Russell Shepard saw the writing on the wall after a year with the Carolina Panthers.
The general manager who signed him to a three-year, $10 million contract, Dave Gettleman, had been fired. The Panthers drafted wide receiver D.J. Moore in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. They added wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright in free agency.
Shepard admitted that “when he [Gettleman] got let go a lot of things changed.
The Panthers wanted Shepard, after a season in which he caught 17 passes and led Carolina with six solo tackles and a forced fumble on special teams, to take a pay cut. He understood it with the changes that had been made because “it made no sense from a business standpoint for them to pay me that money.”
Betting on himself
From Shepard’s perspective, though, it also made no sense for him to take a pay cut and stay with the Panthers. He asked for his release.
“I understand the business standpoint, the money that I was making in Carolina, possibly be a number five or six receiver, that isn’t really happening. I thought it was from a business standpoint the best decision.”
What made absolute sense once the Panthers granted Shepard that release was to come to the Giants. which he did in late May.
Shepard said he has known special teams coach Thomas McGaughey, his special teams coordinator in Carolina and in college at LSU, since childhood. Prior relationships with Gettleman and with Pat Shurmur from a short 2013 stint with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent signee made signing with the Giants “kind of a no-brainer for me.”
“When it came down to it I wanted to be in the best spot to put me in the best position to flourish, keep developing and also to make this roster,” Shepard said. “This was one of the better opportunities and it was easy with the familiarity from the front office and the coaching staff.”
Coming to the Giants also re-unites Shepard with college teammate Odell Beckham Jr. How much time Shepard could spend lining up on offense withBeckham is an open question.
Cody Latimer appears to have the inside track on the team’s third wide receiver spot. After Beckham, Sterling Shepard and Latimer, Shepard is fighting for spots with a group that includes Hunter Sharp, Kalif Raymond, Amba Etta-Tawo, Marquis Bundy and Travis Rudolph.
Shepard is frank about his role, knowing that special teams is why he is in the league to begin with and will be his ultimate to ticket to what he hopes will be a spot on the 53-man roster.
“Special teams has been 90 percent of my background. I didn’t really start getting the ball from an offensive standpoint [until] about two years ago and this is going on Year 6 for me. That’s how I make this team and that’s how I’m going to stay in this league,” he said.
It’s always been that way for Shepard
A highly-recruited quarterback coming out of high school, Shepard went to LSU thinking he had a good opportunity to play that position there. He quickly found out otherwise. He was moved to running back, then receiver. With Beckham, and players like Jarvis Landry, Rueben Randle and Brandon LaFell in his way at receiver, he found himself an afterthought.
By the time he was a junior his playing time was dwindling. Enter McGaughey.
“Midway through college Coach McGaughey came to me and said you can play in the league still, man, I think you can play teams. I know your skill set, I know your mindset and I think you can be a really good teams player. Stick with it,” Shepard said.
He did. That led to a chance with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent. He didn’t make it there, but he did land with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He spent four years in Tampa Bay, some of that as special teams captain.
“Teams are 75 percent effort. The rest falls into being a technician, being a guy that understands leverages, angles, things like that,” Shepard said. “The majority of it is effort, man. They’re long plays, they’re the longest plays in the game and a lot of guys don’t want to do ‘em.”
Shepard wants to do them. and his history says he does them well. Add his ability to help at receiver and his long relationship with McGaughey and it’s hard to envision Shepard not making the 53-man roster.
If that’s the case his decision to exit Carolina will have turned out to have been the right one.