Sterling Shepard is back on the field for the New York Giants, having been activated from the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list on Sunday and practicing that day for the first time.
It is admittedly nice to see Shep on the field. He is the team’s longest-tenured player, a good — and popular — player since being selected in Round 2 of the 2016 NFL Draft by then-GM Jerry Reese. Yes, Reese, which tells you how long ago that was.
It is also, though, fair to wonder how long this Shepard sighting is going to last.
Does the 30-year-old Shepard, after a 2021 torn Achilles and a 2022 torn ACL, with a history of concussions, and having suffered hamstring and quad injuries during the 2021 season before popping his Achilles, have enough left in the tank to win a spot on the Giants’ 53-man roster?
Shepard is guaranteed nothing, except opportunity. He has a one-year, $1.165 million contract with no guaranteed money.
Is Shepard still the same player who has caught 362 passes, good enough for eighth on the Giants’ all-time list of receptions? Is he going to play well enough, or even stay healthy enough, to earn the chance to catch the 34 passes he needs to move to No. 3 on that list?
Shepard is well aware that he isn’t guaranteed a place on the 2023 Giants.
“I don’t worry about other stuff. I don’t worry about how it’s going to shake out. I don’t worry about it. I just worry about where my feet are right now. What can I do to get better?,” he told media on Sunday. “Whatever the training staff has me do, how can I get better if they’re going to have me sit out today? That’s the situation I’m in right there. I’m going to listen to them but when I’m on the field, that’s my job. I’m supposed to get open, catch the ball, that’s what I’m focused on.
“Whatever decision or however it shakes out, that’s just the way it shakes out. It isn’t anything that I can do about it but do what I do, so that’s the way that I approach it. Every day.”
Shepard will pace himself and listen to the Giants’ medical staff, something he hasn’t always done, and something he knows may have contributed to his shortened 2022 season. The Giants gave him Monday off as part of what coach Brian Daboll called Shepard’s “rehab plan,” and he won’t be a full-go every day.
“I’m going to go about it a little different,” Shepard said. “I’ve got to be smarter myself in what I allow myself to do and not really push back, because I’m one of those guys that likes to keep going and going and going and I know that I’ve got to take my time this time. Do things a bit different than I have in the past and just be patient. I think that’s my main thing because I get antsy a lot of the times. I want to get in there three reps in a row – I may have to take one rep (and then) take a rep off, that’s just the way it’s got to go.”
This is not the same wide receiver group Shepard left when his ACL snapped while he was simply jogging up the field in Week 3 last season against the Dallas Cowboys.
Kadarius Toney and Richie James are with the Kansas City Chiefs. Isaiah Hodgins was acquired weeks after Shepard went on IR. Darius Slayton emerged from the limbo the Giants had placed him in to lead the team in receiving yards. Kenny Golladay and Marcus Johnson are ... somewhere. David Sills is fighting to stick around, probably on the practice squad.
The Giants added slot receiver Parris Campbell in free agency, and each time you watch practice it is clear they have a big role in mind for the former Indianapolis Colts receiver. They also added Jamison Crowder, an under-appreciated veteran with 415 career receptions, and speedster Jeff Smith in free agency. They signed 12-year veteran Cole Beasley, a Brian Daboll favorite, at the start of training camp.
The Giants drafted Jalin Hyatt in the third round, and with each passing day you can see Hyatt’s confidence growing as he shows off his speed and his skills during training camp. Collin Johnson, coming back from a torn Achilles, is having an excellent training camp and making a noteworthy bid for a roster spot.
Wan’Dale Robinson, a second-round pick a season ago, is still on PUP as he returns from a torn ACL. He may not be ready when the regular season begins, but he figures to have a spot on the 53-man roster at some point during the year.
Shepard has played mostly in the slot during his career, but with Campbell, Beasley, Robinson, and Crowder on the roster he knows his role — if he has a role — might be on the outside.
“I’ve always had that versatility, but I mean, it’s great having that experience being outside and knowing that I can win outside (and) I’m not just banked as a slot receiver,” Shepard said. “Especially when you’ve got guys like (Jamison) Crowder and (Cole) Beasley who’ve done it for many years at a high level, you want to be able to have that versatility. It’s the easiest way on the field and you know those guys work magic in there, so you want to have those guys in there.”
Can Shepard find a place on the roster amidst all of that talent?
“However it shakes out, I believe in God and I believe that he has something planned for me regardless of however it shakes out,” he said.
Shepard didn’t address a potential post-football future when he spoke to the media on Sunday. If he doesn’t make the roster, though, you have to believe there is a spot in the Giants’ organization — on the coaching staff, in player engagement, or in community relations — for a guy who has been both a good player and a good soldier for the Giants his entire NFL career.