Sterling Shepard #3 of the New York Giants runs a...

Sterling Shepard #3 of the New York Giants runs a reception against Fabian Moreau #22 of the Atlanta Falcons at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Sep. 26, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Credit: Jim McIsaac

TUCSON, Ariz. — Sterling Shepard can’t save the season. Not for the team, not for himself. His absence because of injury for most of the year — he’s played 1 1⁄2 games since Sept. 26 — already has made 2021 a forgettable experience. A season that began with such hope and anticipation and the best training camp of his career quickly fizzled into a vapor of hamstring and calf injuries and losses.

Even if he returns to play against the Chargers, which seems likely after a strong workout on Thursday at the University of Arizona, it won’t make much of a dent in the team’s 4-8 record and ever-dwindling postseason goals.

But there is always next year. And as Shepard starts to pick up the pieces from this shattered vase of a season and glue them back together, he’s no longer playing just for 2021.

"You always want to put good tape out there no matter what," he said on Thursday. "You never want to put bad film out. You never know what can happen in this league so you always have to give it your max effort."

Shepard’s next five games, therefore, are an audition — possibly for his next team if the Giants decide to move on from their longest-tenured current player. Possibly for the new regime if the Giants decide to overhaul their front office or coaching staff.

Neither of those possibilities is so outlandish as to not be on the minds of Shepard or anyone else on a disappointing, underachieving team.

Shepard has two more years remaining on his contract, but the Giants can get out of it this offseason by eating almost $8 million in dead cap space. And in Kadarius Toney, they already have a player who could be his eventual replacement this spring.

While Toney’s injury record this season rivals Shepard’s, statistically they remain two of the team’s top three receivers with Toney tops (35 catches for 392 yards) and Shepard third (32 for 324). Toney, who has not played the past two games because of quadriceps and oblique injuries, was limited on Thursday and could return Sunday along with Shepard.

That would give the Giants the receiving targets they projected as their top trio coming into this season — Shepard, Toney and Kenny Golladay, who is dealing with a rib injury but is expected to play — on the field together for the first time since Week 3.

"I’m very optimistic I’ll be able to be back out there with the guys," Shepard said of his projection, noting that Thursday’s two-hour, fully padded practice at the University of Arizona was a "big test" for him.

"I got moving around a little bit, got some contact, which is something that I wanted to get," he said. "I felt good with it."

While Shepard said it has been "super-frustrating" to miss so much time and noted that it has "been a bum" to be tethered to the sideline during games, he said he doesn’t spend much time thinking about why this season went sour for him as far as his health goes.

"I just have to let it go and focus on this week and the task at hand," he said.

There are plenty of reasons why the Giants’ offense has been lackluster this season, particularly in the past three games, in which they have totaled two touchdowns. Everything from the offensive line to the play-calling has played a part in the ineptitude.

Plights such as Shepard’s have been a huge part of it.

"The first key element of getting skill players involved is having them dress out on game day, which is a really important thing," tight ends coach Derek Dooley said, speaking for the collaborative offensive staff and making an obvious but mostly unspoken observation. "It’s hard to get them the ball when they are in a sweatsuit."

Shepard figures to be out of his leisurewear on Sunday and in an actual uniform for the Giants.

And in the next five games, the color of the one he wears next year may be on the line.

Notes & quotes: S Logan Ryan apologized to Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for postgame comments about himself being a lefty quarterback who can roll out and complete 2-yard passes. He said he meant no disrespect. "He made game-winning plays to beat us," Ryan said. "I’m not a sore loser . . . I don’t hate on players." . . . CB Adoree’ Jackson (quadriceps) was the only Giants player who was a non-participant in practice on Thursday . . . The Giants continue to expect Chargers WRs Keenan Allen and Mike Williams to play despite their current status on COVID/reserve. "My second year in the league with the Patriots, we put Darrelle Revis on Keenan Allen, and that was eight years ago and he’s been that guy for that many years," Ryan said. "It drastically changes things whether he changes or not . . . If he’s not there, that’s good news." Not that the Giants are expecting good news. Said defensive coordinator Patrick Graham: "With my luck over the last 13 years in the league, they’re probably going to play."

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