Sterling Shepard has been the Giants’ No. 1 wide receiver by default for the past few weeks, and it increasingly looks like he will serve in that capacity again if Odell Beckham Jr. misses his fourth straight game to end the season Sunday against Dallas.
With the Giants committing to Beckham long term with a $95 million contract during training camp, Shepard’s contract status also bears watching in the offseason.
His rookie deal has one more season remaining — at a salary-cap hit of $1.89 million — before the Giants must decide whether to keep their wideout tandem together or allow the 25-year-old Shepard to reach unrestricted free agency in 2020.
“I definitely feel like we can do great things if they keep us together. As long as we’re both out on the field, we’re gonna do our thing, man,” Shepard said after practice Thursday. “I look forward to that, to playing ball every Sunday with [Beckham], and hopefully we’ll be around here for a long time together.
“I want to be a Giant forever if I can, so that would be nice.”
Shepard has amassed a career-best 805 yards on 62 receptions with one game to play in an up-and-down third NFL campaign, including six catches for 113 yards with OBJ out of the lineup again with a quad injury in Sunday’s loss to Indianapolis.
Still, before that strong statistical performance against the Colts, Shepard hadn’t registered more than 37 receiving yards in any of his previous seven appearances since a 167-yard outburst (on five receptions) against Atlanta on Oct. 22.
After totaling eight touchdowns as a rookie, he has gotten into the end zone just six times over the past two seasons combined, with four TD grabs in 2018.
“I feel like you can never stop working on your craft as a receiver, running routes, catching the ball, improving on running after the catch as much as you can,” Shepard said. “I feel like I’ve progressed in some areas numbers-wise, and it’s been a pretty decent year personally, but as a team we didn’t do enough and didn’t do very good this year, so it’s kind of hard to really look at yourself.”
Indeed, the Giants reached the playoffs in Shepard’s rookie campaign as a second-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2016, but they’ve gone just 8-23 the past two seasons entering the finale against the playoff-bound Cowboys (9-6).
“I now realize how spoiled I was as a rookie, making the playoffs,” Shepard said. “It’s tough, man. It’s tough to win games in this league, and these last two years have been a struggle, a lot of ups and downs. But I feel like we’re almost there.”
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One day earlier, Shepard also had thrown his support behind Eli Manning to return as the team’s quarterback for a 16th season with the Giants.
“He still has it in him, in my eyes. … I don’t see where a lot of people come from when they say [otherwise],” Shepard said Wednesday. “I’d love [Manning back in 2019]. You never know what you’re getting in the draft or whatever and he’s proven he can play in this league. He’s been in this league for a long time doing his thing, so I’d love for him to be my QB.”
The Giants clearly still have holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but with the addition of No. 2-overall pick Saquon Barkley at running back — and with him and a healthy Beckham on the outside — Shepard said they are “on the right path.”
“We have the names and all the pieces to the puzzle, we just have to figure out now how to put it all together,” Shepard said. “Once we figure that out, we’ll be back on track.”