Russell Shepard is an NFL wide receiver who played extensively in 30 regular-season NFL games but has been the target of just eight passes in that span.
That alone is enough to tell you there's something going on in Shepard's job description that goes beyond 'wide receiver, ' even if you didn't follow his team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The first and obvious guess would be that he's a return man, but in fact Shepard has never fielded a punt or a kickoff in an NFL game. Instead, he has made his professional living as a player who stops those return men, and he's done it at an elite level. A better description of Shepard as an NFL player – to this point, at least – would be "special teams ace who just happens to be a wide receiver."
Some more recent numbers, however, suggest that Shepard might be living up to his official job title. It's an admittedly small sample size, but six of his eight regular-season targets, and half of his four career catches, came during the Buccaneers' last three games of 2014. In the first two games of the 2015 preseason, Shepard has seen three more passes thrown his way. Most importantly, he has turned those chances into two catches for 44 yards and a touchdown. He also took a handoff on an end-around against Cincinnati on Monday night and got a nifty 12-yard gain out of it.
In the assessment of Dirk Koetter, Shepard got three chances to make a play on Monday night and he made good on all three of them. That's a good thing for the third-year player, because Koetter happens to be the Buccaneers' offensive coordinator and he will have a lot to say about who gets the football in 2015.
"Take a look at [Russell] Shepard – that guy had three 'explosives' in the game," said Koetter. "He played very well, as a guy that's been primary a special teams player. We're developing our depth and continuing to develop it and there's a lot of guys [in the competition]. There's really nobody who can be counted out."
Shepard is a hard-working, self-effacing 24-year-old who didn't always know what that job title would be when he got to the NFL. He was something of a jack-of-all-trades on offense at LSU, throwing, running and catching the football, and he even considered switching to defense as a senior. He toyed with that option during spring practices but ultimately stayed on offense, though that wasn't necessarily how every NFL scout saw him. In fact, Shepard says that Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht, then the Arizona Cardinals' _ recruited him to come to Arizona as a defensive back after the 2013 draft.
Shepard estimates that the majority of teams that contacted him in the spring of 2013 were interested in starting him on defense, but he eventually chose the Philadelphia Eagles, where he would play wideout. _
"Once I got in, I made my mind up I was going to do receiver. Prior to that, pre-draft, it was kind of 50-50 whether it was going to be defensive back or receiver. I had a lot of teams…actually, Jason [Licht], the [Buccaneers'] G.M. recruited me as a DB when he was in Arizona. I had several teams, probably more teams than not, recruit me as a DB rather than a receiver coming out in the draft."
Shepard felt as if he made good progress at receiver in his rookie NFL camp but he was let go in the final roster cuts. If the Eagles (or any other team) had designs on signing Shepard to their practice squad and letting him continue that development, they were thwarted by the Bucs' waiver claim. Tampa Bay picked Shepard up for their 53-man roster and quickly discovered his special teams prowess. Despite arriving on the eve of the season and eventually missing two games, Shepard finished third on the team in kick-coverage tackles behind established aces Adam Hayward and Jonathan Casillas. In 2014, Shepard led the squad with 14 stops in the kicking game, and so far at the midway point of the 2015 preseason he's at the top of that list again with three tackles.
Shepard knows he wouldn't be getting offensive snaps in the NFL in 2015 if he hadn't dedicated himself to special teams work the previous two years.
"It's bought me my whole NFL career," he said. "I came in as a guy that was kind of raw at the position, and a lot of NFL teams didn't know which position I would play, whether it was on the offensive or defensive side let alone just [where on] offense. Special teams has given me an opportunity to kind of find my niche, find what I do good in this league. I'm just going to continue to keep growing and do my part to make a play for this team."
That work in the kicking game could also be the reason that Shepard gets a longer chance to prove his recent production on offense is no fluke. The Buccaneers' receiving corps starts with the obvious duo of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson and includes a couple strong bets for the 53-man roster in Louis Murphy and rookie fifth-rounder Kenny Bell. Beyond that, however, the group is mostly players younger even than Shepard, and most of them have had their moments in training camp or the preseason. When the difficult decisions become due in the final roster cuts, Shepard's special teams dominance could very well be the tiebreaking factor.
"It's very valuable to have a player like that," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "As I got here, [I was told], 'Hey, Russell Shepard, great special teams player, plays hard every down.' I saw that right away. But normally if you're good there and you give players more reps they'll show you they can get the job done at other positions too, and that's what he's done. He's still playing just as hard on special teams, but the more things you can do, that gives us flexibility on game day when we're trying to decide exactly how many receivers to dress.
"Right now you can make the case for Russell Shepard being in a position to get some wide receiver reps during the course of the year, but we'll continue let that play out."
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The Bucs have just two more games to put opportunities in front of their young receivers and see which ones seize them most impressively. Neither Shepard nor Rannell Hall nor Kaelin Clay nor any of the others can count on a certain number of passes or handoffs over the next 120 minutes of game play. That means each opportunity will be precious, and Shepard will take them in whatever form they come.
"[I'll] just continue to do what's needed of me, whether it's making tackles on kickoff or blocking on kickoff return as a front line guy or whether it's coming in and blocking as a receiver on offense," he said. "I'm just going to do whatever it takes to be here. I'm very thankful. I think we've got a great thing going here and I'm just excited about it. Whatever they ask me to do, I'm going to do."