Sterling Shepard is no stranger to being on the sidelines. The seventh-year wide receiver and longest-tenured New York Giant has not played a full season since 2018.
So when Shepard returned to practice on Wednesday after the most significant injury of his career — an Achilles tear suffered against the Dallas Cowboys last December — he knew exactly how to celebrate: with a bonfire for the red non-contact jersey he’s been sporting throughout training camp.
“We had to burn that joint,” Shepard joked. “I don’t ever want to see it again.”
Shepard had not even put his pads on since the injury, so his return was something of an emotional event. He said he had to “work my tail off” just to be able to take the field in training camp at all.
“Felt great just being back on the field,” Shepard said. “Especially when you go through an injury like that, and you’ve been on the sidelines for so long watching those guys get after it, you got to take every day and cherish them. Because you never know when you have to sit out that long. So, I was just blessed to be out there and happy to be out there with my guys.”
Recovery from an Achilles tear is notoriously hard to predict; not every player returns to the same version of themself, if they return at all. Even though Shepard isn’t quite back to being the speedy playmaker Giants fans are accustomed to seeing, he says that will come in due time.
“Obviously, this is my first day back, and it was a full pad practice. I haven’t had on pads since I got hurt,” Shepard said. “So, it was kind of tough being thrown in the fire with the pads on, but I just have taken it day-by-day, limited kind of in some of the team reps, they’re throwing me in slowly. But I’ll work my way up and get my conditioning and my wind up. I’ve been playing this game since I was six years old, so kind of know what it looks like.”
Of course, Shepard is returning to an offense that looks drastically different from the one he left last year. With a new general manager and coaching staff, there were times during the offseason where Shepard was unsure if he would have a team to return to after his rehab.
“In this line of work, nothing is promised. So, it was a little nerve-wrecking ... I’ve been here for seven years now and it’s been a blessing just being here,” Shepard said. “You hear stories about other places around the league, and there’s no place like here. And this is where I wanted to be. This is where I want my family to be, and I’m glad we could make it work.”
Head coach Brian Daboll had no trouble rattling off the strengths that will allow Shepard to thrive in the team’s new system. With speedsters like Kadarius Toney and Wan’Dale Robinson on the roster, Daboll will have the freedom to utilize Shepard all over the field. Last year, Shepard played primarily in the slot.
“I think he really can play any spot we need him to play watching him on tape,” Daboll said. “He’s been productive inside. He can run stuff outside. He has an ability to create separation, which helps the quarterback. Told him he’s going to have to learn a lot of spots.
“I think he can do a wide variety of things. Good route runner. Got quickness. Intelligence. Can read zone. Read man. Understands the coverages. Has a lot of experience. Played multiple roles. So, I’m excited to get out here and work with him.”
With Darius Slayton not guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster, it’s possible that Shepard will end up being the Giant wide receiver Daniel Jones has the most experience throwing to. Jones has played with Shepard since Jones’ rookie year, and their connection will be essential towards maintaining some through line to the Giants offenses of the last few years — however many drastic changes are necessary.
“It’s been a while since Daniel and I have actually gotten to throw. Since I’ve been on PUP, I haven’t been able to catch any passes from him,” Shepard said. “So, we have a rapport, but we have to freshen things up and build that connection back again. So, he’s been throwing to different guys and getting a feel for those guys. And it shouldn’t take us long. But I’ll get back out there with him after practice and throw a couple balls around. And we should get back on track pretty easy.”
Shepard was noncommittal when asked whether he will be ready for Week 1 or see action in Sunday’s preseason game against the New York Jets.
“That’s what I’m pushing for,” Shepard said. “That’s what I’ve worked my tail off for, but I’m hoping that’s the case. I just got to keep doing my thing day-by-day, and we’ll see what happens.”