WR Edell Shepherd averaged more than 17 yards per reception in 2005
Edell Shepherd was at the center of two of the biggest plays of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2005 season. The 26-year-old wide receiver will try to earn an even more prominent role in 2006.
Shepherd will be back in training camp with the Bucs this summer after signing a new contract with the team. A former undrafted free agent who has steadily earned more playing time since arriving in 2003, Shepherd had been an exclusive rights free agent before finalizing his new pact on Thursday.
After missing the 2004 season due to a foot injury suffered in the preseason, the slight but speedy Shepherd (6-1, 175) came back strong during last year's training camp and earned a spot on an opening-day roster for the first time in his NFL career. He spent most of the season as the team's fourth receiver behind Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard, appearing in all 16 games and contributing six catches for 103 yards and one touchdowns.
Shepherd's first career touchdown proved to be a critical moment during the regular season. With Clayton shelved by injury, Shepherd played an expanded role against the Washington Redskins on November 13 and finished the game with three receptions for 87 yards. His final catch, a diving effort into the end zone, came on a 30-yard bomb from Chris Simms in the final minute of regulation; fullback Mike Alstott scored on a daring two-point conversion moments later and the Bucs took home a 36-35 win.
That victory helped propel the Bucs to the NFC South title and a first-round playoff rematch with the Redskins on January 7. Amazingly, Shepherd was on the receiving end of a nearly identical play near the end of that contest, as the Bucs tried to rally from a 14-7 deficit. This time, however, officials ruled that the ball had briefly slid out of Shepherd's grasp as he made contact with the end zone turf and called the pass incomplete, ending the Bucs' playoff hopes.
Still, Shepherd showed his big-play potential on both of those afternoons, and in the 17.2 yards per reception he averaged during the season. He had actually caught the coaches' attention in the summer of 2004 with a breakout training camp that unfortunately ended with a broken foot suffered on an acrobatic attempt at a Simms pass in the end zone against Cincinnati on August 16.
Shepherd first joined the Bucs in September of 2003, coming over from his second camp with the Chicago Bears to join Tampa Bay's practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster in December, in time to appear in three games and catch four passes for 38 yards. Shepherd spent most of his 2002 rookie season on the Bears' practice squad after joining the team as a free agent out of San Jose State after the draft.
Though he's been with the team for the better part of three years, Shepherd earned free agency credit only for last season and the 2004 campaign that he spent on IR. Thus, when his contract expired in March he became an exclusive rights free agent and was free to negotiate only with the Buccaneers. Obviously, then, his re-signing was an expected event, but it is still welcome news for the Bucs as they continue to develop the big-play element in their passing game. Shepherd will compete for playing time alongside burner Joey Galloway, a rededicated Michael Clayton, the veteran Hilliard, several promising young wideouts and the recently-signed David Boston.
"We've got a lot of speed at receiver right now, we really do," said Simms after a recent offseason practice introduced Boston to the lineup. "[Boston] is great, but we've got guys like Edell Shepherd and Ike Hilliard and J.R. Russell who are also extremely capable of making some big plays."
Shepherd's signing very nearly completes the work of re-signing the list of Buccaneers who became free agents in March. Only running back Earnest Graham, another exclusive rights free agent, remains on the to-do list. The Bucs had previously re-signed unrestricted free agents Hilliard, Mike Alstott, Matt Bryant, Chris Hovan, Dave Moore and Kenyatta Walker, restricted free agents Torrie Cox and Sean Mahan and exclusive rights free agents Anthony Davis and Jeb Terry. In addition, potential free agents Simms and Juran Bolden were re-upped before the open market period began.