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Giants 2021 roster profile: Will WR Sterling Shepard return to the slot?

Shepard moved away from the slot the last couple of seasons, but presence of Kenny Golladay could mean a move back inside

NFL: New York Giants OTA
Sterling Shepard
USA TODAY Sports

Is Sterling Shepard truly a better slot receiver than outside receiver? With “X” receiver Kenny Golladay in for the Giants in 2021 and slot receiver Golden Tate out the New York Giants appear poised to find out.

Let’s take a closer look at Shepard as we continue our player-by-player profiles of the 90-man roster the Giants will bring to training camp.

The basics

Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 201
Age: 28
Position: Wide receiver
Experience: 5
Contract: Year 3 of four-year, $41 million contract | 2021 cap hit: $9 million

Career to date

Has Shepard really only played five seasons with the Giants? It seems like he has been a Giant forever. Maybe that is because he is the rare Giants’ draft pick during the last decade, the only one on the current roster in fact, to earn a second contract with the team.

At 28 and entering his sixth season, Shepard is a grizzled veteran who is on his third Giants’ coaching staff.

Aside from not being part of enough winning, Shepard has had a productive career with the Giants. His 313 receptions have him 11th on the team’s career receiving list. He has averaged a solid 62.6 receptions per season. If he does that in 2021, he will move all the way to No. 5 on the franchise’s all-time list.

The top four? Amani Toomer (668), Tiki Barber (586), Joe Morrison (395), Odell Beckham Jr. (390).

Shepard is 20th on the Giants’ all-time receiving yards list with 3,518.

Shepard has never really been able to take the mantel of No. 1 receiver that was vacated when the Giants traded Beckham. He has, though, been an excellent player. It’s not his fault he hasn’t played with a true No. 1 receiver to make his life easier the past couple of seasons.

The main concern with Shepard has always been health. He has missed games in three of his five seasons, getting to the starting line for just 65 of 80 regular-season games.

2021 outlook

It is going to be interesting to see how the Giants employ Shepard during the upcoming season. It will also be interesting — and maybe weird — to see Shepard wearing No. 3 instead of No. 87.

When Shepard was drafted in the second round in 2016, the prevailing thought was that he would be an excellent slot receiver who might be able to succeed on the outside, as well. His career has pretty much played out that way.

During his first three seasons, Shepard played 85.3, 83.3 and 58.7 percent of passing snaps in the slot, per Pro Football Focus. The arrival of Tate changed that as Shepard played just 46.8 percent of passing snaps in the slot in 2019 and a miniscule 32.8 percent last season.

Shepard was productive the past two seasons, averaging career bests of 5.7 and 5.5 receptions per game. Yet, his yards per catch were the lowest of his career over that span. In 2020, Shepard averaged 9.9 yards per catch, a career low.

It’s fair to wonder if Shepard, used more often in the slot where he doesn’t have to fight press-man coverage from bigger cornerbacks, could give the Giants more explosive plays. The presence of first-round pick Kadarius Toney might complicate the situation, but Shepard still figures to play a higher percentage of snaps in the slot during 2021.

That is likely to be a good thing for the Giants.