Sterling Shepard | The Good, the Great and the Ugly
Sterling Shepard has proved to be a valuable asset to the New York Giants’ franchise. A consistent target for two quarterbacks in 2019, Shepard never received less than six targets in any contest throughout his 10-game season.
With that said, his yards per receptions and yards after catch (YAC) per receptions were the lowest in his four-year career.
Shepard was a second-round selection in 2016 out of Oklahoma; his playmaking ability, route running, and strong hands were precocious, and pairing him with Odell Beckham Jr seemed to be something that would bring joy to Giants’ Nation for years to come.
Beckham was traded in 2019 and Shepard became the young "old man" in the wide receiver room, in terms of longevity with the franchise. The team added Golden Tate and drafted a stud in the fifth round named Darius Slayton.
In April of 2019, Shepard signed a four-year, $41 million contract, with $21.26 million guaranteed. The extension was fair to the team and well earned by the player, but concussion issues continued to permeate and affect the young receiver’s ability to stay on the field.
Shepard suffered two concussions in 2019 alone while seeming to have setbacks in his recovery of the second one before he was cleared to return.
In 2017, Shepard experienced migraines due to previous head injuries as well; he also had a left thumb injury, hamstring issues, ankle problems, and a back injury. He’s incredibly tough when present on the field, but staying healthy has been a problem.
The head injuries are a significant cause of concern. Shepard is a 5-10, 201-pound wide receiver who is 27 years old. When healthy, he’s invaluable and incredibly underrated, but head injuries are a scary issue, and all it takes is one bad hit or missed-move to cause a severe problem.
Shepard is traditionally a receiver who operates out of the slot. He played 517 of his 943 snaps out of the slot in 2018, but 2019 was different due to the acquisition of Golden Tate. Last year, Shepard lined up 256 times in the slot, mostly when Tate was injured or suspended, while lining up 331 times out wide.
Shepard changed his receiving alignment, which isn’t easy to do, especially with a young quarterback. This change, compounded with the head injuries, may have led to the dropoff in receiving production.
In 53 career games, Shepard has earned 247 receptions for 2,862 yards and 17 touchdowns, 8 of them coming in his rookie season. In 2019, only 14 receivers with more than 50 receptions had a higher catch percentage than Shepard, who was at 68.7%.
In the ten games he played in 2019, Shepard came down with 57 catches for 576 yards and three touchdowns, with 29 first down receptions.
I believe he is much better than that statistical line, and I intend to prove that throughout this edition of the Good, the Great, and the Ugly.
The Good: Mental Processing
Shepard has a master’s degree in getting open in the middle of the field against all types of coverages. Still, the mental processing that I’m referring to here mainly focuses on his ability to find the soft spots in zone coverage.
Shepard has proven to do this in the short, intermediate, and deep portions of the field, but thrives with getting open against underneath defenders.
Shepard is in a 2x1 set to the strength, tight off the H-Back. Right before the snap, the defense shows a two-high look and drop to cover 2. Shepard, who is relatively uncovered at the line of scrimmage, runs a quick button hook and finds a void between four zone defenders.
The H-Back’s flat expands the two outside defenders, and the other two defenders are either held up by Barkley coming out of the backfield or dropping to a deeper depth.
Shepard recognizes the coverage, knows the route combination to expand the outer defenders, and sits to show hands. Once he catches the ball, he secures the pass and falls forward for additional yardage.
In the same game against Washington, who ran a lot of zone coverage, this time, they ran a Cover 3. The Giants used a similar flat/button hook where Shepard is tasked to adapt his route to find the opening in coverage.
The H-Back expands to the flat, and the SAM (strongside linebacker) expands outside. Shepard lets the SAM cross his face, and Shepard sits in the middle of a tight triangle of the SAM, MIKE (middle linebacker), and cornerback.
Shepard makes a solid hands catch and makes a man miss for a few extra yards.
This play is a similar short route underneath but from a BUNCH formation. Shepard sells a vertical stem off the line of scrimmage and does an excellent job of halting his route and turning promptly.
His ability to start and stop on a dime forces Jaylon Smith, No. 54, to expand outside towards the other BUNCH receiver. Shepard is aware of the expansion and stops his route before Xavier Woods, No. 25 has a chance to make an impact on the pass. Shepard secures and absorbs the hit.
This is another aspect of Shepard’s processing ability. Here he releases off the line of scrimmage in man coverage with underneath linebackers as the No. 2 receiver.
