EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Sterling Shepard has played in 53 regular-season games in four seasons, but that makes the 27-year-old wide receiver a wizened veteran on the 2020 Giants.
Nineteen of his teammates have at least as much NFL experience as Shepard, but none has worn a Giants uniform for as long as the wideout who is participating in his fifth training camp. His rapid ascendency to become the Giants' longest-tenured player will result in Shepard shedding a nickname he's had since his arrival as a second-round draft choice in 2016.
"I might have to shake the 'Young Shep' off," Shepard said on a Zoom call today. "I was thinking about that. (I will) just set a good example for the young guys and kind of teach them about some of the different rivalries that we have and how important those games are to the New York Giants as an organization."
As that comment indicates, Shepard's status will push him to become a more visible leader in this season of significant change for the Giants. Gone are the likes of Eli Manning and Zak DeOssie, who played in 457 regular-season and postseason games in 29 combined seasons. Second-year pro Daniel Jones will open a season as the starting quarterback for the first time. The Giants signed 14 veteran free agents who played elsewhere last season and drafted 10 players. Joe Judge is the new head coach and he has brought in 16 assistants who were not here a year ago.
"I would definitely say it's a fresh new start," said third-year running back Saquon Barkley. "I do think we are doing a great job of, especially when we are in Zoom meetings, understanding the history, understanding the guys before us. There is a tradition here. Shep is the longest-tenured Giant and he has only been in the league for five years. It's a fresh new start, we are learning every single day, on the offensive side and on the defensive side. Learning a new scheme and system and trying to focus on the little things to get better every single day. Capitalize on the things we are able to do."
Without Manning's long shadow, Jones will certainly be more vocal and confident this year. But the Giants need more players to fill a leadership void, as Barkley is the only one of the seven team captains from a year ago currently on the team. By virtue of his production and experience, Shepard is a candidate to earn a "C" on his jersey.
"If that's what ends up happening and that's the way my team sees me, then I'll be happy to wear that badge and take that role," he said. "I'm happy with whatever role. I can lead in different ways, like I have for the last four years that I've been here. Whichever role they have me in, I'm going to find a way to lead."
That will include continuing to talk about the team's rich history, which includes 696 regular-season victories (the third-highest total in the annals of the NFL), 32 postseason appearances, eight NFL championships and 21 Pro Football Hall of Famers.
Judge also wants his players to be aware of the franchise's long-term success.
"When we were going through the OTA period on the Zoom calls, the coaches would have some trivia questions for us, so we did this Kahoot! challenge to kind of get guys going and understanding the history of the organization," Shepard said. "Those were some of the different ways that we've already began to teach some of these newcomers and guys that really don't know much about the history of the Giants, a way to get them caught up.
"I think it's very important to know the history. You have to know what the guys before you have done and how they played football, and to continue to play that way because that's what this organization was built on and that's what it's used to. I think it's important and the coaches do as well. That's the reason they had us doing those different Kahoot! challenges and trivia questions."
"You have to understand your history and what we're known for," Barkley said. "The Giants are known for being tough, physical and doing the little things right. That's something that coach Judge and all the coaches have made a focal point for us in the short time that we have been here. That's what we try to attack every single day and try to get better every single day."
One key to finding that success is excelling in the offense that coordinator Jason Garrett brought to the Giants. Shepard, who is playing in his third system in five years, likes the scheme's versatility and is excited about its potential.
"It's an offense that utilizes everyone's skill set," Shepard said. "It's a lot of moving pieces as well, which I like about it. I like to move around the field and the guys that I've played with like to move around, too. It makes it tough on defenses. Those are some of the things that I like about it, just being able to utilize everyone's skill set."
The attack can thrive only with outstanding play from Jones, who Barkley believes will take strides in his pro sophomore season.
"Definitely excited for DJ," Barkley said. "We definitely got a lot closer from this point where we are from him being a rookie to us actually hanging out, working out together and stuff. He's a hard worker, he's a heck of a player, he's very talented. You just grow, not just saying system wise but as a player. Being more comfortable from your rookie year to your second year. I know for myself from my first year to my second year how much more comfortable I was just being in the locker room and talking with the guys. That's where you are going to grow and you are going to continue to see him grow in that area. He's a talented player and hard worker and I'm really excited to see what he is going to do this year."
Anyone with an interest in the Giants can make the same statement about Barkley, the first player in Giants history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons.
Barkley sang his customary song when asked what he wants to see from himself this season.
"What I want to seem from myself is just growth," he said. "I feel like I have been saying this answer so much in my first two years. I'm really focused on trying to get better in every area of my game. I feel like I have so much more room to continue to grow and there is so much I can continue to add to my game. I would say some big focal points are pass pro(tection), in between the tackles, outside the tackles, catching the ball, ball security. Every single day try to focus and try to get better in every area of my game. I am a big stickler when it comes to stuff like that. Definitely when our coaches sat down, they really have us focused on the details and all the little things matter. That's the focus and where I want to improve my game, which I guess you could say is everything."
For every player on the roster and the entire team, it's a good place to start.