FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Kendall Sheffield‘s voice doesn’t exactly come across as thundering, but his words tell you he’s booming with confidence.
When the Atlanta Falcons‘ fourth-round pick from Ohio State reflected on how this year’s draft unfolded, he didn’t bite his tongue. It irked the speedy cornerback to sit at home in Houston with family and hear 110 players selected ahead of him, including 12 other corners.
“I believe I was a first-round draft pick,” Sheffield said to ESPN, “and I’m ready to prove to everyone else that I’m a first-round draft pick.”
In polling a handful of talent evaluators about Sheffield, none came out and actually backed his first-round claim. (Only one cornerback, Georgia’s Deandre Baker, was selected in the first round.) But all the evaluators agreed Sheffield has tremendous upside and could develop over time into an impact player in the Falcons’ secondary.
One NFC scout referred to Sheffield as a “second-round talent who can really run” but noted he needs to prove he can be just as sharp mentally as he is physically. An AFC executive added, “Man, he’s talented. He just needs time; more playing time and experience. Obviously, he can really run and is athletic, but he needs more time to develop just pure cover skills.”
“Biggest thing I’ve had to overcome in my life? I’d probably say the doubters,” Sheffield said. “I really don’t do that many interviews, so a lot of people don’t really know me, and they already have this visual of what I am and who I am. A lot of times, that’s not even me. So I just like to back it up with my play on the field or on the track and just continue to go about my business.”
Anyone familiar with Sheffield knows there’s no question about his speed. He once ran a 4.25 in the 40-yard dash in college, set the Ohio State 60-meter indoor record (6.663) while moonlighting on the track team, and finished second in that same event at the Big Ten Championships. He started running for the Track Houston youth club at the age of 7 while following in the footsteps of his father, Cecil Sheffield, who is still the Sam Houston State 55-meter hurdle record-holder.
“My dad trained me in the hurdles,” Sheffield said. “You put speed with hurdles, and you’ve got an advantage.”
Coupling speed with playing football isn’t such a bad pairing, either, which is why Sheffield was such a highly touted player coming out of Thurgood Marshall High School in Missouri City, Texas. He was a consensus five-star prospect.
Maybe that confidence took a little bit of a hit after Sheffield signed with Alabama’s top-ranked 2015 recruiting class as the No. 3 cornerback in the nation. He redshirted his first season then abruptly transferred in August 2016 while running as the second-team cornerback.
“He has all the physical measurables you are looking for in the position. I just don’t know if early on in his career he was as far along in the schematic side of the game as he needed to be in that [Alabama] defense and kind of got lost in the shuffle,” ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill.
Sheffield admitted hearing “a little bit” of the chatter about him not being tough enough to handle competition and bailing on the Crimson Tide.
So why did he leave?
“It was a business decision,” he said. “Me and my family made that decision.”
Did it have to do with playing time?
“Like I said, it was the best decision for me and my family,” Sheffield said.
Maybe his path to the NFL took an unanticipated turn, but Sheffield expressed no regrets about how it played out. He first stopped at Blinn College, the same junior college that produced Cam Newton. ESPN ranked Sheffield the No. 1 junior college cornerback after his one season at the Texas school.
“When he got here from Alabama, he was all business,” Blinn coach Ryan Mahon said. “He had a plan of what we going to do to get back to the four-year level and stuck to it. Very serious-minded.
“The talent level was evident from the beginning; that he was an elite athlete and was going to make a huge impact for us. His best quality is his speed. That is something that if you don’t have it, then you’re chasing it.”
From Blinn, Sheffield landed at Ohio State, where he played two seasons before declaring. The first year, he started just three games when Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette were the starters.
“I would say I learned a lot from coach Kerry [Coombs],” Sheffield said of his former DBs coach, who is now with the Tennessee Titans. “When I came in, he welcomed me. He taught me a lot of things about being a corner and about being a first-round corner, as he did with everyone else.
“I also learned a lot from Damon Arnette and Denzel Ward when I got there, just their work ethic and how they were so attention to detail.”
Sheffield started all 14 games for the Buckeyes last season and led the team with eight pass breakups and 10 passes defensed, to go with two interceptions. He then declared a year early and leaned on pre-draft advice from Ward, the fourth overall pick by the Cleveland Browns in the 2018 NFL draft.
“I think Kendall is going to do really well in the NFL,” Ward said. “He has all of the attributes: speed, size, everything. He just has to go in and prove himself, learn the playbook, and get to work. It doesn’t really matter where you get drafted. You have to prove yourself day in and day out; show that you belong in this league.”
The 5-foot-11, 193-pound Sheffield has a chance to prove himself early while battling the likes of Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and former Alabama teammate Calvin Ridley in practice. He already has displayed a willingness to do whatever is necessary to help the team. He wants an opportunity to win both the kickoff- and punt-returns jobs to utilize his speed. If he doesn’t stay outside at corner as in college, Sheffield is ready to kick inside in a nickelback role. The Falcons cut starting cornerback Robert Alford and saw nickelback Brian Poole sign with the New York Jets after they did not extend a restricted free-agent tender.
The Falcons, with coach Dan Quinn now calling the defense, hope for a resurgence from one-time Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant and view second-year player Isaiah Oliver as a possible starter outside opposite Trufant. Damontae Kazee, who tied for the league lead with seven interceptions last season while playing free safety, is likely to get the first look at nickel with Ricardo Allen back at free safety.
That doesn’t exclude Sheffield from coming in and showing he’s worthy of playing time on a defense that ranked 27th in passing yards allowed per game (259.6) and ranked second-to-last in third-down defense. The Falcons will face plenty of high-powered offenses, including the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts.
“Denzel [Ward], he just told me to go in and be hungry and just work,” Sheffield said. “That’s really just about it. I’m very confident in what I can do. I do have some little nerves. Probably like the first game out there I’ll be a little nervous. But I’m very confident in what I can do.”