ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 09: Kelvin Sheppard #55 of the Buffalo Bills just misses sacking Michael Vick #7 of the Philadelphia Eagles in the second half at Ralph Wilson Stadium on October 9, 2011 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Brody Wheeler/Getty Images)
When he was named the new defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills in January, Dave Wannstedt quickly made it very clear that second-year linebacker Kelvin Sheppard - a part-time starter as a rookie - was the preferred middle linebacker in the team's new 4-3 defense. Months later, after concluding the first week of OTAs, Wannstedt went into further detail on Sheppard.
"I think physically he’s a 4-3 middle linebacker," Wannstedt said of his middle linebacker. "He’s not a 4.5 (speed) guy that’s going to play on the edge but he is a backer that can play inside from tight end to tight end. He’s athletic enough to cover tight ends and backs."
Sheppard may have emerged as a full-time starter earlier in his rookie season, but a poor set of circumstances kept him out of the lineup until mid-season.
Some were out of his control; Sheppard was the last draft pick to sign after the lockout ended thanks to his status as a third-round pick. Some of the circumstances, however, were in his control.
"Last year you’ve got to go back and we didn’t have OTAs. We didn’t have any of the camps and then he shows up at training camp and he’s about 20 pounds overweight and he pulls his hamstring the first day or two," Wannstedt explained.
Wannstedt, who coached the inside linebackers last season before his promotion, clearly saw enough improvement in Sheppard - both physically and in terms of catching up on the field - to replace veteran Andra Davis in the lineup with the LSU rookie. The weight issue no longer appears to be a concern, either, as Wannstedt says that Sheppard is now in great shape.
"He is," Wannstedt confirmed. "He showed up in great shape and his attitude’s good. I think he’s excited about the scheme."
Sheppard made nine starts as a rookie, compiling 60 tackles in a part-time, two-down role during that stretch. He'll be in line for a lot more than that this coming season.
"This is a defensive scheme where our middle linebacker should make a lot of tackles and you’ve got to have a guy that’s near capable of it and he is," Wannstedt said.