Many Jets fans were hoping the team would retain Folorunso Fatukasi in free agency but once he signed a long-term deal with Jacksonville, the Jets moved quickly to bring back Nathan Shepherd instead.
The pair were drafted together in 2018 with Shepherd having been selected in the third round and Fatukasi in the sixth. Shepherd, who is a year and a half older than Fatukasi, but played at a lower level in college, saw regular rotational work in his rookie year while Fatukasi barely saw the field. However, over the past three years, Fatukasi outperformed Shepherd and won himself a starting role.
When the Jets brought Shepherd back, it was a bit of an afterthought, as demonstrated by his contract which was a one year deal qualifying for the minimum salary benefit with only $50,000 in guaranteed money. It’s not the kind of deal that guarantees Shepherd a spot on the final roster and falls well short of the $10 million per year contract Fatukasi signed with the Jaguars.
However, in the rotation last year, Shepherd was usually a direct replacement for Fatukasi. This potentially means that, theoretically at least, Shepherd might be a starter with the current group.
Of course, in practice, the Jets like to rotate their interior linemen and there’s no obvious reason why Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankins couldn’t play together.
Also potentially in the rotation are free agent Solomon Thomas and 2021 rookie Jonathan Marshall. Most of Thomas’ $2.25 million contract is guaranteed, so his spot on the roster seems safe and the Jets would love for Marshall, who struggled in his rookie year, to make a Fatukasi-esque jump in year two.
Nevertheless, there’s some intrigue in league circles as to how Shepherd might contribute in 2022. While he struggled badly in the first half of last year, his performance over the second half of the year has some people wondering if he’s figured out Robert Saleh’s system and the lightbulb has come on for him.
The low point of the season for the Jets’ defense was the Colts game in week 9, as they gave up 45 points and 260 rushing yards. Until that game, Shepherd had been struggling to hold up at the point of attack. However, from that point onwards he made significant improvements.
In the first eight games culminating with that Colts game, Shepherd averaged less than 25 snaps per game and recorded eight tackles and four pressures. He was also called for five penalties.
In the final nine games, he averaged over 33 snaps per game and recorded 20 tackles and eight pressures with no penalties. His career-high for tackles in a full season during his first three years had been only 17, so it was a big step-up in production.
While he didn’t have a sack or tackle for loss during the season, Shepherd was definitely more dependable in the second half of the year and when he was called upon to take on a starter’s workload against the Jaguars, he stepped up impressively.
With Fatuakasi and Williams both on Covid-19 reserve, Shepherd played 62 snaps in the Jets’ final win of the season. This was more than any other Jets’ interior lineman played in any game all season and helped to anchor the Jets’ defensive line with their starters out.
That speaks to his dependability. In 2021, he was one of only a handful of Jets defensive players to suit up for all 17 games.
With the draft just around the corner and the Jets holding four top-40 picks, we could definitely see the Jets bringing in one of the top defensive tackle prospects. Rankins is out of contract at the end of the season and Williams will need a new contract soon too, so it would make sense to add an impact player on a rookie deal. This would make Shepherd’s path towards being a meaningful contributor in 2022 that much tougher.
Shepherd will turn 29 in October and the range of potential outcomes for his 2022 season extends all the way from potential starter to not even making the roster. It will be interesting to see how well he fares during his second year in this system.