Shepard plants his foot in the ground so fast and does a very good job selling vertical stems, which doesn’t give the corner ample time to react to Shepard’s routes.
Once he cuts his route inside, he flows over the top of the MIKE in the hook zone and comes back to Daniel Jones to mitigate the possibility of Jones’ pass being intercepted. This is a subtle, very smart move from Shepard.
Shepard is the No. 3 receiver in the 3x1 set in the red zone against a zone defense aware of the goal line.
Shepard releases outside of the linebacker and gets him to open up in an attempt to disrupt his route within five yards; once Shepard gets the linebacker off-balance, he hooks around the linebacker and sits in between both safeties.
Jones was a bit late to recognize, so Shepard expanded outward towards the safety, but away from the linebacker who was aware of the route. This gives Jones the time to throw the football to a more open receiver, who dives towards the end zone after the catch.
Shepard consistently finds openings and all types of zone coverage; he’s smart, adaptable, and gives his quarterbacks the best opportunities to give him a chance to create yards after the catch while diminishing the risks of possible interceptions.
His reactionary quickness is evident. Not only is he good against zone coverage, but his ability to manipulate defenders as a route runner is one of his more underrated aspects.
The Great: Release & Route Running
One of the most underrated aspects of playing wide receiver is winning at the line of scrimmage. Shepard is a master at manipulating the hips of cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage.
Shepard is the No. 3 receiver above, and he goes up against a corner who aggressively attempts to press him at the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, Shepard puts all of his weight on his inside foot, leaning in that direction, and then uses his hands to swat the corner’s jam downward and inside, while releasing outside and away from coverage.
He was double-covered on the play, but he was able to run away from both defenders, and Daniel Jones puts a very nice pass towards the front pylon for a touchdown.
The release at the line of scrimmage put Shepard in the position to make the touchdown grab.
As the No. 2 receiver in a 3x1 set, Shepard puts the corner in a precarious situation at the line of scrimmage. He sells the inside release with a hop step and hard inside plant before exploding off his plant foot outside.
As he releases outside and away from the corner, he gets the corner’s hips pointed inside due to the release and the subtle upper body movements that sell the inside stem.
Once he wins at the line of scrimmage, he fights through the defender’s contact and creates separation, but Jones’ throw was poor, resulting in an incompletion.
This is a fourth-and-2 play against Washington, where Shepard converts the first down because of the release at the line of scrimmage and his excellent ability to explode out of cuts.
He’s the No. 2 at the bottom of the screen to the boundary. Shepard releases outside after squaring up with the defender. He explodes off his inside plant foot and brings his inside arm over the top to knock the hands of the jam off his chest (the jam never came on this play).
After his initial stem, Shepard breaks outside, and his acceleration out of the subtle break creates ample separation against the defensive back for an easy first down conversion.
This clip shows a similar move. Shepard releases with a hard plant in one direction to explode in the other while bringing his opposite arm over the top of the defender in a swimming motion.
Miami’s defender takes one too many steps inside when seeing Shepard’s release. The defender allows himself to get off-balanced.
He reaches to grab Shepard when the receiver looks to break into the open on the vertical; this causes defensive holding, but Shepard still comes back to the football and uses his mental processing, and gets open for a simple catch.
Here’s another hop technique at the line of scrimmage that gets the corner’s entire momentum, and hips, pointed in the wrong direction.
The defender opens outside, jumps back, and then grabs Shepard's shoulder in an attempt to stop him from breaking inside.
Look how Shepard explodes off that plant foot with speed & power and then fights through two separate defensive holdings to make a tough contested catch. It’s a short gain, but you can draw a lot from the play about Shepard’s intriguing skill set.
If we look closely at the above clip, we can see the subtitles I referenced earlier about Shepard’s upper body movements and how they really assist with creating leverage against defenders in coverage.
It’s a similar release that we saw in the last clip, but this time, watch his shoulder pads and head, which he shoots inside, in sync with his footwork, to give the illusion of an inside route.
This prompts Mike Hughes, No. 21, to turn his hips inside, protecting the route that he anticipates due to Shepard's sell job. Once Hughes is manipulated, Shepard goes outside and uses a soft angle cut and look at the separation between the two players.
There are undoubtedly athletic traits that assist Shepard in the separation here, but those subtleties are a huge key to how Shepard wins at the line of scrimmage and running routes.
Shepard is the boundary receiver at the bottom of the screen who releases outside in the snow against Green Bay.
