WR Edell Shepherd was hurt on this play during the 2004 preseason opener, ending a stellar training camp showing
Edell Shepherd knows what the scouts saw in him during the winter and spring of 2002: Numbers.
And not necessarily the ones that counted.
Shepherd racked up 83 catches for 1,500 yards and 14 receptions as a senior at San Jose State in 2001, but those numbers didn't get him drafted.
"I think it had to do with people not knowing me," said the third-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver. "You see me on paper, I'm 6-1 and 175 pounds wet. So you just automatically write me off."
Shepherd says this without any trace of bitterness. He can't argue with his slight frame; it's there for everyone to see. And size – or lack thereof – is a legitimate concern for NFL scouts when they assess a receiver. This isn't really an "I'll-show-them" tale, because Shepherd is more interested in proving to himself that he can be a success in the NFL.
But Shepherd also knows what the scouts didn't see, beyond the NFL potential he knew he had. They didn't see him getting jammed at the line, they didn't see him getting caught from behind and they didn't see him struggling in traffic.
In other words, they didn't see video evidence of what surely went down on many a scouting report: "Too small to succeed in the NFL."
Still, the L.A. native slipped through the cracks in the '02 draft and signed on with the Chicago Bears as a college free agent. The Bears didn't make a spot for Shepherd on the 53-man roster but did keep him around on the practice squad for most of his rookie year. When Chicago waived Shepherd at the end of the 2003 preseason, the Bucs quickly snapped him up for their practice squad. He looked so good on the practice field – one Buc quarterback thought Shepherd was already one of the team's best route-runners – that he earned a late-season promotion to the active roster and played in three games.
If that was a hint of what Shepherd could do, the subsequent training camp next summer was a revelation. The 24-year-old was quite simply one of the best stories of training camp, and a well-timed one, as well, given Keenan McCardell's holdout and Joe Jurevicius' back surgery.
It looked as if Shepherd was close to sewing up a spot on the active roster…until a broken right foot in the preseason opener sent him to injured reserve. Shepherd landed awkwardly in the end zone after trying to out-duel a Bengals defensive back for an underthrown ball. It was a freak injury, and a frustrating one for Shepherd, but not as emotionally devastating as one might imagine.
You see, the young receiver simply refused to be bothered by his misfortune.
"I don't really let things like that weigh on my mind," said the perpetually-upbeat Shepherd. "I don't like the stress.
"I guess my heart was broken or whatever. And it would have killed me to be here every day watching the guys practice, so I went home and got right and focused on coming back with the same game I left with. It's just a stage in my life that I've got to go through. It's not how you leave – it's how you come back."
The good news is that Shepherd is prepared to return at the same point he left off in the summer of 2004. His injury is long gone, his speed and quickness are unchanged and he's as determined as ever to put down the kind of numbers that will make people forget 175 pounds, soaking wet.
"I don't even call what I'm doing rehab anymore," said Shepherd, fresh off a midweek workout at One Buccaneer Place. "It's more just getting ready to play football again. I mean, I've been sitting out for awhile so obviously everything's not hitting like it needs to be, so I'm working on that.
"I've been running. I'm running routes, playing hard, everything back the way I was, but it's just a matter of getting back on top of it.
Roughly a month before the beginning of the Bucs' official (and voluntary) offseason training program, Shepherd was preparing to leave the facility at about 11:00 a.m. He had just finished chatting with fellow receiver Frank Murphy, another young hopeful who lost most of his 2004 season to injury. Michael Clayton, who just finished one of the best rookie receiving seasons in NFL history, was making his way through the complex, as well. Those three account for most of what the Bucs have under contract at the position as the 2005 league season hangs a week over the horizon.
Shepherd knows that not only is the path to a roster spot still wide open for him, but that the team's receiving corps has the chance to develop into a position of youth and strength for the Buccaneers.
"I understand that," he said. "Mike, Frank and I talk about that every day. Frank and I are coming back off injuries and Mike is the only guy still around here right now, so that's all we have to talk to on the receivers' side. I told them that this is going to be our time. We can't let any other receivers come in here and take away what we've worked so hard to put into this."
Shepherd believes he can do it. He cops to being confident, but says he is not arrogant or cocky. Confidence, he says, is how he keeps himself going in the face of a healthy amount of skepticism.
"You are your own best friend…I'm my best friend, my biggest fan," he said. "If I'm not pushing myself, who else is going to push me? I have the confidence to do this. Seriously, I'm running around here starting stuff now with the defense, letting them know I'm coming back. If I don't believe I'm coming back at the top of my game, who else is going to believe it?
"If I don't make the team, it's because I'm not playing to the best of my ability. Sometimes there is more to it than who's the best when people get cut, but in this case, that's not how I'm looking at it. I'm just looking at it like this: I'm going to go out there and play and let my game decide if I'm here."