It is easy, and perhaps understandable, to overlook Sterling Shepard when you talk about New York Giants receivers. There is that pretty spectacular Odell Beckham Jr. guy. There is Brandon Marshall, a a player with 941 career receptions and six Pro Bowl appearances in an 11-year career. There is a shiny new toy to drool over in first-round pick Evan Engram, a hybrid tight end who brings to the offense a skill set the Giants didn’t have a year ago.
Then there is little ‘ole Shep.
Let’s take a look at Shepard and where he fits in what promises to be a different, more diverse, Giants’ offense in 2017 as we continue our player-by-player profiles of the 90-man roster.
2016 Season In Review
The Giants drafted Shepard in the second round, ostensibly to take over slot duties from Victor Cruz. He did just that, pushing Cruz outside and ending up second on the team to Beckham in receptions (65), yards receiving (683) and touchdowns (8).
Those are all good rookie numbers, and they show promise for the future, but somehow his rookie season didn’t seem to reach its early promise.
In Week 2, Shepard caught eight passes for 117 yards in what would turn out to be his only 100-yard receiving game of the season. In his first three NFL games, Shepard caught 16 passes (5.3) per game and averaged 14.56 yards per catch. Over the final 13, he caught 49 (3.76 per game) and averaged only 34.6 yards receiving per game. He finished the year averaging 10.5 yards per catch and 42.5 yards per game.
Did opposing teams figure out how the Giants were getting the ball to Shepard? Did the general dysfunction of the Giants’ offense hurt Shepard’s production? Did the play-calling fail to feature him often enough? Did the long grind of his first NFL season eventually catch up to Shepard?
Maybe all of those things were part of why his impact tailed off after that blazing, promising start.
2017 Season Outlook
The 5-foot-10, 194-pound 24-year-old is looking to make a big leap in his second NFL season.
“I look at it the same way as in high school. You make a big jump from your sophomore year, and then college the same way. Sophomore year, you get a lot more comfortable,” Shepard said. “I think it is just adjusting to the speed. I feel a lot more comfortable out here running routes. I know the play system now, so it helps me be a little more comfortable.”
Shepard averaged 19.0 and 15.0 yards per catch during his final two seasons at Oklahoma. During the spring he sounded as though he was hoping to make some bigger plays in Year 2 of his NFL career.
“What am I looking to work on? Really just after the catch. I feel like I could have gotten a lot more YAC [yards after catch] yardage last year,” he said. “That is something that I looked at on film and I want to get better on.”
The biggest question is going to be how many opportunities Shepard gets to make those impact plays in 2017.
If Beckham, Marshall and running back Shane Vereen are all healthy, and Engram is as good as the Giants think he is going to be, there will be a lot of mouths to feed in the Giants’ passing attack. There are some who theorize, in fact, that Engram could take snaps away from Shepard because of his ability in the slot.
Evan Engram is at his best when working from the slot pic.twitter.com/8CKdIYPNks— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 6, 2017
Someone almost certainly will, at times, be an odd man out. Could it be Shepard? It’s possible, maybe even likely, that will sometimes be the case. At other times, of course, that could be just about anyone not named Beckham.
It is certainly a good problem for the Giants to have. It could, though, mean that whether Shepard is actually a better player in Year 2 than he was in Year 1 may not end up being reflected in the number of passes he actually catches.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan was asked in the spring whether or not it would be better for the Giants if so much of the offense didn’t go through Beckham. His answer, or at least part of it, could have applied to any of the team’s receivers.
“The important thing is that we get those yards. That we get the points. You know we didn’t score enough points last year, everyone knows that. ... it’s the absolute value is what we want. We are looking to make sure we get those yards to the maximum.”
It might not be realistic to expect Shepard to catch 85 to 100 passes in 2017. Without doubt, though, he should continue to improve and be a critical part of the Giants’ passing game.