Pushing the Pocket - Sterling Shepard Should Shine as a Rookie

Fahey looks at the best rookie receiver option for the 2016 season.

You probably haven't noticed, but Eli Manning has been one of the very best quarterbacks in the NFL over the past two seasons.

Manning's production fell to depths that few quarterbacks have ever managed to fall to back in 2013. A perfect storm saw him throw 27 interceptions while averaging below 7.0 yards per attempt and completing fewer than 58 percent of his passes. Manning was playing in an offense that required he hold the ball while executing deep drops in the pocket. The Giants didn't have the offensive line to hold up in those situations. He was in an offense that needed him to push the ball down the field to his wide receivers. Wide receivers who couldn't create separation downfield or win at the catch point. Manning couldn't rely on his running game or his defense, he did all he could do; He went down swinging.

Tom Coughlin never considered benching Manning. That may have been more about blind loyalty than incisive awareness but it was the right move. Manning wasn't the problem, he was just being dragged down by his situation.

After that season, the Giants sent Kevin Gilbride packing and hired Ben McAdoo to be the team's offensive coordinator. McAdoo then assumed Tom Coughlin's role as head coach after the 2015 season. McAdoo was hired to completely alter the identity of the Giants offense. He changed the scheme to put Manning in greater control. An offense that once forced the quarterback to hold the ball and push it downfield became an offense that was about quick throws that attaced the defense underneath. Manning's acumen was given greater prominence because he could now throw receivers open more easily and elevate his offensive line by getting rid of the ball quickly.

That scheme change and the addition of Odell Beckham completely altered the output that Manning offered. Over the past two years, Manning is one of five quarterbacks to throw at least 60 touchdowns and one of four to throw at least 65. He has the sixth-most yards over the past two years and he eclipsed his 27 interception total for the 2013 season by just one, 28, over the last two seasons combined. Manning went from averaging an interception every 20.4 attempts in 2013 to averaging an interception every 43.5 attempts.

Manning's turnaround has been very impressive. Not because his individual play has changed dramatically but rather because the rebuild of the supporting cast is still in its early stages. Adding Beckham to the offense overshadowed how limited and inconsistent the personnel on the Giants still is. Not only is the offensive line still inadequate and the running game still unreliable, the Giants receiving corps surpassed Beckham has been borderline awful.

In 2015, the Giants relied on Reuben Randle, Dwayne Harris, Myles White, Hakeem Nicks, Larry Donnell, Will Tye and Preston Parker. Charting for the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue revealed that Manning lost 62 receptions for at least 563 yards and at least five touchdowns to receiver error last year. Only three quarterbacks lost more receptions than Manning. He lost a reception once every 10 attempts, only seven quarterbacks lost a reception to a receiver more often.

Having no second option to Beckham has been detrimental to Manning's production but more importantly it has prevented one of the most profitable spots in the league from flourishing. The second receiver in the Giants offense should be an extremely valuable commodity. He should catch 80+ passes and be extremely productive while doing so because of the quality of service that Manning provides.

Victor Cruz was supposed to be that guy, but injury prevented him from getting on the field at all last year. Although Cruz is more hopeful of seeing the field this year, Sterling Shepard should be the Giants' second receiver.

Shepard is a perfect fit in the Giants offense. The rookie primarily played in the slot at Oklahoma but has a skill set that should allow him to line up outside in the Giants scheme. Regardless of whether Shepard stays inside or outside, he will be on the field a lot in 2016 because the Giants used three or more receivers 83 percent of the time last year, the second-highest percentage in the league. 

The above chart tracks every qualifying throw (it excludes intentional throwaways, passes tipped at the line of scrimmage and spikes) from Manning's 2015 season. As the chart shows, the majority of the Giants offense is focused within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. 

Shepard has the quickness to elude defenders on slants, crossing routes and sharper breaking routes out or infield. He is also a dangerous option on screen plays having been an effective punt returner in college. In the above give, the cornerback across from Shepard in the right slot doesn't line up in press at the line of scrimmage but is aggressive in his attempt to cover Shepard. Shepard shows off a combination of traits that the Giants will love. He is very quick to run his route but he also sells his route with one hard step towards the outside and a head fake.

The defender attempting to cover Shepard here has no chance of doing so, giving the receiver a relatively simply 10 yards.

From the same game against Baylor, this play shows off a few different elements of Shepard's skill set. The gif has been slowed down so we can look at it in different stages. Initially, Shepard runs a precise route within the timing of the play. He exploits the zone coverage and creates a window where he could catch a first down pass if targeted. He isn't targeted though so Shepard continues on to extend his route. Staying alive once the quarterback extends the play is a sometimes overrated and sometimes underrated aspect of the position. Playing with Manning isn't like playing with Roethlisberger but the Giants quarterback will show patience and hold the ball when he has to.

Having extended his route, Shepard successfully finds space before making a catch with a defender on his back. Importantly he protected the ball while still showing the strength and balance to shrug off the body latching onto his back. Shepard was able to turn upfield and maintain his momentum to extend the gain.

Shepard's quickness and route precision is reminiscent of Wes Welker. Welker was one of the most under-appreciated players in the NFL over the past decade as his success was too often pushed off onto the system or the quarterback he caught the ball from. Like Shepard, Welker found good fits for his skill set but his skill set was still extremely impressive. Not only does Shepard possess that kind of quickness and precision, he is aware of coverages and understands how to protect himself.

Of course, Shepard isn't just a short-route receiver either. He has the explosiveness to get in behind the defense and the ball skills to make plays at the catch point downfield.

At this point of the offseason, Shepard has an ADP of 80 in recent MFL Public Leagues. That is about right overall but arguments could be made for him over Corey Coleman, Marvin Jones Jr and DeSean Jackson who are the receivers immediately ahead of him. Shepard has a stronger situation than each of those receivers, which should make up for his relative lack of experience or individual quality.

This year's rookie wide receiver class wasn't a celebrated one during draft time, but the landing spots of Sterling Shepard, Laquon Treadwell and Michael Thomas have given us three intriguing prospects for fantasy purposes. Coleman has more question marks due to the offense he is coming from and the offense he is being plugged into, but the potential for him to put up big numbers is also there. Shepard is the safest pick of the group and should be the favorite to outproduce his fellow classmates come the end of the season.

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