The New Orleans Saints hold special meaning for Sterling Shepard.
So do the Washington Redskins, and the Dallas Cowboys.
If any of those three teams selected Shepard in this spring’s NFL draft, the elation of achieving a lifelong dream would be even more special.
He’d be getting a chance to follow in his father’s footsteps again.
Derrick Shepard spent five seasons in the NFL, including a brief four-game stint in New Orleans during the 1989 season that included two catches and a 56-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Cowboys.
“It definitely gave me a little bit more motivation to get to the NFL,” Shepard said. “I followed in his footsteps going to Oklahoma, and he played in the league. He played for three teams, and it’s just kind of been my lifelong goal.”
Shepard never got to play in front of his father.
Derrick Shepard died in 1999 at the age of 35, a sudden heart attack ending a promising college coaching career as an assistant at Wyoming.
But his legacy drove his son, who was six at the time. Initially recruited by some teams to play defensive back out of high school, Shepard decided instead to play his father’s position and don Derrick’s familiar No. 3 for the Sooners.
Then the son moved his father, and a lot of other Oklahoma receivers, down the Sooner record books.
Shepard finished his career ranked second in Sooner history in receptions (233) and receiving yards (3,482), and he’s tied for third on the career list for touchdown catches with 36. Given a chance to play with breakout star Baker Mayfield at quarterback this season, Shepard exploded for 86 catches, 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns, vaulting him up draft boards in a class of receivers that doesn’t appear to have the same depth as the past two drafts.
At 5-foot-10, 193 pounds, Shepard entered Senior Bowl week with something to prove. Because of his size, Shepard projects into the slot in the NFL, but he believes he can handle the No. 1 role traditionally reserved for bigger players.
“I see a lot of guys my size making big plays, like Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown,” Shepard said. “I feel like my game is really similar to those guys, right in that category.”
Shepard backed up his play at the Senior Bowl, earning Receiver of the Week honors and repeatedly getting free for deep balls over the top of talented defensive backs.
Worked out of the slot frequently by the Jacksonville Jaguars coaching staff in Mobile, Shepard also made plays on the outside, helped by elite quickness that should be on display in the on-field workouts at next week’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
“He’s really athletic. He’s quick, he’s one of the quicker receivers I’ve ever gone against, he’s really technical, and he does a lot of things well,” said Oklahoma State cornerback Kevin Peterson, one of Shepard’s rivals in college. “If the ball’s going to be anywhere near him, he’s going to catch it.”
New Orleans already has its own lightning-quick, smaller outside receiver in Brandin Cooks, who broke out with a playmaking sophomore campaign in 2015. New Orleans might not seem like an obvious landing spot for Shepard — Cooks is flanked by the rising Willie Snead and a promising player in Brandon Coleman — but if Marques Colston’s time with the Saints comes to an end, New Orleans could decide to look for another playmaker to help Drew Brees.
Shepard, who also handled punt return duties his final two seasons at Oklahoma, met with the Saints early at the Senior Bowl, and his size might not matter to them. New Orleans has a history of getting big production out of smaller receivers like Cooks, Snead, Lance Moore and Devery Henderson.
Plus, he’d get a chance to don one of the uniforms his father once wore.
“It’d be great if I played for one of them, because it’d be one heck of a story,” Shepard said. “But playing in the league is what I’ve always wanted to do. It doesn’t matter what team I’m playing for. ... Football runs in my blood.”
And it’s already carried him a long way.