Sterling Shepard and the New York Giants Have Been Perfect for Each Other

Shepard has excelled to start the season, and the Giants are benefiting. How is he doing it?

The 2016 NFL Draft class wasn’t necessarily supposed to offer a strong set of rookie wide receivers.

Still, four were taken in the first round of the draft in April.

Corey Coleman of the Cleveland Browns and Will Fuller of the Houston Texans quickly made impacts with big plays early in the season.

Josh Doctson has been getting some limited action for Washington while dealing with some nagging injuries, even if that action is on ill-advised goal line fades. Laquon Treadwell has only seen two offensive snaps in three games for the Minnesota Vikings.

Still, there appears to be more talent at the position than some had thought heading into the draft process.

Arguably the most impressive player of the group wasn’t selected in the first round. That just might be New York Giants receiver Sterling Shepard, who was taken in the second round.

Immediate Impact

Usually lined up in the slot next to either Odell Beckham or Victor Cruz, Shepard has been an integral part of the Giants’ passing game through the first three games. The Giants are allowing that to happen by keeping three wide receivers on the field or almost every offensive play.

Through the first three weeks, Beckham has been on the field for 99.5 percent of the Giants’ offensive snaps, Shepard is at 96 percent, and Cruz is at 94 percent.

Shepard is second on the team in targets, receptions, and receiving yards -- all behind Beckham -- but he also leads the team with two touchdowns. Though Shepard is behind Beckham in those raw categories, he’s been one of the most productive receivers in the league by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform, according to historical data.

There have been 74 wide receivers who have seen at least 15 targets through three weeks of the NFL season. Among them, Shepard ranks second in Reception NEP per target (1.22), behind only Willie Snead (1.48), who just missed Monday night’s game with an injury. That exact type of production won’t last a full season -- only one receiver was worth over a point per target with 100 or more targets last season.

Also among that group, Shepard has the best catch rate at 84.2 percent. Snead is second at 82.4 percent. Travis Benjamin and Cole Beasley are the only other two receivers at 80 percent or above, though both are well below Snead and Shepard in Reception NEP per target.

It should be obvious since Shepard is ranked second among qualified receivers, but he’s easily blowing away the production of the other rookie receivers through the first three weeks.

Five rookie receivers, including Shepard, have reached the 15-target mark so far, yet none of them have come close to Shepard’s production on the field.

Player Team Receptions Targets Rec NEP/Target (Rank) Catch Rate
Sterling Shepard NYG 16 19 1.22 (2) 84.2%
Will Fuller HOU 12 25 0.86 (20) 48%
Michael Thomas NO 17 22 0.67 (36) 77.2%
Tajae Sharpe TEN 14 25 0.44 (61) 56%
Tyler Boyd CIN 11 15 0.16 (73) 73.3%

Skill and Opportunity

To Shepard’s benefit, he did get drafted to an ideal place with the Giants. New York ranked 10th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play last season and currently ranks 9th through three games this year.

The Giants are willing to get all of their receivers involved, and Shepard has shown the traits needed to excel in the offense.

Shepard is only listed at 5’10”, but he can still play the “big” wide receiver game. He’s not afraid to go up high for passes, and he’s not easily overpowered at the catch point on contested passes.

Take a look at his first touchdown from Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys. Shepard lined up in the slot to the right and when the ball was snapped, he ran around the natural pick by the slant of Cruz.

This should have been enough to get Shepard wide open in the corner of the end zone -- and it was -- but the ball was underthrown, and Shepard needed to adjust and high point the ball over the defender for the touchdown. (Video courtesy NFL Game Pass.)

He’s also a terrific route runner, which allows him to create separation with ease.

In the Week 2 matchup against the New Orleans Saints, Shepard again lined up in the slot and sold a slant inside, but then he changed course and broke down the field, leaving the defender behind him for a 36-yard gain.

All of these skills were on display during his touchdown against Washington in Week 3.

Off the line, Shepard took a step inside, which fooled the nickel corner, and again, separation was created immediately, which allowed for an easy throw and catch for the touchdown.

Matchups and Moving Forward

It helps that the Giants’ first three games have been against defenses that currently rank in the bottom third of Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. Opponents will get a little tougher starting in Week 4 when they play the Minnesota Vikings, who rank sixth against the pass, on Monday Night Football.

In Week 5, they get the Green Bay Packers, who currently rank 28th by Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP before playing the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6, who rank 10th. Then they’ll head to London to face the Los Angeles Rams, who rank 11th, before a Week 7 bye.

Expecting Shepard to remain one of the NFL’s best receivers on a per-target basis for the rest of the season might not be a fair bar to set for the rookie. But so far he’s shown an ability to adapt and excel in the pro game. The Giants are going to continue to build on the passing game, and Shepard will be a big part of that plan going forward.