The Giants’ 18-10 victory over the Washington Redskins at Metlife Stadium on the final day of the 2017 season isn’t one most Giants fans will remember. The Giants were just 2-13 entering the New Year’s Eve contest, and finishing out a long season that resulted in changes at both the general manager and head coach positions.
It is a game, however, that wide receiver Hunter Sharp will never forget. With 12:48 remaining in the first quarter of his first NFL start, Sharp ran a skinny post from the 16-yard line. Eli Manning hit him with a perfect pass between cornerback Kendall Fuller and safety Deshazor Everett for his first career touchdown.
Now, Sharp is trying to use that late season experience as a springboard for more success in 2018.
“I think it had a lot to do with helping my confidence and the chemistry (with Eli Manning),” Sharp said. “I’m a lot more comfortable. That touchdown had me going into the offseason thinking I have a big shot to make the team and play a meaningful role.”
So far, so good. Sharp has worked as the third receiver with the first team during OTAs, an opportunity he has been waiting for since he was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Utah State by the Eagles in 2016.
“It means everything to me,” he said. “So I’m just taking it day by day and putting my best foot forward, trying not to make any mistakes, playing fast and doing my best. It’s been going pretty good. I’ve been picking up the offense well. Physically, I’m in good shape right now, so I’ve been trying to catch everything and just get better every day.
“It’s 80 percent mental, for sure, and the rest physical. It’s really just about knowing your job. Once you know your job, it is easy to go out and play because you’re an athlete and it’s your job to be in shape.”
He has learned a lot from Manning, someone who has seen it all in 14 NFL seasons.
“It’s incredible to be working with a guy like him,” Sharp said. “He’s a vet and there’s so many things you can learn from him, so I’m just trying to be a sponge as much as I can. Small stuff like coming out of your breaks, like when you’re pressed or get a certain leverage, how he wants you to do it or how he looks at things so I can be on the same page as him.”
Sharp went through training camp with the Eagles in 2016 but was waived before the season began. He was signed to the Broncos practice squad that December and stayed with them through 2017. He played one game for the Broncos against the Chargers on October 22 and didn’t catch a pass. He returned to the practice squad until the Giants signed him to their active roster on December 12.
Sharp was surprised when about a month later he received a call from his receivers coach with the Broncos, Tyke Tolbert.
“He called me and I was on the trampoline with my daughter,” Sharp said, “He asked if I was watching the news and I said, ‘no, I haven’t’ and he’s like, ‘I’m coaching for the New York Giants’ and I did a backflip on the trampoline because I was happy as heck. Tyke is a great guy and I learned a lot from him in Denver. When I heard about that it boosted my confidence a bit too because I’m really comfortable with him.”
Sharp is not the only former Broncos wide receiver on the roster. Tolbert is coaching Cody Latimer as well. It is a young wide receiver room, with only three players having more than three years of experience. Odell Beckham Jr. (5th year), Latimer (5th year) and Russell Shepard (6th year) are the veterans in the group. Tolbert will have a chance to mold them all.
“He coaches a lot of technique,” Sharp said. “He is really technical with his coaching, but he doesn’t yell at you unless you do the same thing over and over again wrong. To me, good coaching doesn’t involve having to scream on your guys and he doesn’t do that. He just really focuses on the small technical things.”
Right now, the only certain thing about the Giants wide receiver group is that Beckham and Sterling Shepard will be starters. All the other jobs are up for grabs, including the third wide receiver spot, which is a virtual starting position in today’s NFL. Sharp understands, however, that it might not be his ability to catch a football that gets him his first-ever spot on a 53-man roster coming out of training camp.
“I’m just focused on doing whatever I can on special teams to help the team, whether it’s gunner. I’m kind of new to that, but I really, really like it,” he said. “The return game is something that has always been natural to me. I’m really excited this preseason to see what I can do with the ball in my hands. I’ve been working on my lateral movement, just trying to get off cuts faster and we’ll see if that helps me.”
Sharp returned eight punts and one kickoff for the Giants and Broncos last year. He has been working as a returner during spring workouts. With the new kickoff return rules perhaps resulting in more (and possibly bigger) kickoff returns, being an accomplished returner will give him a leg up against the other receivers on the roster. There isn’t a punt or kick returner on the roster with significant NFL experience.
Sharp hopes he can claim those jobs and a spot on the wide receiver depth chart when final cuts are made on September 1. He might just be the first Giant to touch the football if the team returns the opening kickoff on September 9 against the Jaguars at Metlife Stadium.