Kelvin Sheppard's NFL career got off to an inauspicious start.
"Last year, you've got to go back and we didn't have OTAs. We didn't have any of the camps [because of the NFL lockout]," Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt said. "Then he shows up at training camp and he's about 20 pounds overweight and he pulls his hamstring the first day or two."
Fast forward a year, and things are radically different for Sheppard. He's slated to start at middle linebacker in Wannstedt's new 4-3 scheme. He's got teammates singing his praises, like this from veteran Nick Barnett.
"I think he potentially could be one of the best linebackers Buffalo's probably ever seen," Barnett said. "If he has his head on straight and he continues to grow the way he's growing he could be a great player."
Barnett's hefty praise comes from watching Sheppard work as a rookie.
"You know when you're in the locker room you see young guys, sometimes you can really tell they don't love the game of football, even though they're good players. He loves to play football," Barnett said. "He'll study. Last year, I don't think I've ever had a rookie come to my house as much as he did since I've been in the league to watch film. So I think he's a student of the game. If he continues that mindset, he could be one of the greats."
Sheppard will line up between Barnett and Kirk Morrison in the Bills' base scheme, a pair of linebackers with 18 years of experience between them. That's a good spot to be a sponge.
Barnett said a lot will be asked of Sheppard, but the Bills think he's cut out for the job. A brief contract holdout and then the hamstring injury combined to set him back far enough to miss most of training camp last year, and it wasn't until midseason that he really cracked the lineup. He wound up starting the final nine games of the year, finishing with 70 tackles.
"He's a big, strong, physical guy inside, which we need, and we think that Shep will handle the inside part of our game extremely well," coach Chan Gailey said. "He's an intelligent guy, plays hard, he's physical. But really, his play last year is what allowed us to think he could do the job this year."
When Wannstedt took over as defensive coordinator, one of his first moves was to announce Sheppard would start at the "mike" position. Wannstedt served as Sheppard's position coach last season at inside linebacker.
"Physically, he's a 4-3 middle linebacker," Wannstedt said. "He's not a 4.5 [40-yard dash] 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's listed by the Bills this offseason at 244 pounds, about four pounds above his stated target weight. He's excited to return to the 4-3 -- the scheme he played in at LSU -- where he made 311 career tackles and was a 2010 first-team all-Southeastern Conference defender.
"This is a defense I'm very comfortable in. I played in it my whole life," Sheppard said. "So I know you need to be a little quicker than the 3-4. I want to keep my weight around 240 so I can move, cover tight ends and running backs inside the box."
The 10 OTAs and mandatory minicamp that follows is valuable time for Sheppard and the rest of the team's second-year players, who were robbed of a true NFL offseason.
"All those mistakes in areas that you would have got in the first week of training camp, you're knocking those out in OTAs, which I didn't have last year," Sheppard said.
"You talk about players and how quick and how much you expect them to develop, he's one that I really expect to benefit from the offseason program, the mini-camps and training camp," Wannstedt said. "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."