If you’re not familiar with the purpose of this series, it is to focus on a chosen wide receiver and illustrate what he does well. I’ll be demonstrating his traits, including athletic ability, route-running, hands, and more with a combination of written and video explanations.
Sterling Shepard finds himself in a very interesting situation in New York. With the arrival of Brandon Marshall from the New York Jets, the Giants perhaps have the best wide receiver trio in the NFL with Odell Beckham Jr., Marshall, and Shepard. How the arrival of Marshall affects Shepard’s production in 2017 remains to be seen, but as you’re about to see, Shepard will still be worth watching in 2017 after a solid rookie season in 2016.
We’re all familiar by now with Beckham and Marshall, which is why taking a closer look at Shepard is a more interesting exercise. One that may draw up some well-known, as well as some not-so-well-known results in this particular evaluation.
Sterling Shepard is entering his second season in the NFL after being drafted in the second round, 40th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft by the Giants.
Shepard had a stellar four-year collegiate career in the Big 12. Although his numbers didn’t improve drastically between his freshman year (2012), where he amassed 45 catches for 621 yards and three TDs, through to his junior year (2014) where he collected 51 catches for 970 yards and five TDs. It was his senior year when he would ultimately breakout. His 86 catches for 1,288 yards and 11 TDs would catapult Shepard to his second-round draft status.
The former University of Oklahoma wideout was then named a starter in his rookie year with the Giants, and as you’re about to see, he adjusted to the many challenges a rookie faces not only extremely well, but quickly.
Coming into a situation like the one in New York – where Odell Beckham Jr. is the clear #1 receiver – helped take the pressure off of Shepard. When watching film of Shepard it was clear that defenses were happy to not particular key onto him. Yet when they did in man coverage, Shepard displays the ability to be productive as a very good route runner who can create separation. This was especially evident when working across the middle of the field.
By the Numbers
Shepard’s 2016 season was a solid one statistically. He hauled in 65 catches for 683 yards and eight TDs in 16 games. While he averaged 10.5 yards per reception with his longest catch of the season being 32 yards, his eight touchdowns all came from the slot position. This led the NFL in touchdowns from the slot. Also of his eight TDs, six of them came from within the red zone, making Shepard somewhat of an underrated red-zone threat.
Per Football Outsiders, Shepard led all Giants receivers in offensive snaps with 1,005 with an offensive snap percentage of 94.6%. This was second in the NFL only to the Houston Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins (96.7%). This number perhaps isn’t surprising given how much the Giants offense played 11 personnel last season.
With the departure of Victor Cruz and the addition of Brandon Marshall in the offseason, the Giants have the personnel to stick to their preferred personnel package in 2017. If so Shepard, like so often in 2016, figures to line up in the slot primarily once again. At 5’10’’ and 201 pounds, Shepard not only has the ideal size but should have the confidence to continue to be an effective slot receiver.
2016 Film Breakdown
As previously mentioned Shepard adjusted to the NFL quickly. His first professional catch, in fact, was a touchdown catch in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys, in what would result in a 20-19 Giants win.
Here the Giants are facing a 3rd and goal situation at the Dallas 9-yard line with only 13 seconds left in the first half, down 9-7. New York is lined up in 11 personnel, but it’s what happens to the right of the formation that is key here. With Shepard in the slot and Beckham Jr. (#13) on the outside, they run what’s called a rub route.
At the snap Beckham runs a direct slant inside, while Shepard makes good use of the 3- to 4-yard cushion he has by stuttering forward before running a corner route toward the end zone directly around Beckham’s slant route. The timing is perfect by both receivers on their respective routes, but the timing of Shepard’s leap in the corner to make the catch despite the corner and safety close by is ultimately what leads to the touchdown.
On this next play we see a similar route concept which results again in a Shepard touchdown. This time it’s 1st and goal at the Pittsburgh 1-yard line in Week 13 with 30 seconds left in the game, down 24-7. So, yes the game is all but gone at this point.
Again this play is run to the right of the formation, except this time it’s Roger Lewis (#82) lined up on the outside. Lewis, however, runs a dig route into the end zone instead of a slant route and Shepard this time runs in front of Lewis as he cuts inside instead of around him, which allows Lewis to take the defensive back covering Shepard out of the play and it’s an easy catch and touchdown for Shepard.
Shepard’s quickness and route-running ability makes him the ideal receiver to line up in the slot and be the go-to guy in this particular route concept. He displayed in both of these examples that he can work well in tight spaces, so don’t be surprised to see the Giants continue to use this route concept again in 2017, with Shepard being the beneficiary.
As already noted and demonstrated with Shepard, he is a top threat in the red zone. However, it’s not just the rub route that allows him to get free and into the endzone. His quick feet, hands. and ability to gain separation are all evident on this next play.
It’s Week 16 against the Philadelphia Eagles and it’s 3rd and 3 on the Eagles 13-yard line with 37 seconds left in the first half. The Giants are down 21-6 so need a touchdown here before halftime to get back into this game. The Giants are this time lined up in 10 personnel with trips to the right of the formation. Shepard interestingly is lined up directly next to right tackle Bobby Hart (#68) and opposite Eagles strong safety Malcolm Jenkins (#27).
As the ball is snapped Shepard shifts to the outside and then is jammed by Jenkins. The Giants wideout does a great job of keeping his shoulders square here and, along with quick, strong hand usage, is able to break free quickly and cut inside, finding himself wide open down the middle for the easy touchdown.
Route Running and Separation
A particular trait that stood out to me when studying Shepard was his great route-running ability across the middle of the field. The timing of his routes, smooth route running, and toughness were all demonstrated at times in 2016. The is one thing you should never have as a wide receiver when running routes across the middle of the field in the NFL, is fear. Shepard showed absolutely no fear and some of his longer gains were due to intermediate to deep routes across the middle of the field.
Here in Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints, Shepard makes what results in his longest catch of the season. Again the Giants are in 11 personnel with Shepard in the slot on a 3rd and 2 from their own 48-yard line with 5:47 left in the 3rd quarter.
As this particular play develops you can see Shepard does a great job of selling the slant route, and as soon as he gets the extra yard of separation, he is able to break back outside of the right hash marks with impeccable timing, which gives him even more separation from the CB downfield, in what results in a 32-yard gain. One of the better routes overall that I saw from Shepard in 2016.
Another example of Shepard’s ability to sell a route and create separation can be seen here in Week 15 against the Detroit Lions. The Giants are up 10-6 in the 3rd quarter and it’s 3rd and 7 on their own 34-yard line.
At the snap Shepard uses a jab step to get inside, then heads upfield on what looks like a go route. As soon as Lions CB Asa Jackson (#30) is on his left shoulder, he cuts inside which affords him even more separation to make the catch for 14 yards and the first down. Also worth noting that Lions safety Glover Quin (#27) also appears to think Shepard is running the go route but, with Shepard then cutting inside, takes Quin completely out of this play.
This next play is worth highlighting because it demonstrates Shepard’s toughness across the middle in not only being able to make the catch, but to hold onto the ball after taking a big hit.
It’s Week 3 here at home against Washington. The Giants have the ball at their own 25-yard line to start the 4th quarter, down 26-24. With the Giants lined up in 11 personnel, Shepard is in the slot with Washington playing zone. There are two crucial parts to this play.
First, the two middle linebackers bite heavily on the play action, freeing up the middle of the field for Shepard on a crossing route. Second, Josh Norman (#24) abandons covering Beckham Jr. on the outside, and although he is the one who makes the big hit on the play, leaves Beckham Jr. complete free down the field on the outside.
So while this play should have been a deep ball to Beckham Jr. for six, Shepard still demonstrates toughness across the middle of the field by making the catch and instantly taking the big hit and holding onto the ball.
Sitting in the Zone
If, like Shepard, you work primarily from the slot and across the middle of the field, you need to be able to find holes in zone coverage to help your offense move the chains. A wide receiver needs to recognize the coverage he is facing pre-snap and have the awareness to understand where he needs to be and when to give his QB the best chance to find him when he needs his receiver the most. Shepard showed throughout 2016 that he can do this, and often.
Here the Giants are facing a 3rd and 2 situation on the Washington 33-yard line in Week 17. There is 11:24 to go in the 2nd quarter and the Giants are up 3-0, so a first down here keeps the drive alive and the opportunity to extend their lead. Shepard is again in the slot playing against nickel. There is only one safety deep who is 15 yards behind the linebackers as the strong safety has come all the way up alongside the two linebackers. This means there is a lot of room in the middle of the field, which is perfect for Shepard on this play and he takes advantage by sitting in the space behind the linebackers and in front of the deep safety for a 14-yard completion and the first down.
We see a very similar play again here back in Week 1 in Dallas. Again Shepard is facing zone coverage and he’s able to make his way across the middle of the field from the slot, finding the soft spot in Dallas’s zone.
This time, however, it’s the 4th quarter with less than 10 minutes to go and the Giants are down 19-13. What’s worth noting here is that Shepard instantly recognizes that QB Eli Manning is flushed out of the pocket and as soon as he looks back he just sits in the open space, calling for the ball which reaches him for a 20-yard gain.
While Sterling Shepard had a solid rookie season by the numbers, when we see the traits displayed like toughness, recognition, awareness, and route running we see Shepard has adjusted to life in the NFL extremely well. Shepard’s route running in particular is excellent which is just what you need in a slot receiver.
However, one thing Shepard must work on this season is his yards after the catch. Per Giants.com Shepard was tied for 78th in the NFL with 256 yards after the catch. This averages out at 3.9 yards after the catch per completion, 98th in the NFL. Shepard has recognized this, so it will be interesting to see if he is able to improve on those numbers in 2017.
Shepard should figure to be a big part of the Giants offense in 2017 despite the arrival of Brandon Marshall, and the tools and traits are already there for Shepard to become even better as his career unfolds through 2017 and beyond.