Russell Shepard has been listed on an NFL roster as a wide receiver for three years. The 2016 season might be the first in which he is on a roster because he is a wide receiver.
It was the Philadelphia Eagles who first gave Shepard that receiver designation after he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013. At Louisiana State, he had lined up at quarterback, running back and wide receiver and been used a sort of jack-of-all-trades. He had come to LSU as a highly-regarded dual-threat quarterback but he spent most of his time catching passes and taking handoffs, scoring five touchdowns each way. At one point, a move to defensive back was even considered.
Shepard didn't make the Eagles' roster in 2013 but the Bucs swooped in with a waiver claim in early September and discovered immediately that the rookie receiver, no matter how raw he might be at his listed position, was already a standout special teamer. Over the next three seasons, which would include two different Buccaneer head coaches, Shepard would play in 43 of a possible 48 games and lead the team during that span with 30 kick-coverage tackles. Last year, he was named the Buccaneers' special teams captain.
Shepard is now working under his third Buccaneer head coach, Dirk Koetter, and Koetter's staff might be the one that finally unlocks his potential as a wide receiver. Shepard caught three passes for 62 yards and a touchdown in the Bucs' preseason opener at Philadelphia last week, with the scoring pass coming during snaps taken with Jameis Winston and the first-team offense. However, in his three years of regular-season play, Shepard has just seven catches for 91 yards and one touchdown.
"It's coming," said Shepard. "I'm starting to gain some respect and notoriety at the position. A lot of guys know me as a special teams guy in this league, but a lot of guys have seen me getting better, especially with the game last week and having the joint practices this week, and just seeing me throughout camp and in OTAs. I definitely acknowledge that I'm getting better."
Shepard shared these thoughts on Thursday after the second of Tampa Bay's two joint training camp practices with the Jaguars in Jacksonville. Minutes earlier, Koetter had suggested that, yes, Shepard was indeed coming along as a wide receiver. In fact, he was starting to gain some traction in the wide-open battle for the Bucs' reserve spots behind Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Adam Humphries.
"It's still a work in progress," said Koetter of shaping that receiving corps. "I think Russell Shepard has been the best of that next group and been the most consistent. We know he's a good special teams player as well. We've still got a battle in there. I think it's still a tight group. There's a pecking order right now but there's still time."
The Bucs might keep anywhere from four to six wideouts on the active roster, depending upon needs at other positions. A seventh spot is possible but unlikely. So there are anywhere from one to four openings on the depth chart available to the likes of Shepard, Kenny Bell, Donteea Dye, Evan Spencer, Bernard Reedy, Jonathan Krause, Freddie Martino and Andre Davis. Veteran Louis Murphy would also be a strong candidate once he returns from the active/physically unable to perform list.
Koetter might have tabbed Shepard as a standout in that group, but the fourth-year veteran isn't looking at his situation in that way.
"I have a lot of pride in my craft but I have a lot of respect for my peers and my teammates," he said. "To me, it doesn't matter, the one through eight. It's the 'next man up.' It's the opportunity when the ball is in the air. That's kind of what we preach. I don't really look at it is a leg up or me taking the lead on something. I'm just very grateful for the opportunity to be catching footballs because I know how important it is."
Whether or not Shepard wants to take a wider view of the Buccaneers' receiver depth chart, he can appreciate, in a narrower sense, how his own NFL journey has progressed. He agrees that he is farther along in terms of being seen as an actual NFL contributor at wide receiver than he has been at this point in his three previous seasons.
"Oh, yes, definitely," said Shepard to the idea of that progress. "Definitely, definitely, definitely. It's the reps. One thing about Dirk's offense: It gives you opportunity. There's opportunities for three, four, six, eight receivers to get reps. We look fast. The opportunity to get more reps has really been great for my career at this point."