Sterling Shepard showed in his second season that he can be a leader amongst teammates:
Receivers like to greet each other in the end zone, not in line for the MRI machine.
But that's the kind of season it was for the Giants in 2017.
Instead of doing their handshake routine following a big play, they offered embraces of consolation while awaiting their fates after four of them went down in the Giants' Week 5 loss to the Chargers, their fifth in a row to start what would be a disappointing season. Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Dwayne Harris, who combined for more than 300 games of experience and 10 Pro Bowls, were lost for the year. Sterling Shepard, the only one to avoid the injured reserve list that day, suddenly became the leader of a group heralded as one of the best in the league before the season started.
"You don't really have to expect to do that, especially your second year being in the NFL," Shepard recently told Giants.com in a season recap. "But some guys went down. I found myself being the leader in that room, so I tried to conduct myself that way."
Shepard, who turns 24 years old next month, had to grow up quickly in his sophomore year. But before he could do that, the Giants' second-round draft pick in 2016 had to get healthy himself. He re-injured an ankle from the summer, causing him to miss two games before the bye week.
After the break, Shepard went on to record the two biggest games of his young career. In Week 10, he posted 11 catches for 142 yards on the road against the 49ers. In Week 15, he again had 11 catches for 139 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown against a top-five defense in a near-upset of the NFC East champion Eagles. It was the second-longest play of his career. The longest was a 77-yard score earlier in the year – also against Philadelphia.
With those explosive plays, Shepard achieved his top individual goal.
"Just having confidence that I can break those long runs and just having the run after catch, that's something that I really worked on over the offseason," he said. "So to see it come alive was pretty cool to see."
Despite playing in five fewer games – he missed two more with migraines and the finale due to a neck injury – Shepard improved his yardage from his rookie season, when he played the full 16-game schedule. In 2016, he posted 683 yards receiving, 256 yards after catch, and three plays of 25 yards or more. In 2017, he had 731, 316, and five, respectively.
That brings us to the next step for Shepard 3.0.
"I always feel like route-running is the big thing," Shepard said. "So I'm always going to be constantly working on that, and then just catching the ball first before I try to make moves – focusing on that, too. But always yards after the catch. I think that's the biggest thing."