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Rookie Progress Report: Sterling Shepard

Posted Jun 23, 2016

Giants.com's Dan Salomone takes an in-depth look at the 2016 rookie class following the offseason program:  

Half a year has passed since rookies played in their last college game, and yet they’ve never been busier.

Over that time, the NFL’s incoming class prepared for the combine, participated in the combine, held Pro Days, anxiously awaited the draft results, and reported for rookie minicamp before being thrown into the deep end with veterans during spring practices. Such is life for an athlete trying to make it to the professional level.

>> READ: ELI APPLE ROOKIE PROGRESS REPORT

The rookies were around earlier this week for the league’s transition program, but now they're enjoying a much-needed break before reporting for training camp on July 28. So it's a good time to gauge their progress heading into summer.

Today’s rookie report is on wide receiver Sterling Shepard, the Giants’ second-round pick out of Oklahoma.

CATCHING THE GIANTS’ EYE

Marc Ross, the Giants’ vice president of player evaluation, pointed to the 2015 Oklahoma vs. Tennessee game as Shepard’s “quintessential” performance of his college career. On the road at Neyland Stadium in front of 102,455 people -- the largest gathering ever to see the Sooners play -- Shepard caught two key touchdowns: one with 40 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime, and the other to win it in double overtime.

“When you go to Oklahoma,” Ross said, “you always hear about Sterling Shepard, the guy who makes plays.”

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DRAFT NIGHT

After selecting Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple with the No. 10 pick, the Giants drafted Shepard in the second round, No. 40 overall. He was the fifth wide receiver taken in the draft and the first of Day 2. Baylor’s Corey Coleman (No. 15, Browns), Notre Dame’s Will Fuller (No. 21, Texans), TCU’s Josh Doctson (No. 22, Redskins) and Mississippi’s Laquon Treadwell (No. 23, Vikings) were taken on Day 1.

>> READ: STERLING SHEPARD ROOKIE BLOG

“Terrific competitor, just everything you want in a slot wide receiver,” general manager Jerry Reese said. “Our coaches believe he can play on the outside as well. The highest player on our board. I know you guys think I’m kidding when I say that, but highest player on our board, and an easy pick for us. Had a couple more names around that we liked as well, but it was too much value for us to pass this guy up. We think he’s going to come in and he’s NFL-ready, ready to play right now. He’ll be right in our receiver corps, and get a lot of competition in there, we hope.”

CRUZ COMPARISONS

The 5-foot-10, 194-pounder drew immediate comparisons to Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, who measures an even 6 feet and 204 pounds. More than that, scouts see parallels in their ball skills and big-play ability after the catch.

“That name came up when our scout group talked about him,” Reese said. “That’s one of the names that came up, a young Victor Cruz. Very similar in some ways, body type. The one thing about this kid is he’s 5-10 and some change, but his strike zone—what we call a strike zone—is bigger than that. He’s got a 41-inch vertical jump, he’s got big hands…he’s a tenacious slot receiver, run after the catch. Get the ball to him quick and he does some nice things after that catch as well. Yeah, Victor Cruz was one of the names that came up.”

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Learning the playbook was the first, second and third priority for Shepard when he reported to rookie minicamp shortly after the draft. Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan praised his attentiveness in meetings and his competiveness on the field.

“This was a guy that in some of the run plays would take his blocking seriously and I know that isn’t the first thing you are looking for in receivers but it jumped off the tape,” Sullivan said. “I thought he was surprisingly strong as far as the run after catch and then there was a suddenness and explosiveness in his movements, in being able to get open, and I think it has been said and I would agree that he certainly has the tools and can be successful on the inside but I think he can also be successful outside with the ability to separate from tight coverage.”

RETURNER, TOO?

Shepard made a tremendous leap in production between 2014 and 2015, improving his receptions total from 51 to 86, receiving yards from 970 to 1,288, and touchdowns from five to 11. That also carried over to special teams, where he averaged 7.8 yards per punt return. While he acclimates to playing against NFL defenses, Shepard could contribute in the return game like Odell Beckham Jr. did throughout his Rookie of the Year campaign.

“We will certainly add him to the mix there,” coach Ben McAdoo said. “He will be a guy that is going to get some opportunities there, yes.”

PROGRESS & AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT

During minicamp, Beckham was asked what having Cruz and Shepard on the field does for him. The two-time Pro Bowler put both arms in the air and signaled a touchdown. Shepard will only help take some of the pressure off Beckham, who already has recorded the most receiving yards in NFL history through a player’s first two seasons. Shepard heard his number called more and more as he progressed throughout spring, spending most of his reps with quarterback Eli Manning and the first-team offense.

>> READ: BIGGEST OFFSEASON SURPRISES

“He’s going to be a phenomenal player,” Beckham said. “He can run routes, he can catch, he can pretty much do it all. So I’m definitely looking forward to seeing him develop. The first couple of days, it’s hard— it’s hard to learn a new offense, and you come in as a guy who was drafted, you already feel like you’ve got something to prove— so you’d see him making mental errors of him just thinking, and now you see him getting out there and feeling more comfortable and just playing. I just feel like I really know what he’s capable of and I’d rather let him just shock the world than spill his secrets.”