New York Giants: Sterling Shepard poised for breakout campaign

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

There is no other New York Giants offensive weapon who holds serious value, while still managing to fly under the radar this season than third-year wide receiver Sterling Shepard.

The injury epidemic that swept the wideout position in 2017 left the New York Giants scrambling for insurance pieces like Russell Shepard and Cody Latimer this offseason. Odell Beckham’s return will lift Big Blue immensely, but Sterling’s role in head coach Pat Shurmur’s offense will be crucial in elevating the Giants offensive unit to elite status.

If we learned anything from last year, it is that Shurmur’s offensive scheme loves—and I mean, loves—to feature the slot wideout.

Formerly unknown Adam Thielen thrived for the Minnesota Vikings in 2017 under Shurmur’s direction, leading the team with 142 targets, 91 receptions and 1,276 receiving yards en route to his first Pro Bowl season.

Thielen did most of his damage from the slot position with primary man Stefon Diggs isolated as the No. 1 option. Diggs was masterful in drawing safety attention away from Thielen’s side of the field. Per Pro Football Focus’ Scott Barrett, Thielen ranked as the second-best among all active wideouts with 2.11 yards per route run from the slot.

Based upon what we saw in previous seasons and in Week 1’s preseason game against the Cleveland Browns hints that Shepard will play most of his snaps as the “Z” similar to Thielen with OBJ returning as the primary “X” guy on the edge. The double-coverage and safety attention Beckham will draw should be more frequent than the shifts Diggs was able to create for Thielen in 2017, giving Shep free range to terrorize defenses underneath.

And speaking of underneath, the New York Giants will be running no shortage of shallow/intermediate crossing routes with Shurmur in charge. We saw some examples against the Browns last Thursday, and Shepard will benefit from that scheme as he had the third-best Pro Football Focus rating on crossing routes among all receivers last season with a 125.1 rating.

Of Shepard’s 84 total targets in 2017, 17 were on crossing routes where he was able to haul in 11 catches for 202 yards and a touchdown.

New York Giants depth chart

The counter-argument to Shepard’s ability to have a breakout campaign in 2018 is that he won’t see the same volume as last year when he was the only first-team starting receiver not to suffer a season-ending injury.

Yes, the G-Men’s offense is healthy again and should be much better than it was a year ago with the addition of brand new rookie playmaker Saquon Barkley. Still, the Giants lack a clear front-runner for the No. 3 wide receiver role behind Beckham and Shepard.

The Browns game is just a small sample size, but among Hunter Sharp, Roger Lewis, Latimer and Russell Shepard, no one stood out. That could be a manifestation of a vanilla playbook, but it’s worth watching.

Practice squad player Marquis Bundy led the team in receiving with just 46 yards Running back Wayne Gallman led the team in receptions with four against Cleveland.

Of course, it’s only preseason.

With three exhibitions separating the Giants from their Week 1 opponent and fearsome Jacksonville Jaguars defense, my guess is that Shurmur will rotate players for that No. 3 spot and lean less on 11-personnel sets (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) than past Giants teams.

As far as Sterling Shepard is concerned, he is coming off a season where he now knows what it is like to play as a No. 1 wideout, and he has clearly gained the trust of the veteran Manning because of it.

Let’s not forget that the 25-year-old also battled injuries also in 2017 and only suited up for 11 games, but he still posted a career high in receiving yards with 731.

Big Blue has a more versatile offense and should see softer coverages now that they are finally a threat in the run game again. OBJ is expected to post top-five numbers barring another devastating injury and Engram will continue to improve as a dangerous pass-catching tight end.

Next. Saquon Barkley conundrum for the New York Giants. dark

The New York Giants offense will be a lot more efficient and put themselves in better situations, see more manageable down-and-distance scenarios, and have increased red-zone opportunities as well. It should be time for the former Sooner standout to go feast on opposition defenses.