EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Pat Shurmur said throughout training camp and the preseason that he had confidence in the Giants’ wide receivers group beyond the top two of Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate.
Now we’ll found out if that faith was justified.
The Giants today made official what had been anticipated all week - Shepard will not play in their home opener Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. The fourth-year wideout has been in the NFL concussion protocol and hadn’t practiced since he was injured last week in Dallas. The Giants are already playing without Tate, who is serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances. Rookie Darius Slayton will miss his second straight game with a hamstring injury.
“He just couldn’t quite make it back,” Shurmur said of Shepard. “He’s getting better. He just kind of ran out of time this week.
“There are steps that you have to take. They are very defined in terms of coming back. We want to make sure we go through the proper protocol.”
With Shepard sidelined, Eli Manning will throw to a relatively unheralded group of receivers: Bennie Fowler, Cody Latimer, Russell Shepard, Cody Core and TJ Jones, who was re-signed this week. Latimer is listed as questionable with a calf injury that kept him out of practice yesterday, though he returned to work today.
“I have my dogs out there fighting, and I obviously don’t want to let them down,” Latimer said. “I’m working hard and listening to the trainers, and I’ll see where I am. … I think I’m good to go, we’ll see before the game. We’ll see how I’m running around and moving around and make a decision then.”
Of course, the Giants still have Saquon Barkley (139 yards from scrimmage in Dallas) and tight end Evan Engram (11 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown).
Fowler, Latimer and Russell Shepard have all been in the NFL for at least five seasons, so they are well-suited to step in and produce in the absence of the big two.
“It was proven last year,” Russell Shepard said. “We had some guys go down and we had guys step in. Bennie (who joined the team on Oct. 16) came in, the first week he was here, he played 60 snaps on offense, really not knowing the offense. Cody is a guy that’s been able to make plays consistently since last year when his number was called in this offense. Then a guy like myself, I’ve been able to have some success when stepping in. It was proven last year. We did a great job in the preseason showing what we can do in certain situations. I think we all look forward to continuing it throughout the season.”
“You play with the players that you have, and anybody that you put out there, you expect them to make plays,” Shurmur said. “We don’t recalibrate the expectations. We expect them to go out, play well and help us win a game.”
In Dallas, Sterling Shepard led the wide receivers with six catches for 42 yards. Fowler had five receptions for 40 yards. Russell Shepard played just nine snaps on offense (plus 14 on special teams), but last year caught 10 passes for 188 yards and scored two touchdowns.
“I know that being in the position that I’ve been in over the last few years in the league, I had opportunities throughout the year to step in and play a lot of receiver,” he said. “This could be one of those weeks. I’m excited. (Sterling) Shep does a lot for us, so the possibility of me stepping in and being able to contribute and make up some of the slack, I’m excited for that.”
Fowler and Latimer were teammates in Denver from 2015-17 and played on the Broncos team that won Super Bowl 50. They are two of the four players who have caught passes from both Peyton and Eli Manning (the others are Jim Finn and Brandon Stokley).
Though he believes he has many big games ahead of him, Fowler’s current claim to fame is he caught the final pass of Peyton Manning’s career for a two-point conversion in Denver’s Super Bowl victory against Carolina. No, he doesn’t have the ball. “I gave it back to Peyton,” he said.
Like the other wideouts, Fowler believes the wide receivers will produce on Sunday. Part of his confidence is borne from the quarterback who will be throwing to them, which is the same feeling he had in Denver.
“We have great players,” Fowler said. “To be honest, if I compare the Super Bowl team that I was on, it started with Peyton. Here it starts with Eli. Eli has all of the experience in the world. He gives you a chance every Sunday. I see a lot of similarities.
“You have a chance to win every game just because of the experience that Eli has. He’s a winner. As a receiver, you don’t really have to worry about much when you go out there with a quarterback like that. He understands coverages, he knows where the ball should go, he’s proven, he’s tough, and he’s made all of the throws against all of the defenses. There’s no substitute for experience.”
And the wide receivers’ experience tells them they can help the Giants beat Buffalo on Sunday.
“We’re built for this,” Fowler said. “Look at during training camp. There were times where Golden was down during training camp, so we had to step up. During training camp, I started every preseason game because Sterling wasn’t starting. This is no different for my preparations. I prepare the same way every week, and same last year, when Odell (Beckham, Jr.) went out and I started.”
The wideouts are ready. Now it’s time to produce.