New York Giants: What will Sterling Shepard’s role in the offense be in 2021?

New York Giants, Sterling Shepard

The New York Giants‘ offense has undergone significant changes this offseason. The Giants acquired a bunch of talented playmakers to inject into what was a lifeless offense. In 2020, the Giants averaged a putrid 17.5 points per game, second-to-last in the NFL. The only offensive unit worse than the Giants was the Jets.

That should change this year, though, as the Giants made some offensive big splashes in free agency in the draft. New York landed free agency’s top wide receiver on the market this year in Kenny Golladay. They also added one of the most reliable tight ends in the NFL in Kyle Rudolph. They then doubled down by selecting explosive slot receiver Kadarius Toney in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

The Giants’ offensive weaponry has been overhauled with new, high-quality playmakers. But this influx of talent might give Daniel Jones too many mouths to feed, leaving the playmakers that were already on the roster hungry. Some players, like Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard, are expected to have their roles change significantly next season.

Giants fans are excited by the addition of Kadarius Toney. However, with Golladay entering the lineup as the team’s new X-receiver, and Toney on board as a new slot receiver, where does Sterling Shepard fall into place?

Where Sterling Shepard might fall into place

Sterling Shepard has been playing outside for two years now

Many fans typically think of Sterling Shepard as a slot receiver. However, since 2019, Shepard has played as an outside receiver. In 2019, Shep played 331 snaps out wide and 256 inside. The loss of Odell Beckham Jr. and the gain of Golden Tate forced Shepard to kick out wide that season after playing from the slot in 2016, 2017, and 2018. He started the season in the slot while Tate missed the first four games due to suspension, but once Golden Tate returned Shepard moved outside for the rest of the year.

Sterling continued playing predominantly outside in 2020. 356 of his offensive snaps came out wide with only 190 in the slot this past season. Shepard was typically playing the Z-receiver role in 2020 with Darius Slayton lining up as the team’s X-receiver. Slayton has a bit more size, physicality, and vertical prowess, making him a better fit on the line of scrimmage. Shepard’s excellent route running and experience in the slot made him a good fit for the outside Z-receiver position.

But frankly, Darius Slayton’s production at X-receiver was not good enough last year, which is why the Giants made it a point to go out and sign Kenny Golladay. Will this cause Slayton to move across the field to the Z-position If so, what happens to Sterling Shepard? Does he move back into the slot? Or is that position going to be earned by rookie Kadarius Toney?

Should Shep play inside or outside?

Sterling Shepard has been playing primarily outside for the past two years, but the seasons where Shepard played in the slot have been the best of his career. From 2016-2018 (slot), Shepard averaged 63.3 receptions, 762 yards, and 4.7 touchdowns per year. From 2019-2020 (outside), Sterling averaged 61.5 receptions, 616 yards, and 3 touchdowns per year.

Part of the reason why Shepard’s career-best seasons were in the slot is that he was playing alongside Odell Beckham. The Giants had a dominant WR1 in Beckham, something they’ve been missing since 2019. Now, with the arrival of Kenny Golladay, New York has its WR1 again. This should allow Sterling Shepard to thrive, returning to playing a complementary receiving role as he did with Odell.

Ultimately, Sterling Shepard should see snaps rotating inside and outside this season. He has the ability to play the Z-receiver or slot receiver roles with great efficiency. Darius Slayton should see a fair amount of snaps on the field, though his total is likely to decrease from last season. But the Giants also need to work Kadarius Toney into the lineup. This could open things up for the Giants to run a lot more four-receiver sets on offense. But it could also open things up for Sterling Shepard to play a more versatile role in the offense.

One of the reasons Sterling Shepard has had such a successful career is his versatility. He can play inside, outside, and do both at a high level. When the Giants want Darius Slayton on the field, Sterling Shepard should play in the slot. When the team wants Kadarius Toney on the field, Sterling Shepard should replace Slayton out wide. Sterling Shepard is the second-best receiver on the New York Giants’ roster right now, so the team needs to keep him on the field as much as possible.

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