By Ralph Vacchiano
FOX Sports NFC East Writer
it giants the season has one primary goal: finding out if Daniel Jones is applicable NFL center back.
That’s the most important task for the new regime, and almost everything he did in the offseason was to help Jones by making sure he had a real chance to prove himself.
What he needs most, though, with about two weeks until the opener, is the one thing the Giants don’t really have: quality, healthy, NFL-caliber receivers.
That’s why the news Wednesday that Sterling Shepard was activated from the physically unable to perform list was such a big deal.
“This is my happy place,” Shepard said. “I’ve been itching, itching to get out there with the boys.”
The Giants have been itching to get him back, too, as the 29-year-old Shepard is coming back from a torn Achilles he suffered in December. And while the Giants were always optimistic, there was never any guarantee the 5-foot, 196-pound wideout would be ready for Opening Day.
He still has a long way to go in a short time. But if he’s ready, he could immediately become the No. 1 receiver. 1 of the giants, because the rest of the closet suddenly looks very bare.
“He’s been a good player,” Giants coach Brian Daboll said. “I think he can do a lot of things: good route runner, has speed, intelligence, can read the zone, reads man, understands coverages, has a lot of experience, played a lot of roles. So I’m excited to come out . here and work with him”.
It’s not just about what Shepard can do. It’s about the sad state of the rest of the Giants’ receiving corps. Kadarius Toney, their first-round pick from a year ago who looked dominant for a short time last season, has been in and out of practice this summer and is currently dealing with a foot injury.
With Toney and Shepard out, Collin Johnson was getting first-team reps, but he tore his Achilles on Wednesday. Depth had been such a concern that Johnson, who has 29 career catches, and David Sills, who has two, were no longer just fighting for a roster spot. According to Daboll, they were both “right in the mix … to play”.
That was an alarming statement, frankly, but it was true, because the host group basically focused on this: Kenny Golladay, who was an injury-plagued first year of his four-year, $72 million contract, and Wan’ Dale Robinson, the Giants’ 5-foot-8 second-round pick. They also have Darius Slayton, a former fifth rounder (2019) coming off a disappointing season, but he is dealing with an injury and could be a candidate to be traded before the season.
So while it’s nice that Jones has a beefed-up offensive line in front of him (when/if he’s healthy) and a young offense that Daboll perfected when calling plays for the Buffalo Bills, Jones’ receiving corps certainly leaves. much to be desired.
What Shepard brings to the mix is a certain professionalism, reliability and ability to open up. Playing for two truly terrible offenses and unimaginative passing games during the Joe Judge/Jason Garrett era in New York, Shepard was actually pretty good. He has caught 102 passes for 1,022 yards and four touchdowns in his last 19 games.
His biggest problem, however, is that those 19 games are all he’s played over the past two seasons. He hasn’t played more than 12 in any year since 2018.
But when he’s on the court, Shepard is a go-to player who should fit perfectly into Daboll’s offense. The head coach likes small, quick receivers who can play in the slot, get off the line of scrimmage quickly, go over the middle and make defenders miss. Daboll thinks Robinson can be incredibly effective in that role. Shepard is basically a bigger version of the starter.
He also has a lot of chemistry with Jones, who has never seemed to be the same way as Golladay. Shepard, entering his seventh season, has been with Jones since the beginning of his career. The QB has often relied on Shepard on big punts and third downs, and when Jones needed someone to bail him out of trouble when his offensive line was letting him down.
Shepard will also be more than motivated upon his return. He had to take a pay cut of nearly $7 million this season just to stay on the roster after new GM Joe Schoen inherited a payroll mess. And Shepard surely knows this is almost certainly his last season with the Giants. He knows he’s playing to prove he’s still got it — to resurrect his career, even though the rest of it may end up elsewhere.
“I love this place,” Shepard said. “I love everybody in this building. I’ve been here for seven years now, and it’s a blessing just to be here. You hear stories about other places around the league, and there’s no place like this. And this is where I wanted you to be.”
The Giants wanted him back, too, as a complementary piece to their new-look offensive puzzle. But with the state their host body is currently in, Shepard has a chance to be much more.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and the Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that he spent 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. A native of Long Island, NY and graduate of Syracuse University, he can be found on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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