick, walked on at Oklahoma in the 1980s and helped the team to the 1985 national championship.

Derrick Shepard went on to play for Washington, New Orleans and Dallas before retiring in the early 1990s. He died of a sudden heart attack in 1999, when Sterling was 6 years old.

“I don’t think there was any really pressure at that young of an age,” Shepard said. “He could tell I had an athletic ability as a young kid and I’m pretty sure he just wanted me to maximize that, so he pushed me at a really young age.”

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops took the younger Shepard under his wing. Shepard naturally picked Oklahoma as his college destination, and he wore No. 3 to honor his late father.

“He has all the qualities of being a great pro in that, first of all, he’s mature, accountable, responsible in every way in the way he works and everything off the field,” Stoops said Tuesday during a Big 12 football coaches teleconference, according to the Oklahoman.

“Secondly … he’s as competitive as any player I’ve had in 17 seasons. He’s gonna compete. And then he has the skill. He has the ability. He’s strong. He’s fast. He’s great with his hands. He’s tough. He has all the qualities to be an explosive player at that level.”

A star for Sooners

Shepard had 223 catches for 3,482 yards and 26 touchdowns in his Sooners career. In 2015 he averaged 100.1 yards per game and repeated as first-team all-conference.

His 20 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press tied him for the best among all receivers at the combine. But his 4.48-second 40 time left a little to be desired, especially for a slot receiver.

Shepard admitted he still needs to work on his separation speed. But if a nickel corner or linebacker wants to play off Shepard in the NFL and not jam him at the line, he has all the tools to make it work at the next level.

“I think he’d be pretty proud,” Shepard said of his father. “My dad was really hard on me as a little kid, so I don’t imagine it being any other way. I have a long ways to go but as of where I am right now, I think he’d be pretty proud.”

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

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