Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

22 Sep 2016

Film Room: Sterling Shepard

by Cian Fahey

From the moment Victor Cruz tore his patellar tendon in 2014, to the moment he stepped back on the field at the beginning of this season, Eli Manning completed 625 passes for 7,317 yards and 51 touchdowns. Manning thrived in spite of Cruz's absence by relying heavily on Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham caught 182 of Manning's 625 completions (29 percent), 2,701 of his 7,317 yards (37 percent) and 24 of his 51 touchdowns (47 percent). It wasn't that Manning was just throwing the ball up and relying on Beckham to drag him to production. It was that the Giants didn't have a replacement for Cruz. They didn't have a second receiver who could consistently get open or consistently catch the ball. Hence why Beckham's percentage of completions is significantly lower than his percentage of yards and touchdowns.

Finding reliable receivers for Manning has been a major problem for Giants general manager Jerry Reese for a while now. The Giants' lack of quality last year was touched on in a recent Film Room on Manning, but this has been an ongoing issue. Of the 36 receivers (including tight ends) who have caught a pass from Manning since 2010, eight are either on the Giants active roster or on the Giants IR. Just three from the remaining 28 made an NFL roster this year. Martellus Bennett, who played just one season in New York, plays for the New England Patriots. Brandon Myers is the fourth-choice tight end in Tampa Bay, while Louis Murphy hopes to be the Buccaneers' third-choice receiver when he comes off the PUP list. Of the 14 active players to catch a pass from Manning since 2013, 12 are now free agents who couldn't make NFL rosters.

Cruz's return at the beginning of this season coincided with the debut of Sterling Shepard. Shepard was picked early in the second round of last April's draft. So far it looks like he should have gone 20 picks or so higher.

Shepard has been treated like Cruz and Beckham. He is firmly a part of the team's trio of receivers around whom the passing game revolves. Each has played more than 90 percent of the offense's snaps. Head coach Ben McAdoo runs a shotgun-heavy, quick-throw-inclined offense that relies on three-receiver sets. With these three specific receivers, McAdoo has players with interchangeable skill sets. Beckham, Cruz, and Shepard are all refined route-runners with impressive ball skills and the explosiveness to create big plays downfield. Unsurprisingly, they have combined for 31 of Manning's 51 completions, 444 of his 575 yards, and two of his three touchdowns so far.

Surprisingly, they have done that with the two veterans combining to ruin all of Manning's biggest plays in Week 2.

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Beckham can't make this contested catch on fourth down during the first quarter. It's a contested catch, but the ball goes through Beckham's hands and hits him in the chest. A receiver of Beckham's quality should expect to make that play.

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Early in the second quarter, Cruz shows off his route-running and YAC ability, but fails to secure the ball through the end of the play.

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In the fourth quarter, Manning threw two darts down the left sideline. One was dropped by Beckham, the other was dropped by Cruz. Beckham's was wide open and Cruz's was contested, but both should have been completed regardless.

These negative plays will feel all too familiar to Giants fans, but Beckham and Cruz aren't Rueben Randle and Preston Parker. We can rationally expect Beckham and Cruz to correct these errors moving forward because they have proven themselves over large samples to be reliable receivers. Both will drop passes. Neither will drop so many that they hurt their overall quality. Beckham made a slow start last year and still finished the season with 1,450 yards and 13 touchdowns in 15 games. Cruz needs to prove himself more since he has been on the sideline for so long. After his fourth-quarter drop, Cruz made two plays that helped the Giants seal victory.

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With the score tied 13-13, the Giants offense faces a second-and-12 at its own 45-yard line. An incompletion on this play would set up an extremely difficult third down with more than two minutes left on the clock. Cruz is lined up to the top of the screen. The defensive back across from him initially shows aggressive press coverage, but bails out of that when the ball is snapped. Cruz hesitates at the line of scrimmage initially. He is setting himself up to react to any jam from the cornerback. Because the cornerback bails, Cruz has to quickly accelerate downfield. He pushes the route vertically to the point that the defensive back thinks he is going to run past the first-down marker. Manning's pass is perfectly placed and perfectly timed for Cruz to pluck the ball out of the air.

Although he didn't get the first down, Cruz set up a manageable third down. Sterling Shepard converted the third-and-1, which eventually led to Cruz's next target.

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Immediately after Beckham dropped that deep ball down the left sideline, Manning threw the ball to Cruz down the right sideline. This was one of the few passes from Manning on the day that wasn't perfect. Cruz had to wrestle the ball away from the defensive back, who played good coverage. Not only did Cruz need to locate and attack the ball in the air, the Giants receiver had to show off strength in his hands to maintain control as the defensive back attempted to pull it away. Cruz completed the catch through to the ground and set the Giants up to run out the clock before kicking the game-winning field goal.

The cornerback played good coverage on this route, but it was a good route from Cruz too. He released into the cornerback's chest before threatening the inside with a hard plant on his left foot. The cornerback responded to that action by trying to hit Cruz's upper body with his inside hand. Cruz responded quickly, showing off aggression and strength to knock the cornerback's hand away. This allowed him to continue upfield at speed.

Running this route would have been impressive in a vacuum. The context around this play for Cruz makes it even more so. Cruz had played more than 90 percent of the snaps in this game, and it was late in the fourth quarter. For a receiver who has gone through what he has gone through, it would have been easy to run a slacker route. Cruz clearly makes conditioning a priority.

Beckham is the unquestioned top target in the Giants offense. His explosiveness and ball skills separate him from most of the receivers in the league. Shepard has been the best receiver on the Giants offense so far this year though.

The above chart tracks all of Shepard's catchable targets from the season so far. The green dots represent targets that Shepard caught. The red dots represent targets he Shepard didn't catch. There are no red dots.

Shepard has caught every target that has gone his way except for one. That one wasn't catchable. It became an interception as Shepard appeared to run the wrong route. Besides that mistake and one play where he didn't line up correctly, Shepard has been flawless. He's not getting schemed open, and he's not reliant on Manning throwing him open. He has actually helped Manning as much as Manning has helped him to this point. The rookie receiver has repeatedly made adjustments to passes that weren't perfectly placed.

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On this touchdown in Week 1, Shepard lined up in the slot and ran around his outside receiver to put the defensive back in a trailing position. Ideally, this pass would have been thrown with a different trajectory. Manning hangs it up in the air slightly too much instead of pushing it further into the end zone to lead Shepard away from the trailing defender. By hanging the ball a little, Manning forces Shepard to stop in his route and turn to attack the ball in the air. Shepard had a 41-inch vertical leap at the combine, tied with Josh Doctson were tied for the best mark. Shepard used that 41-inch vertical to rise above the defensive back on this play. He made a hands catch away from his body with the defender's left arm between his chest and the ball. That left arm put pressure on Shepard to hold onto the ball away from his body as he fell to the ground. He could eventually bring it into his body, but had to show off the strength to maintain control throughout the catch.

Athleticism and ball skills mean the 5-foot-10 receiver isn't held back by his height.

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The comfort with which Shepard adjusts to passes consistently stands out. He recognizes the flight of the ball quickly and, with his size and athleticism, is able to contort his body to catch the ball with his hands consistently. In the above play, Manning's pass doesn't lead his receiver to space like it should. Shepard catches the ball, but that is not what's impressive. He is able to catch the ball without stopping or turning back through it. At the point the ball arrives, his lower body is still moving forward while his upper body contorts to bring the ball in. This makes the catch more difficult, but it allows Shepard to continue moving towards the space in front of him. On this specific play he isn't able to escape for a huge gain, but if the defender had been a step slower Shepard would have allowed himself to run downfield for a 30- or 40-yard gain.

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In the above GIF, Shepard is forced to reach back for a ball that should have been thrown towards the sideline for him to run underneath. His ball skills are again put on show. This play also shows off his route-running ability. If every available receiver had been on the board when the Giants picked Shepard in the draft, chances are they would still have picked him. Shepard is a perfect fit in McAdoo's scheme because of his ability to make plays such as the one above. His quickness through his routes with his low center of gravity and strength make it very difficult to track him in tight man coverage. Even if you can track him tightly, he understands timing and cuts with precision to take advantage of your aggression. On this play, he badly beats the defensive back who attempts to knock him over as a last resort. Shepard absorbs the hit and continues his route downfield.

Had Manning led him towards the sideline more, Shepard would have had a chance to run in a 52-yard touchdown. This was a difficult throw, so that's not necessarily a criticism of Manning.

Cruz, Shepard, and Beckham give the Giants three intelligent route-runners -- three receivers who can beat any kind of coverage and adapt to any kind of game plan the defense undertakes. If you blitz a lot, they can get open quickly and punish you with the ball in their hands. If you sit back in coverage, they can find the soft spots to move the chains or create big plays. With Manning as one of the smarter quarterbacks in the NFL throwing them the ball, the potential for this passing game is higher than Shepard's vertical.

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In the above GIF, the Saints send five defenders after Manning while playing man coverage behind. Shepard is a vicious slant-runner, and he perfectly executes this route against aggressive coverage. The pivotal point in the route comes when the defender is closest to the receiver. When the defender attempts to latch onto Shepard with two hands, Shepard uses his inside hand to subtly push off the defender's inside shoulder. This creates a pocket of space for him to push away from the defensive back infield.

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One of Shepard's receptions against the Cowboys in Week 1 came on a slant where the cornerback didn't engage him. Shepard pushed the cornerback wide during his release before maintaining some verticality in his stem. Once he made his second sharper cut, the cornerback had been completely taken out of the play by the speed and precision of Shepard's route.

If you look back to Shepard's reception chart from earlier in this article, you'll notice how much he works the middle of the field. That is a tough task for any receiver, because you have to know how to adjust to different coverages and you have to be prepared to take hits from much bigger players while running routes that prevent you from protecting yourself.

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Because defenses won't feel comfortable playing man-to-man against such a talented receiving corps and quarterback, the Giants should face a lot of crowded zone coverage this year. That will theoretically force Manning to hold the ball behind a suspect offensive line. On those plays, Manning will be relying on his receivers to adjust to the coverage and find soft spots quickly so he can get rid of the ball. So far, Shepard has proven to be just as effective as Cruz and Beckham when targeted. In the above GIF, Shepard has two options. He can run across the field underneath on a drag route ,or he can settle his route down if he finds space. Against this zone coverage, it doesn't make sense for Shepard to continue his route across the field because there is a linebacker waiting for him. He can see this early in his route.

Instead of continuing across the field, Shepard settles down at a point that is almost equidistant to the two closest defenders. This gives Manning an outlet for 6 yards.

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Shepard's ability to adjust is useful outside of structure also. On this play from the Week 1 game against the Cowboys, Manning is flushed from the pocket by quick pressure. He buys time by escaping into the flat, but needs Shepard to find the soft spot in the zone downfield for an outlet. This play gained 20 yards and a first down when the Giants were trailing by six during the fourth quarter. Last year, this throw would have gone to Dwayne Harris or Preston Parker, neither of whom were likely to find the soft spot in the zone (and if Parker did he was more likely to drop the ball than catch it). Shepard's value can only be fully appreciated when you understand who he has replaced.

Despite the relatively rough start, the Giants receivers should blend efficiency and explosive plays together better than any other offense in the NFL this year. If the defense maintains its strong play to start the season, the Giants could develop into a contender.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 22 Sep 2016

3 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2016, 8:26pm by JasonK

Comments

1
by MikeG40 :: Thu, 09/22/2016 - 3:30pm

"Of the 14 active players to catch a pass from Manning since 2013, 12 are now free agents who couldn't make NFL rosters."

Jerry Reese, good job. Let's hope Mara threatening to fire him has finally woken him up. Shepard looks great and already has chemistry with Eli. It's amazing Eli has been productive as he is with basically just one weapon. As their timing and chemistry grow, Eli's throws will be more on the money to Sterling. Not that they aren't already. Not every throw has to be perfect and not one QB in the league throws perfect passes on every pass. That's unrealistic.

But shout out to that throw Eli made to Victor Cruz. WOW. Not the game winning one, but the one Victor dropped. Eli is a right-handed QB moving to his left and he throws that dime right into Victor's hands...who proceeded to drop it. But that throw from Eli Manning was unreal. He's also one of the smartEST QBs playing.

2
by Independent George :: Thu, 09/22/2016 - 5:08pm

Jerry Reese, good job. Let's hope Mara threatening to fire him has finally woken him up.

Hey, it worked for Coughlin, right?

3
by JasonK :: Thu, 09/22/2016 - 8:26pm

To be fair, a lot of those names are either guys who got hurt, or street-free-agent-level fill-ins who only played because the starters/backups got hurt. (Remember the Brown/Wilson/Jacobs/Hillis/Cox/Scott/Hynoski/Conner rotating cast at RB/FB in 2013?)