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Game Preview: Sterling Shepard 'taking it all in'

STERLING-SHEPARD-MODERNA

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – His Giants career is likely coming to an end, but Sterling Shepard is still answering questions about its beginning.

"I just had some young guys ask me, Jalin (Hyatt) asked me what was your first game like? What was your first catch?" Shepard said this week. "And I was like, 'I don't remember my first catch, but I know I scored in my first NFL game, and it was a pretty nice touchdown.' Then, the next week I came back against the Saints and had a 100-yard game. And they said, 'How did you feel after that?' I was like, 'Man, I was thinking this is just like college, it's pretty damn easy.' But it's not as easy as you think. You can't ever get comfortable, man. You got to keep on going."

That's what Shepard has done for eight Giants seasons. Since he arrived as a second-round draft choice in 2016, Shepard has played in 89 games and for four head coaches, caught passes from eight different quarterbacks, and compiled enough receptions, yards, and touchdowns to rank among the most productive wide receivers in franchise history. He has been a mentor to young teammates and a friend to members of the team's support staff. When he joined the team, he was "Young Shep." Now, he's 31 and since 2020, he's been the team's longest-tenured player.

When the Giants host the Philadelphia Eagles in the season finale, Shepard knows it could be his last appearance in a Giants uniform.

"It's been a great ride and I'm just looking forward to taking it all in and walking out of that tunnel," Shepard said. "That's my most favorite thing about football, just running out of that tunnel. The feeling you get, it's indescribable. I'm looking forward to that, for sure."

Coach Brian Daboll asked Shepard to break down the team after practice Friday. As a tribute, Shepard is expected to be the last Giants player to run out of tunnel in pregame introductions. Has he come to terms that his Giants career is likely coming to an end?

"For sure," Shepard said. "It is what it is. I think this point in time comes for everybody at some point throughout their career. I just look at how blessed I've been to be in the same spot for eight years. It's been a blessing."

View photos from the career of Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard.

Shepard was the 40th overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, from Oklahoma. For the record, the first time Eli Manning threw him a pass, he caught it for a 14-yard completion. When Manning next targeted Shepard, the result was a 9-yard touchdown pass. He finished with four receptions for 43 yards in a 20-19 victory against the Cowboys in Dallas.

"That first touchdown was pretty meaningful for me, because my grandpa was able to be at that game and before he passed, he got to see me play in the league and get my first touchdown," Shepard said. "That's something that really sticks out to me."

In his MetLife Stadium debut a week later, Shepard had eight receptions for 117 yards in a win against New Orleans. Odell Beckham, Jr. also caught eight passes in that game. Shepard started every game his rookie season and finished with 65 catches for 683 yards and eight touchdowns, twice as many scores as he had in any other year. No wonder he thought it was easy.

But Shepard played in 16 games just once more, in 2018, when he caught a career-high 66 passes. He missed time due to injuries in every other season. In 2017, ankle and neck issues and an illness cost him five games. Two years later, he missed six games with a concussion. In 2020, a toe injury forced him out of four games, but he still finished with 66 catches. Shepard played only five games in 2021 because of a quad injury and a torn Achilles tendon, and three in 2022, when he tore his ACL.

He still regularly attended practice and often traveled to road games, which is unusual for a player on injured reserve. His teammates and coaches lauded his attitude and commitment.

But the Giants began adding younger receivers to their roster. Kadarius Toney (since traded) in 2021, Wan'Dale Robinson and Isaiah Hodgins in 2022, Jalin Hyatt this season. Shepard, who turns 31 next month, found it crowded in the slot, where he had excelled.

He has played just 12 percent of the offensive snaps (125) this season. Shepard has only seven receptions for 39 yards. He scored his only touchdown with six seconds remaining in a 32-point loss in Dallas on Nov. 12.

Statistics aside, Shepard is thrilled he returned to the field after suffering serious injuries the previous two years.

"That was huge for me, being able to walk out on my own terms and not letting an injury dictate what I do," he said. "Play time hasn't really been there, but I can say I walked off that field and I've given it all I had, every single time that I've strapped on the pads. I'm not perfect, nobody is perfect in this game, but I can say that I give max effort every single time that I've been out there and that's something to hang your hat on."

As are his career accomplishments. Shepard's 369 receptions place him sixth in franchise history, just two behind Jeremy Shockey. His 4,077 yards are the franchise's 16th-highest total. Shockey is 15th with 4,228. Shepard's 23 touchdown receptions place him in a three-way tie for 18th place. When he did not catch a pass in the season opener vs. Dallas, it ended Shepard's 64-game streak with at least one reception in games in which he played. That was the fifth-longest streak in franchise history.

Perhaps Shep will add to his totals Sunday. Whether he does or not, he will walk out of the stadium with his head held high.

"I've had so many great memories just being here and built so many great relationships and that's been a blessing," Shepard said. "It's all a blessing at the end of the day. Since I was a little kid, I've told teachers who asked, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' 'I want to be an NFL football player,' and I've reached my goal. Not too many people can say in life that they get to live out their dream and I've done just that every step of the way. I wanted to be a college football player, I wanted to be an NFL player, I've done that. It's a blessing, the whole thing. If this is the end, then I just look at it that way, it truly is a blessing. It's been ups and downs, but it's been a great ride if that's the case."

*Some leftover stats from last week:

*Robinson has nine rushing attempts for 87 yards this season. Those are the highest totals by a Giants wide receiver since Alvin Garrett had nine attempts in 1980 and Amani Toomer 91 yards in 2000.

*The Giants' 19 takeaways since Week 10 lead the NFL. They have 27 takeaways this season, their highest total since they had 28 in 2015. Their 16 interceptions are the most they've had since they had 16 in 2018.

*The Giants' current turnover differential is plus-9, their highest figure since they were + 14 in 2012.

*The Giants have not scored a first-possession touchdown this season. If they don't score one tomorrow, it will be the first year since 1997 they went an entire season without one.

View rare photos of the historic rivalry between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles.