More than a slot guy: Sterling Shepard bets on bigger role outside

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In a matter of months, Sterling Shepard’s world was turned upside down. He’s no longer the 24-year-old, no-strings-attached, slot receiver who finished last season with the New York Giants.

Shepard turned 25 in February, married model Chanel Iman in March and soon will be a father. Shepard and Iman are expecting a child, due in August.

Change is in the air, and it’s not limited to Shepard's off-the-field experiences. It’s also obvious when watching the Giants practice that Shepard’s role will change -- and has changed. He has been playing as an outside receiver with significantly more regularity in new coach Pat Shurmur’s offense.

“I’ve been doing a lot on the outside,” Shepard said after organized team activity No. 4 on Tuesday, when he was lined up alongside Hunter Sharp and/or Cody Latimer most of the afternoon with the first-team offense.

This isn’t completely new to Shepard. He worked on the outside some at Oklahoma and at times in his first two professional seasons. Shepard has taken 330 snaps on the outside with the Giants.

It has never been a problem. Former coach Ben McAdoo was also big into cross-training all his receivers to make sure they knew the responsibilities of playing any position in his offense. Shurmur has a similar approach.

But Shepard has primarily been used as a slot receiver in the NFL. He took 83 percent of his snaps out of the slot as a rookie in 2016. That dipped to 75 percent last season.

Still, all 10 of his career touchdowns have come as a slot receiver, per Pro Football Focus. (Strangely enough, all 10 have come when lined up on the right side, too.) Fifty-one of his 59 receptions and both his touchdowns last season came out of the slot. Only Jarvis Landry, Larry Fitzgerald and Doug Baldwin have more receiving yards out of the slot since Shepard entered the league in 2016.

This has further pigeonholed Shepard as a slot receiver, a label that has followed him dating to his time at Oklahoma. It’s a stigma he’s now fully ready to fight.

“That’s been that way since college,” Shepard said. “I feel like I’ve proven that I can play outside and just try to handle my business. I know that I can play outside, and we will soon see.”

We’ll likely find out this season. With Brandon Marshall released earlier this spring, Shepard becomes the No. 2 receiver on the Giants behind Odell Beckham Jr., who returns after missing most of last year with a broken ankle. Shepard and Beckham, the Giants’ top receivers, will be on the field together often when they are using two- or three-receiver sets, because behind them are a bunch of relatively unproven receivers (Sharp, Latimer, Russell Shepard and Roger Lewis). When healthy, Beckham and Shepard are the best of the bunch.

Shepard has already proven to be a quality NFL receiver. He has 124 catches for 1,414 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Of the receivers from the 2016 draft class, only New Orleans’ Michael Thomas has been more productive.

With the Vikings, Shurmur used three-wide receiver sets with less frequency than the Giants did the past two seasons. While the Giants used 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) on first-and-10 plays 52 percent of the time in 2017 and 87 percent in 2016, the Vikings used it 46 percent in 2017 and 54 percent in 2016. That could amount to Shepard being asked to play a much different role if he’s going to be on the field consistently this season.

Shepard is expecting more opportunities on the outside with this in mind.

“Yeah, with the guys going down [last season], I was able to get an opportunity to play outside a little bit more, and, for the most part, I felt like I executed it,” he said. “But yeah, I’m looking forward to being out there and maybe getting more looks.”

Shepard should have an altered role in a different-looking offense.

Shepard and tight end Evan Engram were the Giants’ top two pass-catchers in the second half of last season with Beckham and Marshall injured. They each did damage, but now they should have Beckham and first-round running back Saquon Barkley added to the mix.

It provides Shurmur with options. How he elects to use Beckham, Shepard and all his weapons will be intriguing. How the snaps and targets will be distributed will be interesting.

“Yeah, that’s a good question,” Engram said. “We definitely have a lot of talent; we’re going to utilize all of it, as well. So, it’s definitely interesting to think about.

“But I mean, in practice, we’ve got guys making plays all over the field. So, the ball’s going to find the best player. We don’t really care where the ball goes; I just know we have a lot of talent.”

Shepard is near the top of that list. And Shurmur is expected to find ways to use that talent to the Giants’ advantage, whether it’s in the slot or not.