EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Exactly four weeks after his teammates participated in their first training camp practice, Sterling Shepard joined them on the field for his 2022 debut. That meant Shepard could finally wear his white No. 3 jersey and not the stay-away-from-him red shirt worn by players who are rehabbing injuries and not practicing.
"We had to burn that joint," Shepard said with a laugh. "I don't ever want to see it again."
That's understandable, because the Giants' seven-year veteran had been the receiver in red since the first spring workouts. But Shepard passed his physical this morning and soon put on his pads and helmet for the first time since tearing his Achilles tendon last December. He was as ecstatic as he's ever been running routes in a late August workout.
"This is my happy place," Shepard said. "When I'm not out there and able to be with my guys, it's stressful. I've been itching, itching at the bit to get out there with the guys."
Shepard was injured with less than two minutes remaining in the Giants' loss to Dallas in MetLife Stadium on Dec. 19. He was placed on the active/physically unable to perform list when training camp opened. Though he was officially on the roster, Shepard was prohibited from practice and was limited to rehabilitating and running routes on a side field.
Today, he took part in individual position, offensive and full team drills.
"Felt great just being back on the field," Shepard said. "I mean, it's a blessing. Especially when you go through an injury like that and you've been on the sidelines for so long watching those guys get after it, you got to take every day and cherish them. Because you never know when you have to sit out that long. I was just blessed to be out there and happy to be out there with my guys."
Shepard doesn't know if he will play in the Giants' preseason finale Sunday afternoon against the Jets. He hopes to be ready for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener at Tennessee, but his availability will be determined by the Giants' medical staff.
"That's what I'm pushing for," Shepard said. "That's what I've worked my tail off for, but I'm hoping that's the case. I just got to keep doing my thing day-by-day, and we'll see what happens.
"I'm just listening to the guys and telling, asking them, just listening to them and whatever they tell me to do, and wherever they see me progressing, that's what I'm going to go with. I'll listen to the trainers, and (senior vice president medical services/head athletic trainer) Ronnie (Barnes) and those guys. They know best."
Coach Brian Daboll will not give Shepard an onerous workload right away.
"I think we'll just ramp it up," Daboll said prior to practice. "Take it day-by-day. See where he's at after today with some of the stuff we ask him to do. But he's rehabbed well. He's done a good job. So, it will be good to get him back out here. He's a good player for us."
"Obviously, this is my first day back, and it was a full pad practice," Shepard said. "I haven't had on pads since I got hurt. It was kind of tough being thrown in the fire with the pads on, but I just got to kind of take it day-by-day, limited contact. Some of the team reps, they're throwing me in slowly. But I work my way up and get my conditioning and my wind up. I've been playing this game since I was six years old, so kind of know what it looks like."
At one point in practice, Shepard motioned left, stopped and ran to the right and then reversed direction again.
"That was like a suicide (drill)," Shepard said. "I ain't going to lie. I was tired today. It was tough today, but we got through it. Looking forward to tomorrow.
"All that running on the side doesn't really compare to being out there at practice and actually going through drills and going through team (situations)."
Shepard's return does not put the wide receiver group at full strength. Kadarius Toney was in pads today but did not participate in team drills. Darius Slayton worked on the side. Neither played in Sunday night's 25-22 victory against Cincinnati. Collin Johnson, who had an outstanding camp, tore his Achilles tendon in practice today and was placed on injured reserve.
Shepard will provide an infusion of talent and experience.
"He's been a good player," Daboll said. "I think he can do a wide variety of things. Good route runner. Got quickness. Intelligence. Can read zone. Read man. Understands the coverages. Has a lot of experience. Played multiple roles. So, I'm excited to get out here and work with him."
Shepard, a 2016 second-round draft choice, is the longest-tenured Giant by two years (Saquon Barkley and Nick Gates arrived in 2018). He is one of the most productive receivers in franchise history. His 349 catches place him eighth all-time, 18 behind Frank Gifford. Shepard is 17th on the Giants' career list with 3,884 receiving yards. With 21 touchdown receptions, he is tied with Stephen Baker for 21st in Giants history. Shepard's 10 100-yard games are tied for the ninth-most on the team's all-time list with Plaxico Burress and Lionel Manuel.
Most of that production occurred when Shepard lined up in the slot. But Daboll believes Shepard's versatility can be an asset.
"I think he really can play any spot we need him to play watching him on tape," Daboll said. "He's been productive inside. He can run stuff outside. He has an ability to create separation, which helps the quarterback. Again, he's a veteran that's played some football, has a good rapport with (quarterback) Daniel (jones). It'll be good to just throw him in the mix. Told him he's going to have to learn a lot of spots."
Shepard will happily do whatever he is asked. Injuries limited him to just seven games last season, when he had career-low totals of 36 receptions, 366 yards and one touchdown. Shepard is eager not only to have a big year, but to enjoy playing the game and interacting with his teammates.
"I love this place," Shepard said. "I love everybody in this building. I've been here for seven years now, and it's been a blessing just being here. You hear stories about other places around the league, and there's no place like here. And this is where I wanted to be. This is where I want my family to be, and I'm glad we could make it work.
"My number one focus is getting this team on the right track. It's been a while since I won games, so that's my number one goal is to get this team and to get this franchise back to where we're supposed to be. … I'm going to do my best to stay back, stay out there with my guys. I mean, I love the game and I love being around them. That's one of my favorite things in the world besides my kids and my family – being out here playing with those guys. So, I'm just going to cherish every day."
*Daboll said the Giants "could" still sign a kicker this week in response to Graham Gano suffering a concussion against Cincinnati.
"But if he's ready to go toward the end of the week, we probably won't, obviously," Daboll said.
*Several players who did not suit up for the Bengals game returned to practice in various degrees of participation. They included running backs Matt Breida and Gary Brightwell; offensive linemen Jon Feliciano, Joshua Ezeudu, Jamil Douglas and Ben Bredeson; defensive lineman Leonard Williams; and defensive back Cor'Dale Flott.
*The Giants will host the Jets for a joint practice tomorrow.
*The Giants terminated the contract of wide receiver Robert Foster (hamstring) with an injury settlement. Foster was placed on injured reserve last Friday. He was signed by the Giants on March 14. Foster caught 32 passes in 30 games for Buffalo and Washington from 2018-20.
View photos from the career of Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard.