Sterling Shepard fears he may have lost his place on the team.
The Giants? No, not that team.
“We got a lot of fast guys in the receiver room,’’ Shepard told The Post on Thursday. “I think I’ve been kicked off the 4×1.’’
Could it be true that Shepard, the longest-tenured Giants player, would no longer be chosen for a team-sponsored, wide receiver-fueled relay race? Well, after an offseason accumulation of offensive weapons, the Giants are now a faster outfit than they were in 2020. John Ross (4.22 in the 40-yard dash), and rookie first-round pick Kadarius Toney (4.39) will get spots on the relay team. So will Darius Slayton (4.39). Shepard (4.48) might retain his spot, but only if the long strides of marquee free-agent pickup Kenny Golladay (4.50) do not overtake him.
Three new players walking through the door affects everyone in the wide receivers room, and it would have been understandable for Shepard to wonder “What gives?’’ when considering where he stands in the eyes of the coaching staff. If he harbors any doubts, he is keeping them to himself.
“It’s a good thing for the team,’’ said Shepard, who is promoting the Walgreens “Red Nose Day’’ virtual event to raise funds to end child poverty. “We need playmakers and we need guys that are gonna be able to make plays on Sunday, it’s ultimately gonna make the team better. That’s my vision on it. There’s plenty of teams with a lot of receivers and you just find a way to get everybody the ball and trust they’re gonna make plays to help the team throughout the season.’’
Shepard, 28, is heading into his sixth season with the Giants. Tight end Evan Engram, entering year No. 5 with the Giants, is next in tenure on a revealingly short list.
For a player like Shepard, who is most effective working out of the slot position, it will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Jason Garrett opts to utilize a depth chart suddenly so deep at receiver. Golden Tate, who also worked best out of the slot, is no longer on the team, but Toney most often lined up in the slot at Florida.
Shepard has been remarkably consistent, hauling in between 57 and 66 passes in all six of his seasons with the Giants. He has played all 16 games just twice and missed between four and six games in each of his other four years. His 66 receptions in 2020 led the team (Engram had 63).
In some ways, it is a new beginning for Shepard. He has worn No. 87 throughout his NFL career but a change in league protocols — allowing single digits to be worn by most players, including wide receivers — sparked an emotion-driven change. Shepard is now No. 3, honoring his late father, Derrick Shepard, who died of a heart attack at the age of 35, when Sterling was 6 years old. Derrick Shepard wore No. 3 as a receiver at Oklahoma, as did Sterling.
“It’s super important to me,’’ Shepard said. “It’s the number I’ve been my whole life. It holds a lot of significance to me, because my dad wore that number, that’s where he kind of made his name in college. You go around Oklahoma and that’s what they know, No. 3 running around, Derrick Shepard. It meant a lot to me as a little kid, being able to put that on my back.
“He bounced around the league a lot, had to change a couple of numbers and I just picked 87 because that’s what he wore at Dallas and that was my favorite childhood team growing up. I was just happy to get back into No. 3, that’s where it all started for me.’’
The Giants players last month sent out a statement in support of the NFL Players Association stance that all offseason program activities should be virtual because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns. Shepard was at the team facility this week, but, he said, only to work out and get some running in. Coaches can work with players on the field for 90 minutes a day.
“I’m going up there because I’m back in New Jersey, I really don’t have another gym to go to, so I go up there and use the gym and use the facility,’’ Shepard said. “That’s pretty much it. I’m doing my thing. It’s voluntary and that’s pretty much the end of that discussion. Voluntary tells you everything you need to know about it.’’