Sterling Shepard: The Path to WR1 Fantasy Season
Editor’s Note – Check out The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Season: Series Guide to see how our writers compile their projections and the methodology behind this series.
Each season, the Fantasy Footballers writing staff highlights the path to a WR1 season for players ranked outside the top 15 in the consensus rankings for Andy, Mike, and Jason. Up next, we dig a little deeper into one of the WRs highlighted in my Third Year WR Breakout Article, Sterling Shepard. Shepard checks in as the consensus WR36 for Andy, Mike, and Jason in their WR rankings.
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Sterling Shepard was drafted with the 9th pick of the second round in the 2016 NFL Draft. Coming out Oklahoma, the New York Giants drafted Shepard as the heir-apparent to the “Victor Cruz Role”. Shepard came out of the gates strong, scoring 8 TDs. Finishing with 65 receptions for 683 yards ranked Shepard as WR36 in PPR scoring leagues in 2016.
Heading into the 2017 season, Shepard’s ADP sank when the Giants signed veteran WR Brandon Marshall. If Shepard was drafted in 2017 fantasy leagues, it was very late. Once the season started, the Giants WR corp suffered a significant number of injuries. Both Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall missed time. Shepard also missed 5 games.
However, 2017 wasn’t a completely lost season. Shepard found himself on the receiving end of 84 targets, 1 more per game than his rookie year. His catch rate improved, as did his yards per game and yards per reception. The major stat line that took a hit was the TD column, only scoring twice. Shepard finished with 59 receptions for 731 yards and 2 TDs, again finishing as WR42 in PPR leagues.
The Path for 2018
Target Share- There is an elephant in the room, so let’s just address it right away. Target share will be the biggest hurdle for Sterling Shepard in 2018. With Odell Beckham returning, second-year TE Evan Engram demanding targets, and 2018 rookie RB Saquan Barkley expected to be heavily involved in the passing game, Sterling Shepard faces an uphill battle for his piece of the pie. Throw in the rumors of the Giants signing veteran Dez Bryant and you won’t find Sterling Shepard until WR44 in recent ADP rankings.
Working in everyone’s favor in New York, new Head Coach Pat Shurmur has a solid track record of ranking near the top in pass attempts in the NFL. With all these weapons at his disposal, it’s not outside the realm of possibilities for the Giants and QB Eli Manning to be a high-flying offense in 2018.
2017 saw a major drop in passing volume for the top QBs, with Tom Brady leading the way with 581. Eli Manning finished third with 571 attempts in 15 games, a 609-attempt pace. Manning threw the ball 598 times in 2016 and 618 times in 2015. Manning’s history combined with Coach Shurmur’s track record leads me to believe that +/- 600 attempts are a realistic projection. Sterling Shepard has received an 18% target share in both of his NFL seasons. If the Giants throw the ball 600 times in 2018, an 18% target share will give Sterling Shepard just over 100 targets, a key threshold to break for a WR1.
Catch Rate- As highlighted in the series guide, catching the ball is rather important for a WR1 season. After logging a 62% catch rate as a rookie, Shepard improved to 70% in 2017, giving him a career 65.6% catch rate.
Receptions- After recording 65 receptions in his rookie season, Shepard caught 59 passes last season. Extrapolating that out to 16 games put him on an 86-reception pace. Obviously, that was buoyed by the absence of Odell Beckham, but assuming Shepard can maintain his career catch rate or even improve it a bit, a 67% catch rate on those 100-110 targets would put Shepard on pace for 65-70 receptions.
Yards- Through his first two seasons, Sterling Shepard has not racked up significant yardage totals, likely due to his heavy use as a slot WR. His rookie year saw 83% of his snaps in the slot, resulting in a rather low 10.5 yards per reception. 2017 saw his snaps from the slot dip slightly to 75%, still a significant total. His yards per reception did increase by almost two full yards up to 12.4ypr.
Reports out of mini-camp are indicating that Shepard will see more playing time on the outside under new HC Pat Shurmur. This is likely due to a few factors, including Evan Engram’s presence inside.
aDOT & Air Yards- Through two years being heavily used in the slot, Shepard’s aDOT is predictably low, at 9.10 yards. In 2017, Sterling Shepard had 781 air yards, which put him on a 16-game pace of 1,136 air yards, a slight increase over his 972 air yards in his rookie season. If we believe the reports of Shepard moving outside in two WR sets, his aDOT and Air Yards could see a decent uptick.
Touchdowns- What a difference a year makes. After scoring 8 TDs his rookie year, he only found the end zone twice in 2017. But it was also a down year for QB Eli Manning, with just 19 Passing TDs. Since 2009, Manning has averaged almost 28 TDs per season and averaged 30 TDs in the three seasons prior to 2017. Manning’s skills may be declining, however, there were plenty of outside factors that contributed to his suppressed his passing stats in 2017. With a conservative estimate of 1 TD per 10 receptions, Shepard could hit his two-year average of 6 TDs in 2018.
WR1 Possibility: Extremely Low (<5%)
When I polled the Ballers Writing Team, I found out they are not feeling the Sterling Shepard breakout in 2018. In fact, one writer went so low as to predict Shepard had a better chance of being attacked by a bear (.0000004%), than being a WR1 in 2018. Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception Profile in the Ultimate Draft Kit paints a rosier outcome, with his closing line of “Shepard is one of the best young receivers in the league and should take a big step forward in an improved Giants offense this coming season.”
A veteran signing, such as Dez Bryant, would also derail his breakout potential. But as I highlighted in my Third Year WR Breakout Article, Sterling Shepard has some of the requisite stats to fall in line with an interesting company of players who broke out in their third year.
It’s clear that Sterling Shepard needs a few things to fall his way in 2018 to become a WR1. Remember, we are not predicting a WR1 finish, but highlighting what it would take to get to that level. Shepard would need the new coaching staff to utilize him a bit more outside to see a bump in aDOT and air yards, increasing his yards per reception. Assuming Eli Manning returns to his career mean in TD passes, Shepard is a likely recipient of a few more TDs in 2018. He would still need a return to his rookie season volume to approach the double-digit TD rates often attained by WR1s.
Simply maintaining his career averages in target share, catch rate and yard per reception, Sterling Shepard could see a year-end stat line of 70-1,000-6 or 206 PPR points. While that is not quite enough to push him up to WR1 status, it’s significantly higher than his current WR44 ADP and WR36 ranking. And lest we forget, football is a dangerous game. Any vacated targets due to an injury to another receiver would likely increase Sterling Shepard’s target share. As of this writing, the Giants depth chart behind Shepard is of no concern to him losing his role, so any added opportunities would give him a shot at sneaking in as a 2018 WR1.
Even if he doesn’t break the WR1 barrier, Sterling Shepard is an excellent draft day value.