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Sterling Shepard set to return as Eli Manning’s top target

Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard during a game

Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard during a game against the Chargers at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Sterling Shepard is expected to return to action on Sunday, but he’ll do so in a different role in an offense different from what the Giants featured on Oct. 8, when he limped off the field with an ankle injury.

He comes back not as the plucky young player and sidekick to the superstars but as the new top target for Eli Manning. It’s the first time the second-year receiver will be asked to carry that burden, and he is looking forward to the challenge.

“That’s just what the situation is,” he said on Thursday after completing his first full practice since the injury. “I love it. I love any role. The role that I had before this was just making plays, and I’m taking the same mindset to now. I just have to make plays. That’s the bottom line.”

None of the receivers on the roster has been able to fill that job description since the game against the Chargers about a month ago. That was the game in which Shepard left with an injury, followed almost immediately by Brandon Marshall. And then Dwayne Harris. And then Odell Beckham Jr.

The last three were lost for the season. Shepard was the only one who was expected to return. In the two games without those players, Giants wide receivers have accounted for only seven catches and 67 yards. It’s no wonder the team is excited to have Shepard back.

“Shep’s one of our more experienced players at this point in time on offense,” coach Ben McAdoo said. “He’s a valuable playmaker, he knows the offense inside and out, and he and Eli have quite a chemistry together.”

Said offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan: “He brings a lot to the table that really can help us in conjunction with all the rest of the guys just improving and getting better and making the most of their opportunities.”

During the bye week, the Giants’ coaches adjusted the offense to fit the new personnel at receiver. When the injuries occurred, the team had to scramble to adjust its offensive personality. It became a running team, focused its passing attack on rookie tight end Evan Engram and essentially ignored the inexperienced wideouts. The week off gave them time to recalibrate with their new reality.

“They tried to throw some of that bad stuff out of there and stick with what worked,” Shepard said of the playbook adjustments. “I think that’s the direction we’re going. It has to be. We don’t have those guys anymore, so you have to tailor it differently.”

That could mean using Shepard on the outside more than he has been used in the past.

“He’s a great slot receiver,” Sullivan said. “He really does a lot of good things inside, but he’s capable of doing some things outside. Where we’re at right now, we’ve got to make the most of everything that all of our players can bring to the table, and we’re going to do just that.”

At the very least, Shepard adds a little bit of threat to what was a toothless receiving group — his career numbers (87 catches, 946 yards, nine touchdowns) dwarf the numbers of all other Giants receivers combined (26 catches, 329 yards, three TDs) — and allows the Giants to deviate from their run-heavy game plans of the past two contests.

“There is no question that going forward, we’re going to have to throw the ball a little bit,” Shepard said. “It’s kind of perfect timing with me coming back, and we’ll see if we can get things balanced and get the ball moving.”

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