Going Deep: Sterling Shepard’s Ascension

Ben Davidowitz breaks down all the reasons to be optomistic about Sterling Shepard's fourth season.

Sterling Shepard is preparing for his fourth year with the New York Giants, fresh off signing a $41 million four-year contract extension. The 26-year-old pass-catcher will enter the following season as the team’s highest-paid receiver. The Giants have ensured that the young feisty receiver will be a staple of the teams passing attack for several years to come.

Shepard provides a sense of continuity for the receiver position after the trade of Odell Beckham Jr. He has played with Eli Manning for three seasons and has one year of experience in head coach Pat Shurmur’s offensive system. At 5’10” and 203 pounds, Shepard has done a majority of his damage out of the slot but has also shown the ability to move out wide and still be effective. He has shown the ability to run deep routes from either position and the skill-set to up and collect contested catches:

Shepard has displayed consistently reliable hands and has been a very good blocker when the ball is in someone else’s hands. In the following example Shepard can be seen throwing a block to spring Saquon Barkley for an extra 20 yard gain:

Here you can see Shepard motion inside and throw a block to spring Barkley for a large gain:

During his first three seasons with the Giants, Shepard has amassed 190 catches for 2,286 yards and 14 touchdowns. Good for a 12-yard average per reception. He has also run the ball ten times for 68 yards on the ground.

After suffering a thumb fracture while reaching for a low pass from Manning in training camp, Shepard has recently been wearing a non-contact yellow jersey. Even while donning the yellow jersey, Shepard has been a heavy target in the passing game for the past several weeks. During the first week after the fracture, Shepard was often catching passes one-handed at training camp. He has continued running routes and has been an active member of the offensive group despite the injury.

A few hours before the fracture, head coach Pat Shurmur was at the podium praising Shepard. Shurmur addressed the media and discussed how he believed Shepard had the potential to grow into a number one wide receiver for the Giants.

Shurmur said, “Sterling is a football player, and we appreciate his toughness and his ability to make plays and all the things he adds to the team. He’s a value-added guy in my mind. He plays his position, but he makes the people around him better. I think that’s what all the players should strive to do.”

Shepard’s health has recently been trending in the right direction. Before August even started, he was cleared to participate in live drills. As of August 18th, Shepard has discarded his non-contact jersey and is practicing without any limitations. He told the New York Post “It’s actually healed up pretty fast and … I’m feeling good.”

Shepard was quoted by the Daily News saying “I don’t see anything that could hold me back right now, unless something else was to happen in practice.” It remains highly unlikely that Shepard will see any snaps during the preseason, but his chances of being ready for Week 1 of the regular season look incredibly good compared to just a few weeks ago.

Fresh off a season that saw Shepard reach new career highs for catches and yards, he will be tasked with being a much larger part of the offense after Beckham was traded. Luckily, Shepard has experience playing as the main threat in the passing game after Beckham was lost to injury for portions of the last two seasons.

If Shepard can get fully healthy and play in a full 16 game season, he should easily eclipse the 1,000-yard mark through the air. During his rookie season, Shepard had 65 receptions and scored eight touchdowns. If he can replicate his past success of converting receptions into scores and add to his yardage totals, he could be in line for a surprisingly solid year. In the below example, Shepard is lined up in the slot and makes a leaping catch for the go ahead touchdown after running a sharp route:

Playing with newly acquired receiver Golden Tate will bring added versatility to Shepard’s game. Both Shepard and Tate can be moved across multiple positions and play in varied formations. The two receivers also share the added bonus of being dangerous weapons once the ball is in their hands:

Combined with the massive amount of attention running back Saquon Barkley will demand, Shepard should see many opportunities to take advantage of being left one on one. Below you can see how efficient a route runner he is and how dangerous he is with the ball in his hands:

Shepard averaged 7.28 fantasy points per game over his last 16 games. With Beckham in Cleveland, Shepard’s fantasy output should be on the uptick. According to Fantasy Pros, Shepard’s current average draft position is 99th overall and number 40 out of all wide receivers. With Beckham’s 124 targets from 2018 up for grabs, Shepard has a good chance of outperforming his ADP.

Throughout the beginning of training camp, Shepard was splitting time between the slot and out wide. When he was spread out towards the boundaries, he was often running deep routes and clicking with Manning. If that translates to games, Shepard could easily eclipse his 62 targets while playing on the perimeter over the last two seasons.

In 2018, Shepard averaged 3.1 yards of separation from the nearest defender when a pass was thrown his way. He also accounted for nearly 26% of the Giant’s deep air passes–throws that went for 15 yards or more. If he averages the same amount of separation and deep air passes combined with an increase in targets, Shepard has the potential to put together a great year.

With the increase in his workload, the four-game suspension for Tate, attention defenses will give Barkley, and his experience in the offense, Shepard could easily have the best year of his career.

 

(Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

  • Wally says:

    Good article. I think you are right on point regarding the role Shepard will pay with the Giants in the upcoming season. With Beckham gone and Tate suspended for 4 games, there will be a lot of pressure on Shepard to produce on the field. With an improved offensive line and a good running game,I believe Shepard is ready for that role and that he will have a breakout season.

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