Sometimes players can be with a team for a while and they kind of get pigeonholed as a "special teams guy" or a "backup.” Even when that player shows he’s ready for a bigger role, sometimes the team doesn't notice because they are used to that guy doing what he’s always done and no more.
That is kind of the situation I feel like Russell Shepard found himself in when he was playing for my Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Shepard started off his career fighting for a roster spot by being hell on special teams. He kept his roster spot by continuing to excel as a special teams guy.
His first three seasons in the league he only had two starts and a combined seven catches. I'm sure he had to be wondering if he would ever be more than a "special teams guy."
Because of some injuries at the position last season, Shepard was forced into a bigger role on offense with the Bucs and showed that he was ready for prime time. His numbers still weren't eye popping, but he did end up with 23 catches and two touchdowns, with four starts in 14 games. For a guy who probably didn't think he would see the field much at the beginning of training camp last year, I have to think he was happy to get those opportunities.
Looking at his film, I came away even more impressed because Shepard did good work even when the ball wasn't coming to him. That dude is a really good route runner with more speed than I thought. He was putting defenders in a blender out there.
Hell, there were plenty of times when he was open deep and his quarterback either didn't see him or didn't get the ball to him accurately. His numbers easily could've been better.
He had the look of a guy who belonged as a starting wide receiver in the NFL, rather than someone just being stuck in there because the team didn't have anybody else.
Now the Bucs went out and got DeSean Jackson this offseason, so it’s not like Shepard was likely to start. He probably would've been relegated to being a “special teams guy" had he chosen to re-sign with Tampa. Instead he moved on and signed with the Carolina Panthers, and I think this is going to be a sneaky great signing for them.
Shepard fits what the Panthers like to do on offense, and I also think he fits their offensive personality. For all his speed and quickness, Shepard is tough too. He will block. He will catch the tough pass in traffic. And he can adjust to balls that aren't perfect.
Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess are entrenched as starters, but I feel like Shepard could easily be the third option at wide receiver for the Panthers this year, maybe the best No. 3 they have had in some time. He combines the speed of a Philly Brown with the size and toughness of a Jerricho Cotchery, and hands that are probably more reliable than both. Once Cam Newton sees what Shepard can do, I expect he will get more and more comfortable throwing him the football in crucial situations.
I hope it doesn't happen against my Bucs (it probably will), but I think Shepard is in the perfect situation to show everybody that he is no longer "just a special teams guy." He may not double his output from last season, but if he does I wouldn't be surprised at all.
If he can stay healthy, he will be a vital part of that Panthers offense by the end of the season. That's why I chose Russell Shepard to be the Panthers' breakout player of 2017.