Shepard does a marvelous job opening his hips inside, when he has no leverage, to get Tramon Williams, No. 38, to commit inside and change his entire leverage.
This takes advantage of the man coverage and opens the opportunity for leverage to be gained outside. There’s initially not a lot of space, but Shepard creates plenty of separation due to the route running excellence and the double move that gave Daniel Jones an easy pitch-and-catch in terrible weather.
The route on this sail type concept from Shepard displays his nuance in route running and how he quickly maximizes his separation through subtleties.
He’s the No. 2 receiver at the bottom of the screen. He takes an initial inside stem and attacks the defender by eating up the limited grass and getting into the coverage corner, flipping his hips, and putting himself in a better position to create separation on an outside break.
The corner recovers and gets inside the inside hip pocket, but then Shepard plants and explodes outside, utilizing his excellent burst out of breaks to leave the receiver in the dust.
Shepard angles his body, before the break, inside selling the stem and further manipulating the defender’s positioning actually to stay in phase after the break.
His separation out of breaks shouldn’t be understated; here’s more evidence of how well he does with initial acceleration. Once he sticks his foot in the ground, the separation expands.
This is much to do with his ability to sell vertical stems with body fakes and an ability to use suddenness to break. Shepard is excellent with combining the stick, nod, and explosion at the top of routes.
Selling double moves is another excellent part of Shepard’s game; Watch how he makes Trae Waynes, No. 26, look foolish. Shepard runs the vertical stem and fakes the out route to turn Waynes around.
Once Waynes flips his hips, Shepard turns the out into an out-and-up, and he’s wide open. Jones is nailed right before he throws the football, or else this would have been a long touchdown.
This play is incomplete, and the corner plays it well, but watch how quick Shepard can sink his hips in and out of his breaks. This isn’t overly common, and it’s one of Shepard’s best traits.
Shepard sinks on the double moves, gets his shoulders and hips turned, and then explodes up-field. Kudos to the corner for his coverage, but it’s still a solid display of route running and quickness.
The Ugly: Doesn’t have difference-making vertical speed
Shepard ran a 4.48 at the 2016 combine, and he’s by no means slow, but his game is more predicated on his suddenness rather than his speed.
This is one reason why his ability to create separation has more to do with his excellent route running and initial acceleration, rather than deep vertical speed.
There’s not much to knock about Shepard’s game. He’s incredibly talented and very underrated, but this would be one criticism about his play, that can be acknowledged.
Shepard is the boundary receiver above against Xavier Rhodes, No. 29, a corner that was burnt by Darius Slayton.
Shepard’s at the bottom of the numbers, giving him ample space against a cornerback that doesn’t possess much speed or quickness.
Shepard doesn’t do much at the line of scrimmage to manipulate Rhodes, and this gives the defender an edge to stick on Shepard's inside hip as he runs his vertical stem.
Rhodes uses the sideline to his advantage and rides Shepard off the red-line, staying in his hip pocket and forcing the offense into a tough situation.
Shepard isn’t able to create the necessary separation against Rhodes without nuanced route-running and space to operate. His vertical speed isn’t ideal on the outside without the use of all the things listed earlier in this article.
Here’s another example against Avonte Maddox, No. 29. Shepard is the boundary receiver again, a position he was new to, and he doesn’t do much at the line of scrimmage to manipulate Maddox, who handles the release well.
Maddox is able to stay in an excellent position on Shepard, due to a lack of separation ability with straight-line speed.
Creating separation through just speed isn’t Shepard’s best trait, but give him the slightest ability to use subtleties throughout his stem and good luck covering him on hard breaking or horizontal routes.
Shepard is one of the more underrated wide receivers in the league when it comes to his mental processing, route running, and release at the line of scrimmage.
His quickness in and out of breaks stresses good cornerbacks, and his nuanced route-running puts these defenders into really tough situations.
Shepard’s hard foot plants, head/body fakes, and utilization of the “flipper” in tight quarters with a stick-and-nod are well above average.
His ability to create separation on nine routes without quality releases, double moves, or coverage lapses, none of which are his strong suits. But he’s still fast enough to easily be a starting receiver in the NFL, albeit he relies on his quickness a bit more than his deep speed.
His versatility as a slot and boundary receiver is also something that makes him dangerous. Shepard could be primed for a big season in 2020, but he has to stay healthy.
(Film clips via NFL Game Pass.)