When the New York Giants drafted wide receiver Kadarius Toney, widely viewed as the team’s future slot receiver, in the first round of the draft, Giants head coach Joe Judge did something he didn’t have to do.
He picked up the phone and called veteran Sterling Shepard, currently the longest-tenured member of the team, to explain the move and reassure the veteran receiver.
“I mean, we were just adding another playmaker was kind of my thought process, but I respected the call,” Shepard said Wednesday. “Grown man to grown man, I felt like that was the right way to go about it and felt good about the call. He just reassured me.”
Not every coach will offer a veteran that kind of reassurance and input, and sometimes in failing to do so, the coach runs the risk of some resentment developing between the old guard and the incoming new guard.
But Shepard, the Giants’ second-round pick in the 2016 draft dubbed the heir apparent to Victor Cruz’s slot receiver spot, knows the importance of keeping the peace within the meeting room.
So as he did with Cruz, with whom he became close friends, he has embraced the role of being a big brother to Toney and all the young players the Giants have brought in to help the team win.
“Whatever help they need getting adjusted, try to help them the best way I can,” Shepard said. “I have all the confidence in the world in my ability and what I can bring to the table. I’m going to walk in this building and be the same person that I am, no matter what happens.”
In addition to helping Toney get up to speed as quickly as possible, Shepard has been helping second-year slot cornerback Darnay Holmes sharpen his game.
“I’m here to help Darnay,” Shepard said. “Like, after those reps and the times that we go against each other, my job is to make him better, so I want to be the hardest guy that he has to guard all year. That’s my mentality and whatever I’ve got to do to help him, and his game is what I’m going to do.
“I pull him aside after every single route and tell him how he can be better on different stuff, so that’s just a part of the game and he’s going to be great for us, I feel like.
"His mentality is something that I really respect about him and the way he’s able to forget about what happened last time and come back last time and still be a scrappy DB, I respect that about him.”
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As busy as he’s been trying to help his younger teammates, Shepard also spent time helping his own game and, perhaps more importantly given the ten games he missed due to injury over the last two seasons, his durability.
“I feel great. I worked my tail off this offseason to come in the best shape,” Shepard said. “I think that was one of the things that Coach Judge and I had a conversation about right before I left for OTAs, just coming in shape and being able to be on the field at all times and being able to run around and move to these different positions and being versatile.”
So far, so good for Shepard, who arguably is one of the best receivers on the Giants at finding soft spots in zone coverage.
According to Pro Football Focus, Shepard led the Giants wideouts by a large margin, catching 78.7% of his pass targets against zone coverage, his 100 yards after the catch second to Darius Slayton’s 105 yards against zone coverage.
Shepard, who missed four games last season with a turf toe injury, also topped the Giants' receivers against the more challenging man coverage, with a 69.2% catch rate for 265 yards.
Although he saw his slot snaps reduced thanks to the presence of Golden Tate, Shepard was still Mr. Reliable working from the inside, catching 20 out of 25 slot snap targets last year for 148 yards and a touchdown.
So far in camp, Shepard has been one of the most consistent players on the field regardless of where he's lined up.
But don’t look for Shepard to puff out his chest and proclaim how great he is. Shepard knows he’s part of a larger group on offense that has gotten off to a slow start as a whole but which has started to show signs of clicking in recent days.
“At the beginning, we were kind of going back and forth with the defense. (Tuesday), I felt like we made a really good stride. I mean, we were on fire. What I’m focused on is us coming out with the same mentality as we had yesterday,” he said.
“I’m excited to see how the guys are going to respond today and even myself, being a leader, trying to keep the guys’ energy high and just trying to be dominant every day.”
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