Lito Sheppard (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)
New Vikings cornerback Lito Sheppard is penciled in as the fill-in starter for Cedric Griffin, but there is plenty of competition and even more proving to do. Sheppard is well aware that he can’t live off his past reputation while looking for newfound respect.
Given the question marks the Vikings have experienced at the cornerback position over the last year, because of injuries to Antoine Winfield last season and the torn ACL suffered by starter Cedric Griffin in the NFC Championship Game, Lito Sheppard seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
A two-time Pro Bowler with the Eagles, Sheppard’s career took an unexpected turn over the past 18 months. Unsatisfied with his contract with Philadelphia, Sheppard groused about his deal and was eventually traded to the New York Jets in early 2009. He hoped that would be the end of his problems, but that wasn’t the case.
When he signed with the Jets, he agreed to play with a $3 million base salary in 2009. He signed a four-year deal (adding two years to the end of his deal) that would pay him a minimum of $21 million and, if he played 39 percent or more of his team’s defensive plays, the contract would kick up to $27.2 million, including a $10 million roster bonus due in March of this year.
After an injury-plagued 2009 season in which Sheppard spent more time on the bench with Rex Ryan’s defense than on the field, the Jets opted to cut ties with Sheppard before they had to shell out the $10 million bonus. Given the Vikings’ uncertainty at the cornerback position, he was signed to a one-year, $2 million contract – one of the few offseason acquisitions the Vikings were allowed to make.
After having the stability of being a staple of the Eagles defense for seven years, the Vikings are his third team in three seasons. After leaving Philly under less-than-ideal terms and having a sour taste in his mouth over the New York experience, Sheppard was seeking a new start and has found it with the Vikings.
The last 18 months have been a whirlwind and he said there was some apprehension about how he would be perceived by his new teammates.
“It’s a lot different,” Sheppard said. “I really didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to come out here, work hard and prove to my teammates that I’m worthy of being on this team. I just want to be an asset to it and get the camaraderie with those guys.”
One of the first things he noticed when he came to Mankato was the “Minnesota Nice” factor among the fans. While Eagles training camp practices draw big crowds just like the Vikings do in Mankato, there is a difference. In Philadelphia, fans were just as likely to yell “We love you, Lito” as they were, “You suck, Lito.” It’s a tough crowd and they have little tolerance or loyalty to the players. They’re passionate fans, but in a violent, abusive way. Jets fans could be just as brutal. Coming to Minnesota is like heading to a strange new world, where fans cheer you regardless of how you do. Fumble a punt and they don’t talk disparagingly about your family and yell, “You suck!” they say things like, “Get the next one, Lito.”
“It was all good motivation,” Sheppard said. “They all want to see the team do well, but you did have a lot of those fan/coaches in the stands. If guys aren’t doing their job, they would make it known. You always get critiqued in this league and the fans there were no different.”
Winning over fans is one thing. Winning over the coaching staff and his teammates was a different story altogether. His credentials got him signed, but he had to prove himself. While he has been starting at left cornerback in every practice of training camp, he is still in competition for his position on the team.
“Lito is coming along,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “What we do here is a little different than Philadelphia, but there are some similarities and some carryover in what we do. Some of the technique is a little bit different. Because of the injury with Cedric (Griffin), he’s a guy that we are counting on to give us some reps and potentially be a starter. Only time will tell. Between him, Asher (Allen), Chris Cook and Benny Sapp, they’re all vying for that spot, depending on what happens with Cedric.”
Sheppard said he has been looking to solidify his place on the Vikings and erase the bad memory of the last couple of seasons. He has something to prove this year as much as any year since his rookie season, and he said he intends to make the most of his newfound opportunity.
“I feel any time you step on the field, you have the chance to make your mark,” Sheppard said. “Being the type of player that I am and with some of the things I’ve been able to accomplish, I just want to get back to doing that. This is a great opportunity to start over and get a fresh start. I’m not trying take anybody’s job or disrupt anything as far as camaraderie, but when I get the opportunity, I want to do what I’m able to do for this team,
Sheppard is likely to be in the starting lineup when the Vikings open the regular season at New Orleans, but he won’t rely on his reputation. He’s seen the downs of the last couple of years and sees his transformation to a Viking as a chance to reclaim the respect he earned in his first several seasons with the Eagles.
“It hasn’t been that difficult a transition for me,” Sheppard said. “The only thing is that you just don’t know if the team is going to accept you. They know your name. They know you’re a good player. That’s all well and fine, but until you do it with this team and these guys, there’s a lot of uncertainty. I can’t get respect for what I’ve done in the past. That’s not going to help me moving forward. I just want to come out here to prove to these guys that I’m more than worthy of being part of this team.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.